Horse racing in Scotland winning the turf war as attendances rise

One For Arthur, ridden by jockey Derek Fox, jumps the last fence on the way to winning the 2017 Grand National and becoming the first Scottish-trained winner since 1979. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

One For Arthur, ridden by jockey Derek Fox, jumps the last fence on the way to winning the 2017 Grand National and becoming the first Scottish-trained winner since 1979. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Share this article
2
Have your say

When One For Arthur crossed the line at Aintree to become the first Scottish-trained winner of the Grand National since 1979, it was a seminal moment for horse racing north of the border.

But the bigger picture is even brighter for the sport. Attendances across the five courses in Scotland - Ayr, Hamilton Park, Kelso, Perth and Musselburgh - have risen steadily since the turn of the century.

One For Arthur, led by groom Mark Ellwood, meets his adoring fans at Kelso racecourse. Picture: Toby Williams

One For Arthur, led by groom Mark Ellwood, meets his adoring fans at Kelso racecourse. Picture: Toby Williams

The latter track in East Lothian was pulling in a total attendance of around 35,000 across 25 fixtures annually. That figure had doubled by 2016 and operators hope it will soon rise to 80,000.

The numbers attending race meetings across the country topped 308,000 in 2015 - a seven year high, worth an estimated £173m to the national economy.

And it’s not just attendances that are on the up. More punters means bigger rewards for winners. Prize money at Hamilton Park will break the £1 million mark this year - a 15 per cent increase from 2016, to over £1.166m, with a further £800,000 earmarked for refurbishment of the grandstand.

For Bill Farnsworth, chief executive of Musselburgh racecourse, investment in spectator facilities over the last decade is a big part in explaining the rising numbers passing through turnstiles.

“It’s not that horse racing has become suddenly popular among the general public,” he told The Scotsman. “It’s because the courses have invested millions in their facilities. If you had gone racing 10 years ago and then returned this summer, you would notice a massive difference across each of the five tracks. The aim is to provide a quality experience for everyone that attends.”

READ MORE: No pressure on One For Arthur to defend Grand National crown

Farnsworth also believes the live spectacle of racing remains its core appeal.

“In our digital world, there’s something exciting about watching these thoroughbreds and their jockeys galloping past you at 30 or 40mph,” he added. “It’s drama. It’s exciting.

“The social aspect is also a major part of our appeal. People can dress up and head out in a large group of their friends and family.

“You don’t need to be a racing aficionado. You might never have seen a horse before but you can still enjoy it.”

While racing in Scotland lacks the obvious wealth on display at meetings in England - there are no events which offer anything remotely close to the £561,300 claimed by a National winner - it has a distinguished history dating back nine centuries.

The Lanark Silver Bell is one of the oldest sporting prizes in the world. The existing trophy dates to the 17th century but is thought to have replaced an even older prize, which was reputedly donated to the town by William the Lion, King of Scots from 1143-1214. Lanark racecourse closed in 1977 but the trophy is still contested for on an annual basis at Hamilton Park.

But despite this pedigree, Scottish-trained winners of major races are enough of a rarity to become headline news.

One For Arthur, trained by Milnathort-based Lucinda Russell, is only the second horse from north of the border to claim the top prize at Aintree - equalling the achievement of Rubstic in 1979.

“We have great trainers up in the north, just as good as the ones in the south,” Russell said last week.

“But we need big winners to attract the owners because that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day.

“The trainers are as good, the tracks in the north are good and it’s a better day out for owners up here. But it’s the investment. You have to have the owners.

“The price of point to pointers has gone through the roof so you have to look at the level below that now and try to get them.”

READ MORE: New £250k irrigation system in place for Perth Festival

Back to the top of the page