Ayr Gold Cup

 Formerly the Western Meeting, the Ayr Gold Cup Festival is staged annually at Ayr Racecourse, in south-west Scotland, on the shores of the Firth of Clyde, in September. It is, in fact, the most valuable Flat racing meeting staged in Scotland and takes its name from the feature race, which is run on the third, and final, day.

The Ayr Gold Cup, run over 6 furlongs, was first staged in its current guise in 1908 and, nowadays, is one of the major sprint handicaps in Europe. Unsurprisingly, the race regularly attracts numerous high-quality entries from both sides of the Irish Sea, but the safety limit at Ayr is just 25. Consequently, the Ayr Gold Cup is always vastly oversubscribed, so much so that entries for the race are accepted on the understanding that, at the 48-hour declaration stage, connections may nominate their horse(s) for entry to the primary consolation race, the Ayr Silver Cup, or the secondary consolation race, the Ayr Bronze Cup.

The Ayr Bronze Cup, which was inaugurated in 2009, takes place on the middle day of the three-day Festival, a.k.a. Ladies Day, while the Ayr Silver Cup, which was inaugurated in 1992, takes place on the final day, as a precursor to the Ayr Gold Cup itself. Fittingly, the total prize money on offer increases, incrementally, from £30,000 for the Ayr Bronze Cup to £60,000 for the Ayr Silver Cup to £200,000 for the Ayr Gold Cup.

Of course, the Ayr Gold Cup Festival is not just about major sprint handicaps. The highlight of the opening day is the Doonside Cup, a Listed contest run over 1 mile 2 furlongs and worth £65,000 in total prize money. Between the Ayr Silver Cup and the Ayr Gold Cup, the Firth of Clyde Stakes, which was elevated to Group 3 status in 2004 and is the only Pattern race run in Scotland, is also run on the straight 6-furlong course, but is restricted to two-year-old fillies only.

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Haydock Sprint Cup

 The Sprint Cup Festival is one of the most prestigious meetings of the season at Haydock Park Racecourse, on Merseyside in North West England, and is staged annually over three days in early September.

Run over a straight 6 furlongs since 1986, and elevated to Group 1 status two years later, the Sprint Cup is the most valuable race staged at Haydock Park, with total prize money of £325,200 and, nowadays, is the penultimate race in the QIPCO British Champions Series Sprint Category. The Sprint Cup was inaugurated in 1966 and originally run in early November, before being switched to September in 1979. The race was the brainchild of the late Robert Sangster, whose father founded Vernons Pool, and was run as the Vernons Sprint Cup for the first 22 years of its existence. Sangster saw his own distinctive white, emerald green, and royal blue colours carried to victory by Orojoya in 1985.

Initially, the Sprint Cup was open to juveniles and, in fact, the inaugural winner was the two-year-old Be Friendly, owned by the late Sir Peter O’Sullevan. Be Friendly won the Sprint Cup again in 1967 and may have done so again in 1968, but for the abandonment of the meeting due to fog. Nevertheless, he remains the only horse to have won the Sprint Cup twice and his achievement is commemorated by a life-size statue overlooking the paddock at Haydock Park.

Other notable winners of the Sprint Cup include Habibti in 1983 and Dayjur in 1990. Coincidentally, both were ridden by Willie Carson, both also won the Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp the following month and both were named British Horse of the Year. The late John Dunlop, who trained Habibti, also saddled Runnett (1981), Lavinia Fontana (1994) and Invincible Spirit (2002) to win the Sprint Cup and remains the most successful trainer in the history of the race.

The supporting card for the Sprint Cup also includes the Superior Mile Stakes, a Group 3 contest run over 1 mile and 37 yards, and the Old Borough Cup, a valuable and historic ‘heritage’ handicap run over 1 mile 6 furlongs. Both races are open to horses aged three years and upwards.

St. Leger Festival

 The St. Leger Festival takes place over four days at Doncaster Racecourse, in South Yorkshire, in September each year. As the name suggests, the meeting revolves around the oldest British Classic, and third, and final, leg of the so-called Triple Crown, the St. Leger Stakes. Founded in 1776, by the eponymous Anthony St. Leger, a major general in the 86th Regiment of Foot, the St. Leger Stakes is run over 1 mile 6 furlongs and 115 yards on Town Moor and open to three-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies.

The Triple Crown, attributed to any colt or filly that wins the Two Thousand Guineas, Derby and St. Leger, was last won by Nijinksy in 1970 and has rarely been attempted in recent years. However, in 2012, the hitherto unbeaten colt Camelot, trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by his son, Joseph, was sent off 2/5 favourite to complete the elusive treble, only to be beaten three-quarters of a length by 25/1 outsider Enke.

Other highlights of the St. Leger Festival include the Park Hill Stakes, a Group 2 contest run over the same course and distance as the St. Leger Stakes and open to thoroughbred fillies and mares aged three years and upwards. The Park Hill Stakes is still, erroneously, referred to as the “Fillies’ St. Leger” in some quarters; the St. Leger Stakes is open to fillies in any case and the Park Hill Stakes is no longer restricted to three-year-olds.

The penultimate day of the St. Leger Festival features the Doncaster Cup, which pre-dates the St. Leger Stakes by a decade and is the third, and final, leg of the so-called Stayers’ Triple Crown, after the Ascot Gold Cup and the Goodwood Cup. The St. Leger Stakes aside, the final day also includes the Champagne Stakes, run over 7 furlongs and open to two-year-old colts and geldings, and one of the most competitive sprint handicaps of the season, the Portland Handicap, run over a fast and furious 5 furlongs and 143 yards..