Larkhill, Britain's most popular Point-to-Point course, is under threat of permanent closure at the end of 2023, which would bring to a close some 75 years of racing on Salisbury Plain.
The future of racing at Larkhill has been uncertain for some time. The existing 21-year MOD lease ends on 31st December 2023. The racecourse committee has been in discussions with the MOD Defence Training Estates organisation for the last three years to obtain a new lease. The committee was informed in June this year that the lease would not be renewed because the racecourse represented an obstacle to training, particularly armoured manoeuvre training. Accordingly, the course will close at the end of 2023 and the forthcoming 2022/23 season marks the last.
The racecourse committee unsurprisingly believes this decision to be deeply flawed. The MOD has overturned the findings of a review it commissioned in 2019 to consider the future of Larkhill. In essence the review recommended that Army training and the racecourse should continue to share the land concerned, as it has done for 75 years, with flexibility and cooperation on both sides. It emphasised the value of the racecourse to the people of Wiltshire and to point-to-point racing throughout the country. It further highlighted the importance of the racecourse to a range of equestrian activities, notably the nationally-recognised cross country course, to both military and civilian users.
The MOD has undertaken no public consultation about the closure of a much-loved and much-used amenity on its land. The villages around Salisbury Plain tolerate noise and disruption from Army training and in return its residents have always welcomed the opportunity to go racing at Larkhill. Many may see this unilateral decision to close the racecourse as a breach of faith by the military, notwithstanding the short notice period for hunts staging fixtures to find alternative venues.
Peter Wright, speaking to Horse & Hound, said, “If the demise of Larkhill proves correct, it will be a real problem for the sport. Larkhill is, of course, one of the great point-to-point courses which has begotten many superstars,” giving examples of Cheltenham Gold Cup winner See More Business and the 2022 Queen Mother Champion Chase victor, Energumene.
“But perhaps more importantly still, it is the backbone to our national winter programme, providing six of 12 fixtures that can run however much rain falls, and is also the link between the South West and the Midlands. As such, it would be a disaster if we lost it. However, we have not given up hope and I am hopeful that a practical solution can be found to keep it open, even with some compromises, perhaps on dates and the course itself.”
Andrew Ritchie, chair of the Racecourse committee, added, "Rest assured that we will be campaigning vigorously at the national level, through the Point-to-Point Authority and other organisations together with the media. But lobbying at local level is vital to our success and I do hope racegoers, hunt members, racing enthuiasts and professionals will take up the fight.
"Please write to your County Councillor, your local MP and other opinion formers in Wiltshire setting out your objections to the MOD’s decision. You will have your own points to make but we believe the key issues are the importance of the racecourse to the local civilian and military community, the significance of point-to-pointing at Larkhill to racegoers and the racing industry nationally, the lack of public consultation and the impact on Hunts and other users of closing at such short notice".
It's no faint threat to say the closure of Larkhill would have a serious impact on the sport at large across its heartlands in the South-West and Midlands. The course draws runners from across half of England and by dint of its position as a mid-winter course, would leave potentially irreparable gaps in the winter calendar. Notwithstanding that, since the disappearance of Barbury, this would leave Wiltshire without any Jump racing venue at all.
Battle has been joined. Time for racing folk to stand up and be counted.