Ayr Racecourse on the west coast of Scotland holds both flat and jumps cards throughout the year. Their biggest meeting on the flat is the Ayr Gold Cup meeting but their most important National Hunt meeting is the Scottish Grand National Festival in April.
This fixture takes place over two days, a Friday and a Saturday, the week following the Grand National meeting at Aintree. The feature race is the Scottish Grand National which is run on the Saturday of the meeting. Like the Aintree National, this race is a marathon handicap chase with a big field of runners, though the Scottish National is over the slightly shorter trip of four miles.
There’s lots of racing outside of the Scottish National however. Friday is designated as Ladies Day, with the standout contest the Listed Handicap Chase. The Saturday has an eight race card which also includes the Scottish Champion Hurdle, Champion Handicap Chase and the Champion Novices’ Chase.
Below is a timeline of the key points in the history of the fixture’s big races.
A Complete History of the Ayr Grand National Festival
The Ayr Grand National Festival, usually held in mid to late April, is one of the last major jump festivals of the National Hunt season. It is a two-day affair and although the opening day is not overly spectacular on the course, the same cannot be said about off it. Ladies Day gets the festival up and running and there have long been generous prizes on offer for those adjudged to be the best dressed.
Moving onto day two, hosted on Saturday, and this is quite the racing spectacle. Not only do you have the Scottish Grand National itself but you also have top races such as the Scottish Champion Hurdle and Future Champion Novices’ Chase. We will explore, in detail, the history of these fine races that have long made the Ayr Grand National Festival such a popular one.
1858 – Grand National origins
The race that makes this entire meeting possible, the Scottish Grand National, has roots dating back to 1858. It was in this year that spectators at Houston, Renfrewshire, saw the first-ever running of the ‘West of Scotland Grand National’. The brutal contest featured 32 jumps, many of which were made out of stone.
1867 – Grand National officially begins
Despite the contest mentioned above, the Scottish Grand National as we know it today is only officially deemed to have begun in 1867. This is the year that, despite objections, the West of Scotland Grand National moved to Bogside Racecourse near Irvine. The winner of this inaugural running was the Duke of Hamilton’s horse called Elk. Connections of Elk received a total of £100, which in today’s money is in the region of £12,000.
Initially, the race at Bogside only took place over three miles but this was soon extended to a much more challenging three miles and seven furlongs. As well as a change in trip, a name change also came not long after the Bogside move. In 1880, the race became known as the Scottish Grand National with a horse named Peacock the first to claim victory under the new title.
1891 – No National winner
It would probably fair to consider 1891 as something of a low point for the Scottish National. This rather laughable renewal saw just two horses compete and both failed to clear the second fence. Barely after the race had begun it was already over with both horses blowing a wonderful opportunity to place themselves in the history books.
1913 – Couvrefeu in Grand National treble
For a third consecutive time, Couvrefeu ended up first past the line in the Scottish Grand National. Never before had a horse won this race on three successive occasions and it is a record that remains unmatched since. That said, two horses have managed to claim a trio of non-consecutive Scottish National victories: Southern Hero (1934, 1936, 1969) and Queen’s Taste (1953, 1954, 1956).
1953 – Grand National enjoys some screen time
Before this year, only those attending Bogside Racecourse could see the Scottish Grand National action for themselves. The situation changed in 1953 however when the BBC agreed to the televise the contest for the first time. They did so again the following year but ceased coverage thereafter. Those that opted to watch on both occasions would have twice seen the aforementioned Queen’s Taste succeed.
1965 – Bogside Racecourse shuts
Bogside Racecourse had held its first-ever meeting in 1808 but despite its long history, it was forced to shut its doors in 1965 (Point-to-Point meetings did continue to take place until 1994 however). Effectively, it was put out of business by the more attractive Ayr Racecourse, located a mere 12 miles away. There was not enough money to support two courses in the area and so the Levy Board opted to cease their funding of Bogside.
