Horse Racing: Farnsworth gambles on extra holiday weekend raceday

Bill Farnsworth with the Edinburgh Gold Cup
Bill Farnsworth with the Edinburgh Gold Cup
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Punters and racegoers should keep an eye on Bill’s Big Gamble this Easter.

No, it’s not a horse running at any of the bank holiday meetings – it’s the new Easter Saturday fixture at Musselburgh, which sees more than £100,000 in prize money and a brand new race, all without any financial backing from racing’s powers that be.

Bookmakers Betfred will sponsor the whole of the seven-race card, but that leaves the East Lothian track needing to find in the region of £60,000 to cover expenses for the day, and racecourse boss Bill Farnsworth freely admits it will lose out.

But it’s all about building up the Musselburgh brand, part of the final stages of a plan to make the seaside circuit the best of the smaller racecourses in Britain.

Having invested around £7 million in the past decade to upgrade and improve facilities for racegoers, horses and stable staff, as well as major improvements to the running surface itself, Farnsworth has now turned to improving the racing programme in a big way. He explains: “Our business plan is based on having several fixtures during the year which will appeal to a wider audience and capitalise on the fact that we sit right next to Scotland’s capital city – the second most visited city in the UK.

“We want to establish some major race meetings which will also become highlights for the racing fraternity and have the big stables targeting Musselburgh in the same way as they do the major races in the south.

“A reshuffling of fixtures last year meant we got Easter Saturday to go along with our established Easter Sunday family raceday and it worked well, so we decided to stage the two-day meeting again, even though it meant we had to fund the Saturday completely ourselves.

“We would normally get around £25,000 from the Levy Board towards prize money each day and another £15,000 to help with integrity costs, but this time we are on our own. We feel it will be worthwhile in the long run and have introduced the £50,000 Betfred Royal Mile as the major race. It is for three-year-olds only, rated 0-100 so we could get horses who are on the fringe of Classic class.

“It would be marvellous to get horses who have aspirations to run in the Guineas at Newmarket in early May, but we know that it will take time to build up our new race.

“However, attracting top-class runners is our aim and we hope that horses who run in the new race will develop into middle-distance performers and come back in June for the Edinburgh Cup.

“This year, the Edinburgh Cup will be worth at least £60,000 and we are hoping to get it up to £100,000 and beyond. In fact, it is our ambition to make it Scotland’s premier race.

“It is run on the same day as the Epsom Derby and we will share Channel 4 TV coverage with the major Classic and that is a great help to us in finding sponsors. Indeed, we have already had talks with one global company.”

Farnsworth’s programme of improvements has paid off already. In the past couple of years some good horses have visited the track. Harris Tweed broke the course record when winning the Edinburgh Cup two years ago and has since won Listed races at Newmarket and Chester and been placed several times in Group 2 and Group 3 company.

Twelve months ago, Namibian was third in the Edinburgh Cup before winning the Group 3 Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot and the Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood.

So the Edinburgh Cup is developing into the best quality handicap for three-year-olds over the mile-and-a-half trip in the racing calendar – certainly in the north – and Musselburgh’s fixture on the first Saturday in June is definitely the jewel in their crown.

The cup race is backed up by the £40,000 Scottish Sprint Cup and its consolation race and prize money for the day tops £170,000

“It is our big day of the year and always attracts a good crowd, but our one certain sell-out is Ladies Day,” says Bill.

“Already we are well on the way to selling out again this time around, with more than half the tickets snapped up three months in advance even though we have had to move the date to Friday June 15th because of a clash with the Highland Show, which would have brought severe logistical problems for many of our suppliers of things like catering and marquees.”

Total prize money over the 15 fixtures scheduled for the summer is £750,000 with two Saturdays, two Sundays and six Friday fixtures, two of which are evening meetings.

“Racing at the back end of the week whenever we can is a deliberate policy,” explained Farnsworth.

“Crowds are better on Friday, as people finish work early in anticipation of the weekend and data shows that off-course betting increased substantially on Fridays and even more on a Saturday.

“That is a very important point financially, as betting turnover is a major factor when the Levy Board determine how much financial support they give to each individual course,” he added.

So given fair weather this weekend, Bill’s Big Gamble could get off to a good start. But rain, hail or shine, Musselburgh is on the up and up.