There are many things for which our friends north of the border are well known, from their world-renowned whisky to the picturesque Highlands, and of course the ever-elusive Loch Ness Monster. However, it is not only fictional beasties and alcohol that the Scots have a lot of time for. They also love their sport.
Widely accepted as being the nation which gave golf to the world, some historical reports also suggest that our kilt wearing cousins are the forefathers of modern football. Whilst the true origins of the beautiful game may never be agreed upon, we can be sure that it is football which is the dominant force on the modern Scottish sporting scene, coming out well clear in terms of attendance and TV viewing figures. Prominent amongst the chasing pack though is another sport enjoyed on a global scale – that of horseracing.
Just as in the sports of golf and football, we have to travel a fair way back in time to find the roots of Scottish horseracing, with competitive contests said to have taken place from as long ago as the 12th century. Reports of those early events are however a little patchy and the racing itself was certainly rather sporadic. It wasn’t until the reign of King James VI in the late sixteenth and early 17th century that a more regular pattern of fixtures began to emerge. Initially a pursuit of the elite, the sport soon spread to the masses and by the 1800s annual events were being staged at a range of venues up and down the country.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and racing has maintained its position in the Scottish sporting landscape, still drawing the crowds to events both big and small. But what exactly does the Scottish racing scene look like in the modern era? Here we take a look at the nation’s biggest tracks and races, and profile a few of the star names from years gone by.
Racecourses in Scotland
The number of racetracks in Scotland hasn’t changed all that much over the years, with the current total of five being the same tally as that reported from the early 1800s. That might not seem like a particularly big number but per capita it is not too dissimilar to the stats for England and Wales. Of course, as in the rest of the British Isles, there are a number of courses which have come and gone in the intervening years, with the likes of Lanark, Leith and the attractively named Bogside amongst those to have fallen by the wayside.
Of the five remaining tracks, each does seem to be in it for the long haul, with even the youngest of the quintet now closing in on their centenary. So where exactly are these five tracks? And what can racegoers expect to find at each?
Lying towards the West Coast, Ayr boasts a rich racing heritage, with tales of events in the area dating all the way back to 1576. A number of the track’s feature contests – some of which continue to be held to this day – then emerged in the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1907 that the first meetings were held at the current location.
Previously based in the town of Seafield, the switch to this larger, more accommodating site has only served to help Ayr establish itself as Scotland’s premier racecourse, both on the level and over jumps. It was not always this way though, with National Hunt racing only added to the offering in 1950, and the signature event of the Scottish Grand National being held at the track for the first time in 1966.
When looking at the layout of the track, Ayr bears a rather striking resemblance to the English course of Newbury. There is no accident to that either, as planners deliberately chose to imitate the Berkshire venue when designing the course configuration. A wide, left-handed oval of around 1m4f, Ayr features sweeping bends, long straight sections and is widely considered to be one of the fairest courses in Britain.
In addition to the main round section, the flat track also features two spurs, one leading into the back straight containing the 1m2f start, and one running directly into the home straight, enabling the staging of sprint contests over a straight 5f and 6f. Well suited to the long striding galloping type of performer, stamina becomes increasingly important on soft ground as, when the rain arrives, which it often does, Ayr can become one of the most testing tracks in the country.
Meetings & Famous Races
One of the busier venues around, Ayr stages a total of 29 meetings over the course of the season – 17 on the flat and 12 over jumps. April’s Scottish Grand National is the obvious highlight of the National Hunt calendar, whilst September’s three-day Western Meeting, featuring the Ayr Gold Cup, takes top billing on the flat.
The first of Scotland’s flat-only venues, Hamilton has staged racing events since back in 1782 – being based at its current site since 1926. Ideally located just to the South of Glasgow, and set amongst beautifully maintained grounds, it is not hard to see why racegoers have flocked to this corner of Scotland for the best part of 250 years now. A smaller track throughout its lifetime, its size hasn’t prevented the course from achieving a couple of notable firsts; becoming the first British track to hold an evening meeting in 1947, and the first to stage a morning meeting in 1971.
