Speed usually leads to success in racing and that’s certainly the case at Musselburgh which stages its biggest race of the year this weekend – the £100,000 William Hill Scottish Sprint.
In 15 short seasons, this five-furlong dash has carved out a prominent pitch not only in the Scottish racing calendar, nor the Northern scene, but nationally too.
On Saturday it shares top billing – and TV coverage – with a similar event at the showpiece York track a couple of hundred miles or so south. That underlines just how far Musselburgh has come under the guidance of Bill Farnsworth.
It was the Musselburgh boss who spotted the need for just such a race at this particular stage of the summer season and who instituted the Scottish Sprint in Millennium year. It was worth just £25,000 and Farnsworth found a sponsor from outside racing – Ductform Ventilation. “Ductform who?” many asked, but the company – based at Glenrothes in Fife – sponsored the race for it’s first three years and their backing was vital. Ironically the first running resulted in the only Scottish victory so far when 14-1 shot Xanadu, trained by Linda Perratt and ridden by Iona Wands, left the bookies smiling. There have been several other sponsors since then who have helped to raise the profile and the value and when bookmakers William Hill took over last year, their help saw the race hit the £100,000 mark.
“Yes,” said Farnsworth “you could say it is a dream come true. We are constantly trying to improve the racecourse here – the facilities and the standard of racing and we certainly harboured ambitions of staging a really big race. So when William Hill came along to sponsor last year and helped us raise the value of the race to that level it was tremendous.”
Way back in 2000 it was the BBC who screened the Epsom Derby on the first Saturday in June and Musselburgh were bit-part players, providing extra racing to support the big fixture. Channel 4 Racing were covering proceedings in East Lothian though and that gave Farnsworth the elbow room to find a new race – and TV air time helped in the hunt for a sponsor.
“But it was hard because our new race was in direct competition with the Epsom Dash, a well established and much more valuable race just before the Derby,” said Farnsworth. “But our race worked out well and has gone from strength to strength especially since we have been able to move the date away from that Derby Day slot.
“Now our fixture falls between the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot. We are a week after the Dash and so horses which ran at Epsom can come on to us and there is no handicap sprint over five furlongs at Royal Ascot next week, so you could say we have found the perfect niche in the calendar.”
That certainly seems to be the case with 49 entries for Saturday which will be cut down to just 17 chasing the big pot while those who fail to make the cut get a chance for compensation in the consolation race which itself is worth £30,000.
Musselburgh specialist Red Baron is favourite for Saturday’s race. He has three wins and three seconds to his credit on the East Lothian links and is in great form with three wins and two seconds from his last five starts, but the opposition is tough. The last two winners, Demora and Kingsgate Choice, are entered and Burning Thread, who was successful at 50-1 in 2011, is in the chase.
Trainers Brian Smart and Tim Easterby have both won it twice, the latter with Hamish McGonagall in 2008 and again two years later. In between the gelding finished fourth behind 28-1 shot Pavershooz.
“Hamish” is perhaps the best horse to have won the race so far and five of his 11 career wins came here. He went on to run at the highest level, winning a Listed prize at York and making the frame three times in the Group One Nunthorpe Stakes on that same track as well as finishing third in the Prix de l’Abbaye in Paris.
His regular partner, David Allan, is the only jockey to have won this race more than once and favourites have fared badly. Only one outright market leader has obliged – Matty Tun at 5-1 in 2003 – while Kingsgate Choice was 6-1 joint favourite two years ago.
Saturday presents punters with another fiendish puzzle to solve, but win or lose they’ll have a good time because it’s Ladies’ Day with plenty of glamour and excitement promised for a sell-out crowd.
And that’s another reason for Farnsworth to smile. “We used to get excited if we thought the crowd would get to 4000 but over time we have managed to improve our facilities so that we will have around 10,000 here. We put our two biggest occasions together to make a great day.”
It seems more than 24 years since the course teetered on the brink of financial oblivion. But since then a partnership between council, business and racing enthusiasm has provided a £7.5million investment programme that has doubled attendances and put Musselburgh 14th in the list of Britain’s 60 tracks. Bill Farnsworth and his team are certainly living the dream!