Some 10,500 crammed into Somerset Park yesterday to watch Ayr United and local rivals Kilmarnock draw 2-2 in the Scottish Cup. A fierce, gusting wind carried the oohs and aahs from the derby match half a mile down Whitletts Road to the racecourse, where 1,600 brave souls turned out for a hastily arranged fixture. No one left the football, but the horse crowd was soon reduced by two when, in the face of lashing rain and tiles blowing off a roof, a pair of bookmakers decided enough was enough and packed up their joints after the first contest.
They may have done themselves a favour, as odds-on shots won the next two races, and by close of play only seven remained of the ring's 18 layers who started the afternoon. The fare at Ayr was ordinary but it was the first jumping in Britain for more than a week and beggars, even if only 1,598 of them, were not about to get picky. Those professionals with least to complain about were probably the jockey Denis O'Regan and trainer Howard Johnson, who ended the old year with a double at Musselburgh and welcomed in the new with another Scottish brace.
Both hurdler Prince de Beauchene, who won for the first time in Britain having won three in France and carriesthe colours of the Johnson yard's chief patron, Graham Wylie, and chaser Companero, who races for its longest-serving owner, Mark Black, are at the start of their careers and may progress to better things. An indication of the testing conditions for horses as well as spectators was that Companero's time was 48 seconds slower than standard for three miles and a furlong.
The nine-year-old, bred with a sunny day at Epsom in June in mind rather than a bleak slog through the mud in January (his sire is the Derby and Arc hero Sinndar), showed a deal of courage and determination to reel in Quws Law, who had led springheeled over the last, by three-quarters of a length. "It actually wasn't tough enough for him," said O'Regan. "He wants softer ground and a lot further."
The Welsh National may be in Companero's sights next term. More immediately, Harmony Brig, who took a break from chasing to take the afternoon's most valuable (though with a first prize of £12,674, the term is used loosely) hurdle race, will be heading to Newcastle next month for another marathon, the Eider Chase.
It was the first start over the smallerobstacles for nearly two years for the 10-year-old, who responded to Brian Harding's driving strength by beating Theatre Belle a short-head in the last stride, with the Grand National hope Endless Power a respectable third.
"To be fair to him," said his trainer, Nicky Richards, "he was a good hurdler when he was younger, and we thought we'd give it one more try. It's a good job he did win a bit of money, though. He got a bit het-up in the lorry on the way and gave the inside a good kicking, but he's paid for the repairs."
The equivalent chase went to the well-backed Jass, who is also bound for the Eider Chase after powering home strongly to beat Gypsy George two lengths. "He jumps and stays," said his trainer, Keith Reveley, whose charge was ridden by his son James, "and the Newcastle race has been lucky for us in the past."
Today's Carlisle card has been cancelled and prospects are bleak for Fakenham and Plumpton tomorrow. There are no weather problems at Leopardstown, which stages the genuinely valuable 30-runner Pierse Hurdle (£64,000 to the winner) this afternoon.