The Jockey Club's Senior Steward Roger Weatherby writes
Racing and horses have always been fundamental to my life – both personally and as my family's business for 247 years. So I fully understand the depth of feeling The Jockey Club’s proposals regarding Kempton Park have generated. Nobody celebrates the prospect of closing a racecourse.
However, The Jockey Club does not exist solely to focus on preserving racing's past and managing much of its present. We also have a duty to plot a course for its future. We must not be afraid to change for the right reasons, nor be afraid to take hard but sound decisions for the long-term good of the sport.
Our proposals to put forward the Kempton estate for possible redevelopment for housing are a central part of a wider plan to invest well in excess of half a billion pounds into British Racing over the next decade – the largest commitment a racing organisation has ever made and one designed solely to see our sport thriving in the future.
This has rightly prompted significant debate.
It is essential that all parts of the industry know exactly what we are proposing and why – and that they have the opportunity to give us their ideas and feedback, so that we can work together in the months and years ahead to ensure these proposals prove to be in the best interests of our sport.
We have now started a process of meetings and discussions over the coming months with industry bodies, horsemen and other stakeholders about our proposals for the funds that are received if redevelopment goes ahead in several years’ time. So I wanted to take this opportunity to be clear on what has brought us to this point, and to give a sense of what the future looks like.
Since our announcement, we have received public and private support from a whole range of horsemen, while others have criticised, and I understand the depth of feelings in both cases.
So, what are we proposing that would make such a significant move worthwhile?
Dependent on the amount raised from Kempton, we plan to make a series of substantial investments over the course of the next 10 years to benefit racing throughout the country for the decades that follow.
We have been clear we would not proceed unless we raise in excess of £100 million from Kempton, but as we have stated from the outset this is simply the minimum we would accept. A number of factors, such as the maximum area being approved for development, would make this sum considerably larger – even up to double. Our Royal Charter governance would see us reinvest every penny of that back into our sport.
Our planned investments would take many forms, and produce real and lasting benefits to all aspects of racing, spread throughout our sport and throughout the country.
This would include:
- Investing to transform Sandown Park into a London "super-track" through its facilities, racing surface and race programme;
- Transferring Jumps fixtures from Kempton to courses in the North, Midlands, South West and East followed in each case by record prize money, boosting National Hunt racing nationally and far beyond the South East, in addition to requesting to stage the King George VI Chase at a transformed Sandown;
- Building a new state-of-the-art all-weather track in the busiest training location in Britain, Newmarket, to maintain this important part of the race programme and betting media revenues;
- Funding the upgrade of facilities at our courses and training grounds throughout the country;
- Supporting a record contribution of more than £250 million going into all levels of National Hunt and Flat racing prize money, including its grassroots – this would be at least £88 million more than the last decade, but is likely to be far more;
- Providing significant additional support to racing’s people, their welfare, education and recruitment;
- Providing additional funding for horse welfare and the thoroughbred.
Even though we are putting these ambitions on-the-record to be held to account, I still recognise that for some people this might seem like a promise of "jam tomorrow", so allow me to give a sense of how we believe everyone would benefit from them – racing fans, owners, trainers, jockeys, stable staff and punters.
For example, for racegoers, punters and viewers, higher prize money is directly linked to more competitive racing by attracting bigger average field sizes, while at the top end of the sport it incentivises better horses to take each other on. It is an important investment.
National Hunt fixtures would be spread more around the country for the racegoing public to enjoy – and horsemen – and the investment in spectating facilities would make racedays even better for all.
We have already shown what can be achieved through our £45m development at Cheltenham on the back of other major course developments such as at Aintree and Epsom, and smaller courses such as Carlisle and Market Rasen. An awful lot more is required.
More people going, betting on and watching racing more often would see more money flow back into the sport.
Horsemen would benefit from improved facilities for owners, trainers, jockeys and stable staff – for example taking up and down the country the lessons of our ROA Gold Standard courses, including small courses, such as our recent success at Nottingham.
We would make multi-million pound investments in our racing surfaces – where Jockey Club Racecourses has a strong track record of significant improvement through investment – and provide record prize money at all levels to make the economics of the sport more rewarding. After all, British Racing is nothing without its participants.
These investments are the very things that stakeholders have regularly told us they want through our consultations, and we have read about often in the pages of the Racing Post – improved facilities for horsemen, more attractive days for racegoers, increased prize money and better racing surfaces, and not just at the top, but around the country. There is also a recognition of the need to compete with other sports venues and forms of entertainment.
With the opportunity to deliver these improvements it is disappointing to see some people reject this out of hand. Simply put, we will not be able to do all these things without the redevelopment of Kempton.
The Jockey Club has a track record of making tough decisions that proved their benefit to our sport. Just in recent years we have spent millions of pounds at Lambourn acquiring and investing in the Training Grounds when racing's most important valley could have withered on the vine; given Warwick a bright future as one of the country's leading small Jumps courses; overcome fears about ruining the unique atmosphere at Cheltenham with a hugely successful development; and made extensive changes and investments at Aintree to secure the future of the world's greatest steeplechase, amongst many other projects.
Should planning allow, I am confident that in time this decision would ultimately be seen in the same way – and we would work with stakeholders in the years ahead to address the concerns we have seen raised.
Some have asked if our proposals really involve ‘new money’. Yes, in addition to Kempton, hardworking people around our group have to create everything we invest in the sport in the years ahead and nothing has yet been spent. To give an idea of just how significant even an additional £100 million would be to the sport – and I cannot stress enough our Kempton aims are much higher – that is more than a decade of The Jockey Club’s net profits. £200 million would be more than 20 years' worth.
If the question instead is, “How much more would you spend than the last decade?”, then even the minimum figure amounts to more than a 25% increase and does not involve us borrowing to do so. Our aims at Kempton would see this increase to more than 50%. We would significantly increase our capital spending while still maintaining debt at the prudent levels we do.
Some have questioned whether our proposals are in line with the Royal Charter that governs everything we do. My answer to that is an emphatic 'yes'. We don't exist to maintain the status quo at all costs, instead our mission is to act in the best long-term interests of British Racing. That is the sole motivation behind the proposals put forward by the Stewards – all horsemen who, collectively, have been involved in our sport at every level for many decades.
For now this may seem like a leap of faith to some, but it is our job to prove the benefits in the future to all in our great sport. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and even then not something we take lightly. We cannot stand still and let everything else overtake us; British racing must keep moving forwards.
The Jockey Club