In terms of its appearance, there aren’t too many other courses which conform to Hamilton’s badminton racquet configuration. Consisting of a long straight section over which 5f and 6f sprint events take place, the track also features a loop which begins around halfway up the straight and turns right-handed to re-join the track close to the 6f start.
All events at trips beyond 6f take in at least some part of this tight turning section, whilst those at distances of 1m3f and further require the field to travel the “wrong way” down the straight, turn around the loop, and then come back the way they came to the winning post. Given the tight turns, and the fact that even the straight portion of the track features pronounced undulations, it is no surprise that nimble, well-balanced runners tend to go well around here. Do note however that the second half of the straight is predominantly uphill, and therefore a degree of stamina is also required.
Meetings & Famous Races
Hamilton’s season aligns itself with Britain’s traditional flat racing campaign, with its 18 fixtures all taking place between the months of May and October. As the track’s only Listed class contest, it is July’s Glasgow Stakes which is the standout race. However, those who prefer their racing to have a bit of history behind it may prefer August’s Lanark Silver Bell Handicap, which has taken reportedly place in some form since way back in 1165!
Racing in the Scottish Borders region of Kelso has taken place since as early as 1734, initially moving between Caverton Edge and Blakelaw, before taking up permanent residence at its current Berrymoss site in 1822. Initially a flat racing venue, 1888 saw Kelso switch to National Hunt action only, and it has remained that way ever since.
The course at Kelso features an inner hurdles track and an outer chase course which, for around three quarters of their duration, run side by side. It is only in the back section where the two layouts diverge significantly – with each of the courses having their own separate back straight. Other than the hurdles track being slightly sharper, the two courses share broadly the same characteristics; both being left-handed, almost flat throughout, and featuring sharp turns and a stiff 2f run to the line.
Meetings & Famous Races
Staging around 13 meetings per year, all of which take place between the months of September and May, the racing programme at Kelso is broadly in line with the core National Hunt season. The majority of these fixtures are of only average quality, with the exception being the late February/early March meeting which features both the Grade 2 Premier Kelso Hurdle and the well-regarded Morebattle Hurdle.
Lying only behind Ayr, both in terms of profile and spectator attendance, is Scotland’s second dual purpose track of Musselburgh. Formerly known as Edinburgh Racecourse, this East Coast venue lies just six miles outside Scotland’s capital city and first opened for business in 1816. A flat-only course upon its inception, National Hunt racing was a late arrival to the party in not being staged here until 1987. Given its diverse racing offering, picturesque Firth of Forth location, and easy access to Edinburgh and its many attractions, it is no surprise that this course has grown to be one of the most popular racing destinations north of the border.
Close to 1m2f in circumference and broadly oval in shape, one of the main characteristics of the track at Musselburgh is just how tight the turns are. Cambering works have been undertaken to lessen the severity of these bends, but they still place significant demands on the balance of the competitors, with the turn into the home straight being just about the tightest in all of British racing.
In addition to the main round section, the flat course also features a short spur leading into the home straight containing the starting points for events over 5f and 2m. Despite the long straight sections, this can be a difficult track at which to come from behind, with front runners going notably well in both flat and National Hunt contests.
Meetings & Famous Races
Musselburgh stages around 28 fixtures per year, almost evenly split between flat and National Hunt meetings. June’s Ladies Day invariably sees a sell-out 10,000 crowd in attendance, with February’s Edinburgh National and April’s Scottish Sprint Cup also proving particularly popular with racegoers.
Finally, we come to the most northerly of Britain’s 60 racecourses – the Highlands venue of Perth. Lying close to the River Tay and around 50 miles to the north of Edinburgh, racing has taken place in and around the town of Perth since as long ago as 1613, with the current track within the Scone Palace Parklands opening in 1908.
The second of Scotland’s National Hunt-only tracks, the rustic charm of this countryside course has proven a big hit with racegoers, with Perth being handed the title of “Best Racecourse in the North” on numerous occasions over the years.
