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Issue 55 - The Sport of Kings

Scotland Magazine Issue 55
February 2011


This article is 7 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Sport of Kings

Gavin D. Smith looks at the history of horse racing in Scotland

Whether you are a committed punter or barely know one end of a horse from another, a trip to the Scottish races makes for a great day out. Scotland boasts five racecourses, which together offer a broad geographical spread and varied programmes of racing during the year, not to mention a heritage dating back centuries.

Today, race meetings are structured and highly organised affairs, with fixture lists sometimes laid down years in advance. In the past, however, Scottish race meetings were often just annual events, without even formal race tracks. They were frequently arranged and patronised by local landowners who used the occasions to wager large sums on their best horses in competition against those owned by rival sportsmen.

But racing has always been the sport of the people as well as ‘the sport of kings,’ and the crowds who assembled to watch those races of old contained dukes and dustmen, just as they still do today. As the old saying goes, everyone is equal on the turf and under it! So just where is that turf in Scotland and what are its principal attractions?

Scotland’s premier racecourse is Ayr, which offers racing all year round, both on the flat during the summer months and over jumps from October to April. The Craigie venue, on the outskirts of the west coast town, hosts two of Scotland’s leading events, namely the Coral Scottish Grand National in April - the country’s foremost National Hunt or jumps race - and the William Hill Ayr Gold Cup, staged during the Western Meeting in September.

The latter is Europe’s richest sprint handicap, and this year was worth £150,000 in prize money.

Meetings are staged on weekdays and weekends, and during the summer there are a number of highly popular evening meetings, some featuring post-racing entertainment by well-known bands.

During 2011 there are no fewer than 27 race days at Ayr.

The sport has a long history in the town, having its origins during the 16th century, though the present course off Whitletts Road opened for business in 1907. Apart from the races themselves, there is Western House Hotel, located within the racecourse complex. Dating back to 1920, it was formerly the headquarters of the prestigious Western Meeting Club, and became a four-star hotel in 2005.

Also in the West of Scotland is Hamilton Park, the country’s only course dedicated solely to flat racing. Hamilton lies within sight of the M74 motorway, south of Glasgow and offers 18 days of racing between May and September. Highlights include two high class, feature ‘listed’ races, namely the Glasgow Stakes and the Braveheart Stakes, both staged on ‘Braveheart Night’ in May.

Hamilton also hosts the Lanark Silver Bell Handicap, which is run during an evening meeting in June and is believed to be the oldest sporting trophy in existence. It dates back to 1165, when it was presented to the townsfolk of Lanark (where racing ceased in 1977) by King William The Lion.

Racing at Hamilton can be traced to 1782, and the current venue has been in use since 1926, having the distinction of holding the first ever evening meeting in Britain, on 18th July 1947.

Today, Hamilton’s evening meetings are extremely popular with locals and visitors alike, and post-racing entertainment includes live music performances by such high profile acts as Jason Donovan, Danii Minogue and Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

If Glasgow has Hamilton as its ‘home’ track, then Edinburgh can boast Musselburgh, located in the historic seaside town of the same name, eight miles east of Edinburgh city centre. Racing has taken place on the present Leith Links site since 1816, though previous meetings were held on nearby Leith Sands from around 1500. For much of its existence, Musselburgh offered modest flat racing fare, but in 1987 a National Hunt track was installed and the sandy nature of the soil, within sight of the Firth of Forth, means that Musselburgh can often race when other courses are frozen or waterlogged.

The last few years have seen a transformation at Musselburgh, with a great deal of time and money being spent upgrading both the facilities and the quality of racing. Highlights of the 24 days of competition during 2011 include the Musselburgh Gold Cup in April, the Edinburgh Cup in June and the £50,000 Scottish Sprint Cup, held in September. In terms of jump racing, Musselburgh hosts the popular Cheltenham Festival Trials Day in February, which attracts some high class National Hunt horses ultimately bound for the great Cheltenham Festival meeting the following month.

While Musselburgh, like Ayr, offers racing all year round, Scotland’s other two tracks, Perth and Kelso, only stage jump racing. Perth is Britain’s northernmost racing venue and attracts many horses from the south of England because it specialises in ‘festival’ meetings lasting several days, due to its relative remoteness from the centres of British racehorse training. This leads to a great party atmosphere among owners, trainers, jockeys and race-goers, many of whom stay in local hotels and rarely stint on the hospitality!

Unusually, Perth specialises in jumps meetings during the spring, summer and autumn months, whereas, traditionally, jumping has been seen as a winter sport. The three-day Perth Festival Meeting kicks off the season in April, with the Highland National as one of the feature events, while the Perth Gold Cup is the highlight of racing in May.

Despite its status as ‘most northerly British track,’ Perth boasts that it is located 90 minutes away from 90 per cent of the population of Scotland. Although there are records of racing taking place at Perth at an unspecified venue as long ago as 1603, the current course opened in 1908 in the beautiful grounds of Scone Palace, close to the River Tay.

Unlike Perth, Kelso’s jumping season opens in October and ends in May, offering 14 days of racing during the campaign, which has as its highlight the Borders National in March. The course itself has a long finish, not dissimilar to Aintree, and is also very much like a smaller version of Cheltenham. As a result, Kelso provides a useful trial for both Aintree and the Cheltenham Festival meeting, and the race-goer often gets the chance to see a better class of horse running there than he might expect.

There has been horse racing in the Kelso area since 1734, and the current course at Berrymoss, just north of the attractive Borders town, was first used in 1822. The historic and eye-catching stone-built grandstand dates from that year. It offers a cosy bar with a roaring log fire in front of which to get warm and take refreshment between races. Kelso has been described by The Sunday Times as ‘Britain’s Friendliest Racecourse,’ and the welcome is always as warm as the log fire.

So, whether you wish to dress up in your finery and listen to a band after watching racing on a balmy summer evening, or don the Barbour and tweed cap and head for a winter’s afternoon of jumping fun, Scotland has a racecourse and a race day to suit you. And remember to take your wallet.

A few modest wagers make the action all the more exciting, and those bookmakers don’t accept plastic!