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Issue 10 - Racing's Ayr of distinction

Scotland Magazine Issue 10
September 2003


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Racing's Ayr of distinction


Ayr Racecourse is to Scotland what Newmarket is to England and the Curragh to Ireland. It is the ‘headquarters’ of the Scottish turf and provides racing of the highest quality, both on the flat and over jumps, throughout the year.

The Scottish Grand National meeting in April attracts huge crowds but there is no question that the three-day Western Meeting in September is the highlight of Scotland’s racing year.

During that week, the town, centre of a major tourist area offering unspoiled beaches, stunning scenery and numerous championship golf courses, bristles with racing visitors from every corner of the British Isles and further afield. Social events abound and there is an extra special buzz on the racecourse.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Western House, which is the most remarkable building to be found on any British or Irish racecourse. A folly, built in 1920, it contains spacious bars and banqueting rooms almost as plush as a London gentleman’s club.

The Western Meeting first took place in 1824, shortly after the foundation of the Western Meeting Club, the company which has run Ayr racing to the present day.

It quickly became one of Scotland’s most important social occasions. In his Racecourse Atlas of 1903, F.H. Bayles described the meeting as that “at which most of the elite of Scottish Society bestow their patronage and supported by drafts of horses from all the principal North
country stables.

“The gathering, as the Scots designate their festivities, sees large house parties and a ball takes place in conjunction with the meeting on each of the three race nights at the County Hall.”

At that time, Ayr’s racecourse was situated on what is now the Belleisle golf course, reputed to be part of the route taken by Tam O’Shanter on his ride to Alloway Kirk.

Here racing had been staged since 1771, some 200 years after the first recorded race meeting at Ayr, on an unknown site.

Robert Burns, Ayr’s most famous son, was never a man of the turf yet in the 1780s he befriended several racing people, notably the Caledonian Hunt Club.

It was, almost certainly, the social side of the sport that attracted the great man. Legend has it that he was greatly captivated by the charms of Lady Harriet Don, wife of Sir Alexander Don, whose Forester had won a £50 race at the 1777 meeting.

In 1781 Burns dedicated his new edition of poems to the Caledonian Hunt Club, which later became his patron. He was rewarded with a payment of £25 and a subscription for 100 copies.

In 1804, the secretary of the Western Meeting remarked that ‘it is to be lamented that at that time the funds of the Hunt did not permit a larger premium to Burns than was given in 1803 to Blaze, the black stallion from Biggar.’

The connection between Burns and the club continued for the rest the poet’s life. Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, one of Burns’ most famous songs, is set to a tune called the Caledonian Hunt’s Delight. When Burns died, the Honourable William Maule, a member of the Caledonians, gave his widow an annuity of £50.

The development of Ayr Races in the 19th century was rapid. 1804 saw the first running of the Ayr Gold Cup, a race which 200 years later remains the flagship contest of the Scottish flat racing calendar.

The first event was run in two heats of two miles each and was confined to horses bred and trained in Scotland.

The winner was Chancellor, who, incredibly, was saddled up again just half-an-hour later to run a brave second in a four-mile race!

Chancellor won the race again the following year. In both 1810 and 1811, the first four places were filled, remarkably, by horses sired by John Bull, the only known instance of a stallion achieving this in consecutive runnings of any race in Britain.

Another landmark came when horses owned by Lord Eglinton won the Gold Cup six times between 1809 and 1819.

By the turn of the next century, the course at Belleisle was unable to cope with the huge crowds that attended most meetings. The site was cramped and modernisation almost impossible.

The only way forward was to find a new location and the Western Club first leased the present course in 1907. In 1934, it bought the freehold.

The Ayr Gold Cup was run, for the first time, over its present distance of six furlongs in 1908. The race card advertised whisky at half-a-crown a bottle and steamship tickets to America for £10.

The most curious advertisement however was from Glasgow’s Cagey Company, which offered to cure drink problems within three days.

The new-look Gold Cup quickly became established as one of the most important sprints in Europe and has since been won by some the fastest horses in the world.

There have been many remarkable performances but perhaps the most extraordinary was Marmaduke Jinks in 1936, who was ridden by a 42-year-old jockey named Albert ‘Midge’ Richardson. Incredibly, Richardson got his weight down to 6st 13lb for the ride.

The new course boasts a flat left handed oval of about one and a half miles with a long straight which tests even the most resolute galloper.

Over the years, the racecourse was developed into a track that could rival any in Britain. Excellent grandstands were erected and new races offering excellent prize money established.

The future looks bright for under the new ownership of Dawn/Thornton, a local partnership which recently purchased a majority shareholding in the Western Meeting Club.

Great plans are already afoot and there should be an even greater buzz than usual at this year’s Western Meeting.

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