Perth’s right-handed 1m2f circuit features a short back stretch and significantly longer home straight, giving the layout the appearance of an uneven oblong. Both hurdles and chase contests take place on the same patch of land, with the hurdles course utilising the inner portion of the track down both sides and in the back stretch, before then switching to the outside in the home straight.
Whilst the course is almost completely flat throughout, the bends at Perth are notably sharp, and overall the track is one which lends itself to nippy, well-balanced runners who like to race prominently.
Meetings & Famous Races
Perth is Scotland’s premier summer jumping venue, laying on around 14 race days per year, all of which fall between the months of April and September – outside the National Hunt season proper, but handily avoiding the bleak Scottish winter. Early season highlights include the Future Champion’s Novices Hurdle and Highland National of April, whilst June’s Perth Gold Cup is the track’s most valuable contest and regularly draws the crowds.
Biggest Scottish Races
All told, Scotland’s five tracks combine to provide a shade over 100 meetings each year, with a nice spread between flat and National Hunt. Just as in any other racing nation, the bulk of these meetings are mid to low level affairs which, whilst not drawing the star names, do serve to flesh out the season and provide targets for the lower rated runners. In addition to the more humdrum fare, a racing season does also need its highlights, and it is to those to which we now turn, as we take a look at the biggest events north of the border.
Scottish Grand National
There are no surprises when it comes to Scotland’s biggest race. Just as it does in England, in Ireland and in Wales, it is Scotland’s version of the Grand National which most captures the imagination of the public, seeing the eyes of the sporting world – and considerable crowds – descend upon Ayr each year in April.
Making its debut as the West of Scotland Grand National back in 1858, at a Houston course which required the field to negotiate an array of stone walls, the race then switched to Bogside in 1867. And there it stayed until the closure of that fellow Ayrshire track in 1965. Thankfully Scotland’s greatest race wasn’t long in finding a new suitor, with Ayr quickly stepping in to take the reins in 1966 and, barring an abandonment in 2020, it has taken place at the track every year since.
In common with the other major “nationals” to be held around the British Isles, the Scottish Grand National is a Grade 3 handicap affair, with its 4m trip and 27 obstacles placing the emphasis firmly upon staying and jumping ability. Given those demands, it is no surprise that the race regularly attracts many of the same runners as its English counterpart, and over the years there are number of runners to have tasted success in both events.
1987 winner Little Polveir followed up two years later at Aintree, whilst 1994 champ Earth Summit waited a whole four years before claiming top spot on Merseyside. There is however only one horse to have landed the Aintree and Ayr double in the space of the same season – the most famous Grand National horse of them all, Red Rum, who achieved that considerable feat in 1974.
Ayr Gold Cup
The location may be the same, but other than that, the Ayr Gold Cup has little to nothing in common with the Scottish Grand National. Scotland’s biggest flat race – and the richest sprint handicap in the whole of Europe – this 6f sprint event serves as the headline act at the hugely popular three-day Western Meeting in September. Restricted to a maximum field of 27, the increasing popularity of the race has necessitated the creation of not one, but two, consolation contests, in the shape of the Ayr Silver Cup and Ayr Bronze Cup. Imaginative names for sure!
As is often the case in these ultra-competitive handicap events, the Ayr Gold Cup regularly attracts runners who turn out to be a notch above handicap level. Donjuan Triumphant, Regal Parade, Bahamian Pirate and Continent all subsequently scored in Group 1 company following a win here, but the pick of the bunch is 1992 heroine Lochsong. Winning this race, the Stewards’ Cup and Portland Handicap in 1992, the Ian Balding-trained mare then went on to claim the Nunthorpe, Prix de l’Abbaye and Kings Stand, in addition to being crowned the Cartier Horse of the Year in 1993.
Scottish Champion Hurdle
In common with the Scottish Grand National, this 2m hurdle contest also made its debut at Ayr in 1966, and has acted as the chief supporting act for Scotland’s greatest race ever since. Initially held on the Friday before the big one, the race switched to the Saturday in 1994, adding still further to what was already comfortably the biggest day of the Scottish National Hunt season.
