Friday, 31 March 2017
42) Ayr Racecourse 2001
Tucked away on the West coast of Scotland Ayr is not the easiest racecourse to get to, pretty much wherever you are based. In 2001 on our return home from a mini-break to Inverness my wife Claire and I made a slight detour and paid a visit to Scotland’s only grade one track. This was a late August flat meeting which provided the added bonus of reasonable weather. Wing Commander won the first race I saw at Ayr for Michael Bell, winning pretty comfortably under Mickey Fenton. I was fairly impressed with the facilities and scale of the course, though the stands were somewhat dated at this stage. Later, Chris Thornton had a runner, Shane, owned by Guy Reed and ridden by Dean McKeown. I remember being disappointed that Chris himself was not in attendance and that Shane was unplaced. Jockeys featuring that day included Joe Fanning, Kim Tinkler, George Duffield and two emerging apprentices, Paul Hanagan and Keith Dalgliesh.
Sixteen years later I returned with my Dad to watch a national hunt fixture. To come this far there had to be a good reason, even for a good set up like Ayr. This day we would see my horse Transient Bay’s long awaited chase debut. I was not going to miss this. One of the largest horses in training, Stenna as he is known always looked like a chaser in the making. If jumping fences could bring about some further improvement in the horse we could maybe progress from moderate handicaps to some of the decent and more valuable staying chases held pretty much every Winter Saturday. This potential had no doubt occupied the thoughts of all partnership members over the summer following three wins in the 2015-16 season, including one at Ayr. Optimism was a little more guarded now however following two inauspicious runs to start the 2016-17 campaign. A pulled up at Uttoxeter was followed by another at Ayr. The first we put down to lack of fitness, the second we possibly ran over half a mile too far. Expectation was certainly mixed but worryingly the spectre of a breathing issue, common in larger horses, was now being talked about.
Nevertheless, I had always planned to ensure I was at the chase debut. Indeed this was my first runner over fences as an owner. So on a cold Sunday in January my Dad and I headed north in preparation for Monday’s meeting. In truth, I did not really want to go in some ways. Not wanting to give up Sunday with my wife and kids was a positive reflection on something approaching domestic bliss. They too genuinely seemed to not want me to go. Possibly my decision to take the family IPad with me could have been a factor! We were booked in to a Premier Inn not far from the racecourse which proved to be a good decision. It was welcoming, modern and certainly not busy. In fact prior to our horse running almost everything about this trip had gone really well. The only negative was cutting across to Ayr on the dodgy A70 in poor driving conditions. There was still a slight chance that the meeting would not go ahead if we had a lot of rain. Thankfully it was misty, murky, grey, quite windy but not very wet. Welcome to Scotland!
That evening at the hotel, a meal and a few drinks with my Dad proved to be an enlightening and enjoyable experience. Normally our conversations revolve around horse racing, family and football, usually in that order. With additional time on our hands we had a rare reflective conversation about our life paths, choices we made and the future – much bigger stuff than normal. He shared with me some new material – unheard stories from for example when he was doing nursing training and lived with one of his brothers. This was quality time, unusually slow paced in my busy modern lifestyle. As we talked I became very pleased with my decision to take this trip. Too often in the past I have taken the easy option and stayed at home. Now this contentment at forty-five years old may not be my pinnacle in life but that Sunday night in Scotland, anticipating maybe a big day ahead, things felt pretty good. In fact it felt like I was a winner whatever the outcome of the big race. In the background though, an unexpected element to this story was developing online. Having been priced up at around 14-1 in the initial Sunday afternoon market a sustained number of bets meant by the time we awoke the following morning we would be 4-1 second favourite. Clearly someone knew something but why wasn’t that me?
The set up for owners at Ayr is pretty impressive and in many ways sets the standard for others to follow. Owners are correctly prioritised and looked after. Great parking facilities, plenty of well organised staff and an amazing lunch set you up for a great day. Within the confines of the hotel near the parade ring a function room is where the food is served. We shared a table with trainer Phil Kirby and many of the other partnership members. Phil informed us that the Golden Horse tipping line had made Transient Bay one of their bets of the season. He really wasn’t sure why. After lengthy discussion we concluded that, whilst we have a chance, the current 4-1 was very poor value. Perhaps 8-1 was about right. In the third race I had planned to back Brydon Boy, who had recently been defeated by Phil’s Courtown Oscar in a hard-fought battle at Hereford. Phil’s insight would be of interest. He felt my selection would likely be feeling the effects of that duel and offered an alternative selection, Sevenballs of Fire, who he knew was strongly fancied by fellow trainer Iain Jardine. Fair enough, consider my allegiance switched.
The meeting was poorly attended, which is not totally surprising for a cold January Monday but certainly the reasonable quality card and good facilities deserved more. Another disappointment within this spacious racecourse was the presence of only a handful of bookmakers. Hardly a betting market at all, watering down one of my favourite aspects of going racing. Since I was a boy I have loved chasing round after the best price. Having a winner is great but backing it at a briefly available best price is extremely rewarding. So trying to back the favourite in race one and seeing the same price on every board was somewhat deflating. On a positive note both my Dad and I backed the easy winner Fairlee Grey. Then, however we discovered these bookmakers pay out mainly in strangely coloured and sized Scottish bank notes. This would prove mainly a fleeting problem as over the course of the day the performance of our selections would not test the thickness of our wallets or pockets! The racecourse stands had been upgraded since my last visit though elements of the old stands remained, integrated into the new. Race two was won by the Gordon Elliott trained Whizzey Rascal. Quite a few Irish trainers had made the trip this day. He also trained the likely favourite, Holeinthewall Bar for Transient Bay’s race later in the day. Meanwhile in race three Sevenballs of Fire ran poorly, weighed down by my heavy investment. My frustration was compounded by the easy and impressive victory of Brydon Boy. Cheers for that Phil! Following this and a near certain victory at Wolverhampton snatched away on the line, it was beginning to look like this would not be my day. However, success or failure on this day would inevitably be defined by the performance of our chase debutant Transient Bay.
Confidence was largely subdued as Adam Nicol mounted for our big race. The market, or Ayr’s version of that at least, had bounced back the other way with our horse drifting to a more realistic price. Following some great wins the previous season and probably two years building up to a run over fences the run itself proved to be a massive anti-climax. He never looked comfortable jumping and only got halfway round before Adam pulled him up. He was jumping safely but somewhat sluggishly. He was never really travelling with any enthusiasm, a bit like me on the journey home later! Adam explained he was not happy with the horse at any stage and so played things safe. He re-iterated his concerns about the horse’s breathing. The horse had made noises during the race that would require investigation, possibly an operation. Transient Bay himself seemed content enough, which was at least something positive for this disgruntled partnership group to reflect on. During the long journey home I would have given you decent odds on Stenna winning his next race. Nothing pointed to it. There was even a possibility he would not run again. Surprisingly though a few weeks later he did run and win at the rewarding odds of 16-1. Perhaps the Golden Horse people were onto something after all!