Ayr Racecourse Guide
Of the five racecourses to be found north of the border in Scotland, that which lies in the southwest coastal region of Ayr enjoys the highest profile. Boasting a rich history – with tales of equine events in the area harking back to the 16th century – this dual-purpose venue stages meetings right throughout the year, with the fixture list including a number of the most famous contests that Scottish racing has to offer.
Combining that rich racing heritage with modern facilities to create a top-class race day experience, the track has dominated the award for the best racecourse in Scotland and the North East for the past 20 years or so. Here we take a closer look at Scotland’s most popular track, including information on the biggest races, and useful details for visitors.
Scottish Grand National Festival
April is the most eagerly anticipated month for fans of stamina-sapping staying chases. The Grand National at Aintree of course takes centre stage, but also lighting up the springtime is the biggest event of the season north of the border, as Ayr plays host to the Scottish Grand National.
Scottish Grand National Festival
And just as is the case with the Aintree contest, the Scottish Grand National benefits from a quality supporting cast, with the jewel in Ayr’s crown acting as the centrepiece of a two-day celebration of National Hunt racing.
- The two-day Scottish Grand National Festival takes place over a Friday and Saturday in April each year.
- There are a total of 15 races held throughout the meeting, seven on Friday, and eight on a bumper Saturday card.
- Of those 15, five are rated at Listed level or above.
- Handicapping action dominates the opening Friday, with the Listed class Hillhouse Quarry Handicap Chase topping the bill.
- The Saturday card then features not only the Scottish Grand National but also the Grade 2 double act of the Future Champion Novices’ Chase and the Scottish Champion Hurdle.
- Featuring 27 fences, and held over a four-mile trip, the big race is one of the most stamina-sapping contests of the season.
- Several Aintree Grand National winners have also won the Scottish version over the years, including Little Polvier, Earth Summit and the all-time great, Red Rum.
- The Saturday at this meeting attracts a capacity crowd of 18,000, with tickets regularly selling out well in advance.
Visiting Ayr Races
Fully deserving of the many accolades bestowed upon it, Ayr racecourse is unsurprisingly a hugely popular destination with racing fans. And for those looking to sample what the Scottish track has to offer, the following information may be of interest.
- Location – The course lies close to the southwest coast of Scotland, around 44 miles to the south of Glasgow.
- Address – Ayr Racecourse, Whitletts Road, Ayr, KA8 0JE
- Contact details – Via the track’s email contact form, on 01292 264 179, or via Twitter @ayrracecourse.
- Tickets – At many meetings Ayr operates as a single enclosure. However, at the larger fixtures the Club and Grandstand enclosures operate separately. See the track’s box office for the latest fixtures and prices.
- Dress code – Racegoers do tend to dress up for the higher profile meetings, but in general smart casual dress is the recommendation – with no ripped denim in hospitality areas and no football shirts.
- Transport – The M77 is the main approach road for those driving to the track. Ayr train station meanwhile enjoys strong links with Scotland’s major stations and is only around a five-minute drive, or 20-minute walk from the course.
- Accommodation – Western House Hotel and The Mila are both under half a mile from the track, with around 30 further options within the coastal town of Ayr itself.
- Hospitality – From fine dining restaurants to luxurious private boxes, Ayr is renowned for its excellent hospitality facilities. See the hospitality section of the track website for the full range of packages available.
- Food and Drink – The main grandstand area features the Cree Lodge Bar, Courtyard Bar and Eglinton Food Court, whilst the club enclosure offers a carvery, burger bar and the Ayrshire Suite Bar. In addition, racegoers will find a range of mobile vendors situated around the course.
Racing in this corner of Scotland dates back to 1576. Those earliest events were however sporadic and relatively unorganised affairs. It wasn’t until 1771 that the first officially recognised meeting took place at a course in the Seafield area of the town. Steadily increasing in popularity and profile, key events in the early history of the course included:
- 1804 – First running of the Ayr Gold Cup
- 1824 – Western Meeting established, featuring a two year old race which, at the time, was the most valuable contest of its type of the British season.
- 1855 – Ayr Gold Cup becomes a handicap. The race ultimately going on to become the richest sprint handicap in the whole of Europe.
Time to Expand
Moving into the 20th century it soon became clear that a desire to extend both the one-mile oval course and the paddock area would not be possible at the Seafield site. In 1907 organisers decided to switch to the more expansive site at Craigie, where the track remains to this day.
In designing the Craigie course, Ayr’s owners looked to other existing tracks for inspiration, with the Newbury layout selected as the blueprint. And, other than the fact that Newbury boasts a one-mile straight course, as opposed to the six furlongs of Ayr, the tracks are remarkably similar.
Jumps Racing Joins the Party
A flat racing track throughout its lifespan, the next major innovation came in 1950 with the addition of National Hunt racing to the Ayr offering. Relatively low-key in the first decade or so following its introduction, the Ayr jumps season received a huge boost in 1966 when, following the closure of the course at Bogside, the Scottish Grand National relocated to the track.
