Things We Learned » Kempton closure

Kempton closure

Racing people are generally a conservative bunch.  There are outliers, there are blue tangs in the pool of clownfish, but generally racing people tend to gravitate towards the status quo.  It’s a tradition thing.

If racing is to change through the years, best that it is done through natural evolution.  The fundamentals of horse racing have stood the test of time, the basic premise of the sport, the betting, the weight-for-age scale, the racing programme.  Any proposal for radical change needs to be considered very carefully.

In that respect, it is no different to most other sports.  A sport’s tradition is embedded in a sport’s history, and history takes years to create.  It is in the historical events, it is at the traditional venues, that competition and desire are at their most intense.  It is why a professional golfer wants to win the Masters at Augusta more than he wants to win the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Croke Park was re-furbished all right, re-built, rejuvenated, but it is still Croke Park.  Likewise Lansdowne Road, the Aviva, but still on Lansdowne Road.

Which is why it is so difficult to countenance the closure of Kempton Park racecourse.

It is across the water admittedly, but it still impacts.  The world of National Hunt racing is a postage-stamp world.  There is a tradition about Kempton, not in the Wednesday night floodlit betting shop racing, at which you could have a five-a-side blitz in the enclosures if you so desired, but in the jumps.  There is today, Lanzarote Hurdle day, named after the brilliant dual Christmas Hurdle winner, there is Adonis Hurdle day, there is King George VI Chase day. 

There’s Arkle and Desert Orchid and Wayward Lad and Silver Buck and Captain Christy and The Dikler and Pendil.  If they were before your time, you probably read about them, you probably saw the photos, you probably pored over the black and white glossy images in your grandfather’s racing books and they probably resonated.  There’s the Christmas Hurdle, Lanzarote, Dramatist, Beacon Light, Kybo, Bird’s Nest, Ekbalco, Browne’s Gazette, Dawn Run.  Evocative names all.  There’s Florida Pearl and Best Mate and Kicking King and Kauto Star.  History-defining horses, history-defining moments.

You can move the King George to Sandown all you want, you can say that Sandown is similar to Kempton, just down the road, a right-handed relatively flat park track where pace is paramount and where fluent and efficient jumping is rewarded.  You can say that the qualities that you need to win a King George at Kempton are the same as the qualities that you need to win a King George at Sandown, as evidenced by the fact that the two winners of the King George at Sandown – One Man and Kicking King – both also won the King George at Kempton.

And you can say that racing will benefit from this move financially, that the money that is generated through the conversion of Kempton Park racecourse into a couple of thousand houses can be used for the re-development of Sandown and the construction of a replacement all-weather track at Newmarket – 50 miles from Chelmsford – and the universal bolstering of prize money.

But that is to miss the point. 

Custodians are there to protect.  It is difficult to argue that an entity is best protected by selling off historical chunks of it, no matter how the resultant funds are deployed. 

As well as the historical significance of Kempton Park, there is the step towards homogeneity.  A considerable part of the attraction of British and Irish racing lies in the different characteristics of the racecourses.  Some left-handed, some right-handed, some tight, some wide, some flat, some uphill and downhill, some just uphill.  This is how horse racing has evolved here.  It is part of the tapestry.

The ray of light is that this is a four-year plan.  That leaves sufficient time for the opposition to mobilise their forces, and there are enough people whose opinions are universally respected on the opposition benches to give hope that Kempton Park can be saved as a racecourse.  Cheltenham was saved, Aintree was saved, and weren’t they worth it?

It is still difficult to drive past the gates of the old Phoenix Park racecourse, a quarter of a century later, and not think, what if.

It is difficult to put a price on history.



Saluting Cossack

It was not wholly surprising, but it was still with a not insignificant degree of regret, that the news was received on Wednesday that Don Cossack would not race again. 

It was probably always a shade of odds against that the Gigginstown House horse would get back to the racetrack, and it was always relatively long odds that he would have got back to the level at which he was when he won the Gold Cup last March.  It is still disappointing though, it is still sad.  You could hear the disappointment in Eddie O’Leary’s voice on Game On on Wednesday evening when he said that it was just this week that he started to be optimistic about the prospect of getting their latest Gold Cup winner back.

There was also disappointment in Gordon Elliott’s voice, but there was pragmatism as well.  You could have cracked on, was the sentiment, you could have given the horse a year off and tried again next year, but he owes nobody anything.  He deserves to go out on a high, the reigning Gold Cup champion, he deserves to embark on a happy retirement now.

Elliott never left anybody in any doubt about the regard in which he held the Sholokhov gelding.  The route to the top wasn’t all smooth, Don Cossack won just one of his four races over hurdles, and he was beaten four times as a novice chaser after he won the Drinmore Chase.  But his last two seasons over fences were dynamite.  Give him fences and a trip and some decent ground, and he was pretty much unbeatable.

Remarkably, he won 10 of his 12 races in his last two seasons and, if the ball had hopped a little better for him in the two races that he lost, it is not beyond the bounds that he could have won all 12.  He was unlucky twice in the Ryanair Chase, and he probably would have won the King George had he not fallen at the second last fence.

He won the John Durkan Chase and he won the Melling Chase – when he beat Cue Card by 26 lengths – and he won the Punchestown Gold Cup – he was Paul Carberry’s last Grade 1 winner – and he won the Champion Chase and he won the Kinloch Brae Chase twice.  Then, under a copybook ride from Bryan Cooper, he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and isn’t that the ultimate aim?

Don Cossack was fortunate to have the people around him that he had.  He had owners who gave him the time that he needed and who appreciated all that he achieved.  In the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham last March, you could see what his success in the Gold Cup meant to Michael O’Leary, one of the most successful business people that Ireland has ever produced.

He had successive regular riders, Nina Carberry, Davy Russell, Bryan Cooper, who gave him the assistance that he needed and who rode him with longevity in mind.  And he had a trainer who looked after him like the superstar that he was.  

If there is an air of sadness over Don Cossack’s retirement for connections, it is surely dwarfed by the deep sense of satisfaction borne out of all that he achieved.



National weights hoopla

So it looks like the announcement of the weights for the Aintree Grand National, to be run for the first time this year under the Randox Health banner, is going to be accompanied by more razzamatazz than usual this year.

It is not a bad thing in one sense.  It is the most famous jumps race in the world, and it is no harm that it gets a run out in February, before the Cheltenham build-up goes frenetic, so that people can be reminded that the world/season does not end with the Grand Annual.

That said, it is not with bated breath that the actual National weights are awaited.  Not any more.  Not in this era of transparency and handicap ratings.  There are the tweaks, of course, the oft-maligned Aintree factor tweaks, and the oft-heralded slight compression of the weights at the top end of the handicap, and the few extra pounds that one or two horses get in order to increase their chances of getting a run.  (What about the horses that they displace if they do?)  But, in truth, we know exactly what weight the vast majority of runners will carry before the unveiling ceremony, and we have a fair idea of what weight the others will carry.

We just need to know how closely the Irish horses’ National weights correlate to their Irish handicap ratings.  Same as every other handicap chase run in Britain then. 


Quiz time

Q1. Don Cossack won 16 times in his career.  How many different jockeys rode him to victory?

Q2. Name them.


A1. Seven, no less.

A2. Bryan Cooper (7 wins), Nina Carberry (3), Davy Russell (2), Andrew Lynch (1), Brian O’Connell (1), AP McCoy (1) and Paul Carberry (1)


Thought for the week

Dual Grade 1-winning rider Jack Kennedy should keep that blue cap in his saddlebag.


© The Irish Field, 14th January 2017