The closure of Bogside meant the Scottish Grand National needed a new home. Naturally, Ayr stood as the most obvious candidate having built a brand-new jumps track in 1950. This is indeed where the race headed with Ayr hosting its first Scottish Grand National in 1966. It was in this year that the race was bumped up, very slightly, in distance, to its present length of four miles.
1966 – Ayr welcomes the Scottish Champion Hurdle
During this year, the Scottish Champion Hurdle made its inaugural appearance with the contest won by Blue Venom. The result would have come as a real surprise to Venom’s former trainer Harry Bell who, upon selling the horse for £250, warned the new yard that they would “never win anything with him”. Not only did he win but he beat the course record by two seconds in the process.
1969 – Grand National back on screen
After a 15-year hiatus, the Scottish Grand National returned to feature on our television screens. This time it was not the BBC showing the action but rather ITV. The race has been broadcast live ever since although not consistently with ITV as Channel 4 picked up the reigns for 31 years starting in 1986.
1974 – Red Rum conquers England & Scotland
With the present-day Scottish Grand National scheduled a week after the English equivalent, competing in both races during the same season, let alone winning the pair, is a rare sight indeed. We continue to see the odd horse give both long-distance slogs a pop but the only horse to have won both in the same season is none other than Red Rum.
In 1974 he claimed his second English Grand National win and with a three-week gap between the Scottish contest, Ginger McCain thought a trip up north was worthwhile. What a good decision it proved to be too as the 11/8 favourite won in style at Ayr, keeping in touch before launching a powerful attack after the last. Other horses before him, like Little Polveir and Earth Summit, had managed to win both races but none during the same year. While not as impressive as his three English Grand National wins, this is an achievement that will probably prove even harder to match.
1978 – Sea Pigeon defends title as Tragedy Strikes for Golden Cygnet
To date, Sea Pigeon is the only horse that has successfully won back-to-back Scottish Champion Hurdles. Bird’s Nest is the only other two-time champion but his pair of victories feature a year’s gap in between. Looking to retain his title, Sea Pigeon faced the threat of Golden Cygnet, who despite his inexperience, was a truly formidable opponent. Indeed, it looked coming into the final stages that Golden Cygnet, travelling very strongly, would claim a seventh consecutive win but for a fall at the final flight.
Following the fall, the 7/4 joint-favourite did return to his feet, albeit somewhat gingerly, alleviating initial concerns of a possible tragedy. While the fall was not instantly fatal though, it ultimately proved to be as Golden Cygnet suffered a brain haemorrhage resulting from an injured vertebra shortly after. With no possible treatment options, Golden Cygnet was humanely put down. One Irish newspaper, upon hearing the news, described it as the “greatest loss to National Hunt racing since Arkle”. To this date, he remains the highest-rated novice hurdler of all time having posted a Timeform rating of 176.
1991 – Future Champion Novices’ Chase briefly upgraded
Formerly running as Grade 2 contest, the Future Champion Novices’ Chase enjoyed an upgrade to the top tier in 1991. Along with its new Grade 1 status, the event was also extended to two and a half miles, having previous features as a two-mile contest. It has featured at this distance ever since bar a single running in 1995, the same year it was stripped of its Grade 1 status and placed back at Grade 2. Unlike the distance change though, the change in grading was not temporary.
1994 – Grand National Day receives a boost
During its earlier history, the Scottish Champion Hurdle took place the day before the Scottish Grand National. Two years after the event went from Listed to Group 2 status, however, organisers opted to schedule the Champion Hurdle a day later. This meant that for the first time, the final day of the festival featured two of the most elite races in Scotland.
1996 – An unexpected farewell from Alderbrook
Alderbrook holds the record for being the last Champion Hurdle (Cheltenham) winner to win the Scottish equivalent. His triumph south of the border came in 1994 although he was not a long way off defending his crown 12 months later. A month after missing out a second win at Cheltenham, Alderbrook made light work of the Scottish Champion Hurdle, comfortable winning by three lengths. This was despite conceding at least nine pounds to the rest of the field.