The Modern Era: Onwards and Upwards
By the late 1990’s it became clear that Scotland’s premier dual-purpose course required significant investment – an investment which the owners at the time were unable to finance. The time had come for someone else to take over the reins.
And there was no shortage of willing candidates, with a total of 41 offers submitted to take over the ownership and operation of the course – the honour eventually being handed to local businessmen Richard Johnstone and Alan Macdonald.
The new owners have certainly made good on the brief of bringing the track firmly into the modern era, with over £20 million invested in facilities since 2003. The building of the four-storey Princess Royal Exhibition, Banqueting and Conference Centre headlines a list of improvements which also includes the addition of The Roman Warrior and The Chancellor Restaurants and the popular Champagne Gardens. It is safe to say that those making the trip to Ayr will find quality facilities to match the excellent action on the track.
Other Meetings & Races At Ayr
There is something about a Grand National which seems to capture the imagination of the public, and there is no doubt that the two-day springtime festival is the meeting around which the Ayr season revolves.
There are however a further 30 individual days of racing action on offer at Scotland’s busiest track, with several excellent meetings scattered throughout – including a three-day flat fixture which draws the attention of the wider racing world.
Western Meeting/Ayr Gold Cup Festival
The clear highlight of the season on the flat comes in September with the annual edition of the excellent three-day Western Meeting – an appropriate name for a racing festival at what is the most westerly track on the British mainland. Traditionally held from a Thursday through to Saturday, a total of 22 races take place over the three days, including four at Listed level or above. Ladies’ Day comes on the Friday before a spectacular Saturday card featuring the Group 3 Firth of Clyde Stakes and headlined by the massive betting race of the Ayr Gold Cup.
Land O’Burns Fillies’ Stakes Day
Moving away from the two major meetings, one of the most popular fixtures at the track comes in the summertime month of June. The regularly balmy weather and Saturday afternoon slot never hurt the attendance at this meeting, nor does the competitive entertainment on the track. The Listed class feature race attracts the majority of the attention, with the quality handicaps of The Winton Cup and The Johnstone Rose Bowl featuring prominently on the undercard.
And last but not least, the August meeting labelled the tracks’ most glamourous of the season as the good ladies of Ayrshire descend upon the course in all their finery. Featuring live music after racing, excellent prizes for the best-dressed ladies, gents and couples, and an exciting seven-race card, tickets for this summer showstopper regularly sell out well in advance.
Biggest Races at Ayr
The staying chase showpiece of the Scottish Grand National may be the event that really puts Ayr on the racing map. However, it is far from the only quality event on offer as shown by the list below:
- Scottish Grand National, Scottish Grand National Festival – Grade 3, 4m110y
- Scottish Champion Hurdle, Scottish Grand National Festival – Grade 2, 2m
- Future Champion Novices’ Chase, Scottish Grand National Festival – Grade 2, 2m4f
- Ayr Gold Cup, Western Meeting – Handicap, 6f
- Harry Rosebery Stakes, Western Meeting – Listed, 5f
- Arran Scottish Fillies’ Sprint Stakes, Western Meeting – Listed, 5f110y
- Doonside Cup, Western Meeting – Listed, 1m2f
- Firth of Clyde Stakes, Western Meeting – Group 3, 6f
- Rothesay Stakes, May – Listed, 1m2f
- Land O’Burns Fillies’ Stakes, June – Listed, 5f
Ayr’s 1m4f left-handed oval circuit is fairly straightforward to ride, featuring two four-furlong straight sections and a pair of gentle bends. Relatively flat throughout, the track features only minor undulations, including a downhill section on the turn for home, and a slight uphill section in the home straight.
In addition to the main oval, the flat course features two chutes. The first of these runs into the backstretch and contains the starting point for events over 1m2f. The second meanwhile leads directly into the home straight, creating a dead straight sprint course for events over five furlongs and six furlongs. One of the most notable features of the sprint track is just how wide it is, being able to accommodate field sizes of up to 28. In big field sprints, the field will almost always split into two or three groups.
A galloping, fair track, both front runners and hold-up performers can go well around here. On good or quicker going those racing prominently have the slight edge, but on soft or worse going the advantage switches to those ridden more patiently. Despite being a coastal track with a sandy subsoil, the ground can become incredibly testing when the rain arrives, creating a surface widely recognised as being one of the most gruelling in the UK.
Many believe that a high draw is of benefit on the sprint course. However, the stats suggest those drawn in the centre hold a slight edge. The most crucial aspect of these speed events is to be drawn close to those runners who are likely to force the pace. On the round course, those drawn low enjoy a very slight advantage.
National Hunt contests take place on the same oval as used in the flat events. Those tackling the chase course face a total of nine fences per circuit, with the open ditch three from home being the trickiest. Hurdles’ contests feature six flights per lap, three in each of the straights. Over both fences and hurdles, the field faces a run-in of close to a furlong having jumped the last.
In common with flat contests around here, the type of runner favoured on the jumps is almost entirely dependent upon the going; prominent racers faring best on good or better, but regularly tiring and being run down on soft or worse going.