Racegoers in Scotland should perhaps owe a debt of gratitude to Philip II of Spain, for it was he who sent that ill-fated Armada of 122 ships to invade England in 1588. After the Spanish fleet was routed in the Channel and driven into the North Sea by the bold Lord Howard of Effingham and a raging south-westerly gale, its remains started to limp homewards via Scotland. Some made it, but most were wrecked on the perilous shores of wild Caledonia. Those who foundered were mostly the weaker-built transports, rather than men o'war, and many of them contained cavalry horses.
The shipwrecked steeds, swift, proud Andalucians of Arab origin, are popularly supposed to be the progenitors of the famed Galloway breed of running horses which became so admired and coveted south of the border. King James of Scotland was obsessed with racing and when he took over England as well he brought his passion south, and discovered the aptness of Newmarket for it.
During the 17th century racing - and betting - in Scotland was so popular that it had to be constrained by law. There were once 33 tracks in the country, though by the turn of the last century that had been whittled down to 10. Just five remain now: Ayr, Hamilton, Musselburgh, Kelso and Perth. Paisley, Oatridge and Dunbar all closed before 1907, Bogside in 1965 and Lanark in 1977.
There has been racing at Ayr since 1576, on a regular basis since 1698, and included in the sport's official record, the racing calendar, since 1777. Next year, the present track will celebrate its 100th year and on Thursday its most celebrated Flat fixture gets under way. The Western Meeting, so dubbed in 1824, is the sole remnant of former glory days; Scotland's Northern Meeting at Inverness ceased to be in 1830 and the Southern Meeting at Dumfries in 1847.
The Western Meeting, three days of high jinks culminating in the Ayr Gold Cup on Saturday, is the last festival of late summer, and some hurrah it is, as the trainer closest to the action can testify.
Linda Perratt is based at Cree Lodge, opposite the racecourse gates, and exercises her charges on the infield. "This week is huge fun," she said. "Everyone in the game descends here for the week, makes a holiday and a party of it, and the atmosphere is tremendous. The crowds are huge, the fields are big, the prize-money is excellent and all in all it's a huge advertisement for racing in Scotland."
Weather permitting, Perratt will have a runner in Saturday's showpiece, the three-year-old Dance Night. "We'd like a bit of rain," she added. "It would be good to have one in the race, but he does need juice in the ground. It's ironic, really; in previous years we've had fast-ground horses and the ground has turned soft; this time, we've got a soft-ground horse and it looks like being fast."
It was ground conditions that brought Ayr some unwanted recent publicity, when Robert Winston's title hopes crashed out with a fall on slippery grass on the home turn last month. But racing since then passed by without problems and no more are envisaged. "The ground is good to firm at the moment," said the clerk of the course, Anthea Morshead, yesterday, "and we're watering to maintain that as necessary. A largely dry week is forecast, though there may be blustery showers on Thursday."
The Ayr Gold Cup was first run in 1804, became a handicap in 1855 and had its distance reduced to its present six-furlong sprint in 1908.
But despite its long history, the man who has made it his own is a modern phenomenon. David Nicholls has won four of the last five runnings - with Bahamian Pirate in 2000, Continent in 2001, and Funfair Wane in 2002 and last year - and this time has two of the four co-favourites, Ice Planet and Continent. The pair are 9-1 with the sponsors, Totesport, alongside Intrepid Jack (Hughie Morrison) and Out After Dark (Clive Cox).
Yesterday 112 horses were left in the £120,000 contest, which has a safety limit of 28. The Silver Cup on Friday will be the consolation for the best of those who fail to make the cut.
Another with a tremendous record in one race, Vinnie Roe, is among 17 still in the Irish St Leger at the Curragh on Saturday. Despite a setback, the Dermot Weld-trained seven-year-old is on course for an extraordinary fifth consecutive victory.
Nap: Coppice (Salisbury 4.40)
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