Lost racecourses 2: The Elephant Man

Bogside racecourse stands - long gone

At around quarter to four tomorrow a craftsman will inscribe in gold leaf the name of the latest winner of the Scottish Grand National on a large oak board at Ayr racecourse. But the board and the race are both interlopers, as until 1965, they were both to be found 14 miles up the coast at Bogside racecourse, just outside Irvine.

Racing began there in 1808, and the West of Scotland Grand National was introduced in 1867. In some ways it was remarkable that racing continued as long as it did, for there were several things Bogside didn’t have going for it. For a start, it was sited in an awkward spot, sandwiched between the railway and the rivers Garnock and Irvine. A heap of shale on the infield blocked off the view for most of the track and for most of the spectators. The sandhills on the far side of the course meant there was never any room for expansion. And when Alfred Nobel, he of the prizes, built an explosives factory just across the river, it brought a whole new meaning to the jockey’s explanation that “the horse blew up.”

It took until the 1970 for the track to be fully enclosed by running rails. Until that time, it was not uncommon for a loose horse to make its way over the sand dunes and swim out into the estuary.

Then there were the fences themselves. The right-handed, two-mile circuit had the usual mix, with nine plain fences, two open ditches and a water jump. Just as at Aintree, there was a long run in of 370 yards, on which horses passed a plain fence and the water jump. But there was little to help a horse find its place at the jumps, as jockey Bobby Beasley recalled. “The fences at Bogside were black and the guard rails were the same colour. There was no gorse apron or yellow bars on the take off side to encourage the horse to jump.”

But some jockeys had good cause to remember Bogside. Almost 40 years before Frankie Dettori’s Magnificent Seven at Ascot in 1996 Alec Russell had become the first post-war jockey to go through the card. That was at one of Bogside’s flat meetings. True, there were only six races, but it was still a huge achievement, including winners at the wonderful old money price of 100/8 and on the 8/1 outsider of three.

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Other jockeys didn’t have such happy memories. Jimmy Fitzgerald, who went on to have a fine training career, rode the last winner of the Scottish National there, in 1965, on a horse called Brasher. He recalls that he had no problems in the race, but “some of the gloss was taken off the day when I got done by the police coming out of the track. I was caught on the wrong side of the road trying to overtake a line of stationary cars.”

But that was nothing compared with the experience of jockeys who riled the crowd with their rides. There was a narrow path back from the course to the unsaddling area, and anyone beaten on an odds-on chance was likely to be on the receiving end of some harsh Glaswegian invective.

Or worse. Walter Bentley, who was a regular rider at Bogside, relates one occasion. “They were a partisan crowd. I remember once when a top overseas jockey rode a horse for Rufus Beasley. He came round the turn into the straight but instead of sticking on the far rail he went up the stands side. Near the finish somebody slung a cowpat off a board and it hit him full on.”

With all those challenges, it’s perhaps no surprise that in 1963 the Levy Board included Bogside in its list of 12 racecourses which it would no long support financially. They reckoned that Bogside would need £80,000 spending on it to bring the facilities up to a reasonable standard. The report said, “When Ayr is developed as the main Scottish course, racing under both rules, the retention of Bogside, only 12 miles away, cannot be economically justified.”

And so racing came to an end there, on 10 April 1965, although point-to-point meetings continued until 1994. And it was the 1987 edition of the Point to Point and Hunter Chase Formbook, which gave Bogside its ignominious soubriquet. Comparing it with another Scottish pointing track the Formbook observed, “If Balcormo Mains is Samantha Fox, then Bogside is the Elephant Man.”

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1 reply
  1. john laidlaw says:

    How great it is to read about this old course and also to confirm that aj Russel went through the card there i have used that stat many times and people dont believe me.

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