As a Grade 2 contest held under Limited handicap conditions, the race may be a notch below its Cheltenham equivalent, but has nevertheless attracted a pretty high calibre of runner over the years. All-time great Sea Pigeon did the double here in 1977 and 1978 before going on to record back-to-back Champion Hurdle successes at Cheltenham in 1980 and 1981, whilst 1973 champ, Captain Christy, displayed his class and versatility in claiming the Cheltenham Gold Cup just one year later.
It has admittedly been some time now since we have had a winner who falls into the Sea Pigeon or Captain Christy bracket, but former Champion Hurdler Alderbrook did land the prize in 1996, whilst 2010 winner Overturn also claimed top spot in both the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and Northumberland Plate.
Lanark Silver Bell
Top graded action and competitive handicaps are all well and good but, when it comes to history, there are few races anywhere in the world to touch the Lanark Silver Bell. Gifted to the Lanark region by the reigning Scottish King, William the Lion, in 1160, the Silver Bell has allegedly been battled for on the racetrack since the late 12th/early 13th century.
And by the time Lanark Racecourse was forced to close in 1977, the contest had become well established as the longest continually running horse racing event held anywhere in the world. Happily, that 1977 edition did not mark the final tolling of the Lanark Bell, as following a 30-year hiatus, Hamilton Park stepped in to host in 2008, reimagining the race as a 1m4f Class 3 handicap to take place in August each year. Sadly, the original bell seems to have been misplaced somewhere down the line, and a more modern version is awarded to the winner these days – this one being only around 400-500 years old!
Scottish Racing’s Biggest Stars
Over the years, the tracks and races of Scotland have served to provide many moments of excitement and drama, producing an array of local heroes, both human and equine. Scottish racing’s exploits haven’t always been confined to the Highlands though, and we conclude our tour of the tartan-tinted racing scene with a look at three stars who have gone on to capture the attention of a much wider audience.
One For Arthur
It doesn’t get much bigger than winning the biggest and most watched National Hunt event on the planet. As such it is Grand National winner, One For Arthur, who tops our list of the greatest Scottish racehorses – with an honourable mention going to Rubistic who also achieved the feat for trainer John Leadbetter back in 1979.
Owned by a pair of Scotswomen in Belinda McClung and Deborah Thomson – collectively known as the Two Golf Widows – and based at the Perth & Kinross yard of Lucinda Russell, this handsome bay carried the hopes of a nation when lining up on Merseyside in 2017 – and he never really looked like disappointing. With jockey Derek Fox sporting silks in the colours of the St Andrews’s Cross, One For Arthur cruised into contention before powering 4½l clear on the run to the line – giving Scottish racing its greatest moment of the modern era, and ensuring his own racing immortality.
From a strapping National Hunt performer to a rather more diminutive star of the flat – Scotland’s greatest ever jockey, Willie Carson. Born in Stirling in 1942, William Fisher Hunter Carson, OBE – to give him his full title – initially made the move to the Yorkshire yard of Captain Gerald Armstrong in order to pursue his racing dream. And from there, he never looked back, rapidly becoming one of racing’s most instantly recognisable riders of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Finally hanging up the saddle in 1996 at the age of 54, Carson had amassed a total of 3,828 winners over the course of his career, including no fewer than 17 Classics. A mightily impressive tally, and enough to become the fourth most successful rider in the history of British racing.
And finally, another Scotsman who relocated to Yorkshire in order to make his name – Glasgow native, Mark Johnston. A qualified veterinarian, Johnston has applied his considerable knowledge to the training of racehorses ever since making the shift to England in 1987, and he has done so to great effect.
From relatively humble beginnings, Johnston’s success has been built upon an ability to consistently produce tenacious front running sorts who are notoriously tough to pass. That is a pretty good combination for a racehorse to have, and it is one which has served Johnson spectacularly well. Sending out his 4,000th Flat winner in the shape of the appropriately named Dominating in 2017, the victory of the Frankie Dettori-ridden Poet’s Society in 2018 then made Johnston the most successful British Flat trainer of all time.