Although this appeared to be a horse in the peak of his career, it was later revealed that vets agreed it would be unsafe for Alderbrook to continue racing. He was subsequently retired to stud with his triumph at Ayr the last that most people ever saw of the extremely talented hurdler.
2001 – Future Champion fulfils potential
Naturally, the idea of having a race called the Future Champion Novices’ Chase is to give promising horses a platform to shine. In recent decades it has typically been won by horses aged six or seven years, so victors do generally stay on the National Hunt circuit for a fair while after. The winner of the 2000 edition, Gingembre, returned to Ayr a year later to compete in the Scottish Grand National. The Lavinia Taylor-trained horse delivered the goods again too, winning the contest by five lengths at 12/1 odds. In doing so he became the first horse to complete this particular Ayr double.
Interestingly, the 2001 Future Champion Novices’ winner, Grey Abbey, managed the same feat although he waited three years for his National triumph.
2007 – Yes Sir stripped of title
Spectators at Ayr for this Grand National festival witnessed an utterly dominant performance during the second race of the day. Yes Sir made all the running in the Future Champion Novices’ Chase, drawing well clear four fences out on his way to an 11-length win. The eight year old was later stripped of his victory though as lab analysis detected the presence of tetramisole in his urine. Always Waining, who won the Cenkos Securities Novices’ Handicap Chase later in the day, also ended up disqualified due to testing positive for the same substance.
2008 – Iris De Balme in shock National victory
Punters and bookies alike witnessed a truly astonishing upset in this edition of the Scottish Grand National. A typically large field of 24 runners set off for the 4m contest but towards the latter stages, it was clear there would be one winner: 66/1 shot Iris De Balme. Drawing clear from the last fence, he established a commanding lead, eventually finishing 14 lengths clear. For a horse 26 pounds out of the handicap, very few saw this result coming. He did try his luck again in this race three years later, priced at the very same odds, but was pulled up late on.
2015 – Champion Hurdle prize boost
The 2015 renewal of the Scottish Champion Hurdle saw a significant increase in the available prize money. A boost of £30,000 took the overall total up to £100,000, establishing this contest as one of the top five two-mile handicap hurdles in Britain. It remained a long way short of the £210,000 on offer for Scotland’s richest race, however, none other than the Scottish Grand National.
2017 – Vicente denied place in history books
Having won the previous two Ayr Grand Nationals, Vicente returned to Ayr in 2017 with a very rare opportunity to claim a third win in this historic contest. Only three horses have ever managed this feat, with only one of them doing so in consecutive years. Given that this occurred over a century earlier, all eyes were on the Paul Nicholls-trained horse for this renewal.
It was not to be for the nine year old though, despite setting off as the second favourite. On the day he could only muster a respectable fifth place finish from 29 runners, having lost both hind shoes at some point during the long slog.
2018 – Festival welcome new race
During this year, the race formerly known as the Weatherbys Hamilton Novices’ Handicap became the Dawn Homes Novices’ Championship Handicap Chase. Although there was no change in class and the distance remained virtually the same, this was a distinctly different contest. For one, the Novices’ Championship Handicap featured a prize pot of £100,000, four times the amount of the previous contest. In doing so it became the third, six-figure contest of the Scottish Grand National Festival.
Additionally, to feature in this contest, horses needed to have finished in the top eight during a qualifying race earlier on in the season. Backed by the BHA’s development fund, this newly formatted finale attracted plenty of interest with 17 runners involved. Victorious on the day was 22/1 outsider Crosshue Boy who made it four wins from his last five starts.
2020 – Entire meeting cancelled
The Ayr Grand National Meeting was one of the first major meetings forced to cancel due to the 2020 suspension of sport. Although some major races from other cancelled meetings ended up being rearranged, none of Ayr’s show-stoppers was so fortunate. The cancellation did at least not come as a shock with the British Horseracing Authority confirming in mid-March that all racing up until the end of April would be suspended.