Wednesday 22 November 2017

The battle to save Kempton is only just beginning

Nicky Henderson: Campaigner. Photo credit: Simon Cooper/PA Wire
Nicky Henderson: Campaigner. Photo credit: Simon Cooper/PA Wire

James Corrigan

As the son of a man who was so influential in saving some of Britain's most iconic racecourses, Nicky Henderson is the ideal figure to lead the call for "the defenders of National Hunt racing" to fight the proposals to bulldoze Kempton Park.

More than anyone, the brilliant trainer understands that this does not have to be a losing battle or a head-to-head down the straight, which, as ever, money necessarily has to win. History informs him so.

He will remember in the '60s his father, Johnny seeing off the threat of Cheltenham being flogged to developers. That thought seems scandalous now.

Yet a bigger scandal is that, as a result of their £240,000 acquisition, Johnny and his fellow noble horsemen set up the non-profit Racecourse Holdings Trust to ensure that Cheltenham and the other tracks they were to acquire would be saved from the property hawks.

And who runs RHT now? Yes, the Jockey Club, the organisation bizarrely trying to sell the King George VI Chase's home for 3,000 homes. As Henderson said: "What would my dad think now?"

Alas, Johnny died in 2003 and in this different time there are no principled amateurs willing and capable of denying the profiteers.

The best hope, in fact the only hope, is for public opinion to convince Spelthorne Borough Council to retain the belief that this is a bad idea - and, again, there is a precedent in National Hunt's past from which to garner rich optimism.

Given that Aintree has come close on several occasions to being flattened - for Becher's Brook to accommodate a four-bedroom detached and for the Canal Turn to be a roundabout - then it's clear that this is an old fight for the sport, which is likely to intensify again because of the requirement for new housing in the UK.

Essentially, Aintree was rescued each time by the outcry, a fact the burgeoning Kempton campaign groups must put at the forefront of their battle plan.

They should remind everyone that this year is the 50th anniversary of "the last Grand National ever". The House of Lords had ruled that the course could be sold for housing, but the owners had not planned for the great, the good and the ordinary to give their view and outrage duly followed. The Queen Mother's trainer, Major Peter Cazalet, declared: "There must be a concerted effort to stop Aintree being lost."

Soon Liverpool City Council was ruling against any development and so the Red Rum legend was formed, and although Aintree was again placed in danger in the seventies, the saviours, including Johnny Henderson, knew by then how to mobilise their public army.

And so they must again. They must dismiss all the "sound financial sense" talked by the Jockey Club and some of its supporters and focus on the images of Desert Orchid, of Kauto Star, and of so many great champions enriching the festive period.

This is not merely a debate about the bottom line, or about Henderson's justifiable claim that National Hunt needs Kempton Park for sporting reasons. It is about heritage and heroes and memories and why so many of us are drawn to racing.

Certainly, the Jockey Club and its developers should have hard hats at the ready. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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