Sport Horse Racing

Thursday 18 January 2018

We all win when we remember that there are more important things in life than money

Desert Orchid
Desert Orchid

Eamonn Sweeney

It's tremendously sad to hear that the Jockey Club in England plan to sell Kempton Park to a developer. The sacred sward - where Desert Orchid and Kauto Star won their multiple King George VI Chases, where Captain Christy won the same race by 20 lengths with an unknown youngster named Gerry Newman on board, where Arkle and Mill House, Cottage Rake and Burrough Hill Lad, Dawn Run and Sprinter Sacre strutted their stuff - will be covered by houses and flats.

Meanwhile, Millwall look like they're going to be forced out of their ground at The Den and perhaps out of London altogether thanks to Lewisham Council proposing a Compulsory Purchase Order on the surrounding land. The local Labour Party-run authority hopes to sell on the land to a mysterious offshore development company named Renewal, despite the club offering a higher price for the sites. Renewal's ownership is unclear but it was founded by a former leader of the council. The current mayor is allegedly on the board of one of Renewal's companies, while the council's chief executive is a former colleague of Renewal's CEO.

The New Den isn't quite as storied as Kempton, with the club moving there in 1993 (I once lived a couple of streets from the old ground in New Cross) but a lot of precious memories can be created in a couple of decades. Lifelong Lions fan Danny Baker came in for a lot of stick last week when he wished a hex on the councillors involved. But given the murky nature of the goings-on, his frustration is perhaps understandable.

Few locations conjure up memories of times past in the same visceral way that sports grounds do. That's why so many fans experience the demise of these venues as a personal blow. That being so it's a pity that there isn't a mechanism for giving historically significant stadia 'listed building' status. Many an old pile of dubious historical interest is protected from the depredations of developers. Are the likes of Kempton Park really of lesser historical importance?

There are parallels in Irish sporting history. Three decades on, the loss of Milltown to both Shamrock Rovers and the League of Ireland still seems tragic. It's a pity that the Phoenix Park racecourse couldn't have been rescued. But the situation could have been much worse. Around a decade ago, county boards seemed possessed by a frenzied desire to sell major grounds to developers who promised to build them new stadiums out of town once they'd got their hands on all that centrally-located building land.

The Cusack Parks in both Mullingar and Ennis and Austin Stack Park in Tralee, among others, were all earmarked for sale. I can remember suggesting in this column that simply disposing of the tradition represented by these grounds for money's sake might not be a great idea. But such Luddite notions were in the minority back then.

Instead it seemed as though the officials involved were spellbound by the property developers, a class of men who were seen as possessing almost supernatural powers of nous and business acumen. If these heroes wanted to buy the grounds why stand in their way?

It's strange to look back on. Boom turned to bust, builders went broke and the deals fell through. But had the process begun a year or two earlier, the county boards involved would have been left with the worst of both worlds, their old ground the site of a ghost estate, their new one unfinished or even altogether unbuilt. It wasn't just a GAA thing. Bohemians had sold Dalymount Park to king of the shoebox apartment Liam Carroll, and only legal wranglings saw the transaction fall through to save the Gypsies from homelessness.

These interactions between the worlds of sport and property development are not always straightforward. And when there is once more bullish talk about rising property prices and the necessity for house-building in urban areas, perhaps it's good to be reminded of the last time this kind of stuff was in vogue. There are romantic, historical and sentimental reasons why it's not a good thing to turn a beloved sports venue into a profit machine for speculators. And sometimes there are sound pragmatic reasons too.

The protests against the sale of Kempton are already beginning. Here's hoping that they, and those of the Millwall supporters, succeed. Any time the message that there are more important things in life than money is sent, we're all winners.

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