Posted: 8/20/2010


       'Why not go to the races?' I thought, as the sun came out. So I jumped on the express Coastliner bus for York and alighted at The Knavesmire and walked through the parkland and down to the racecourse at York.

       It's a marshy area south-west of the city walls and often floods, but not today, which was bright and glorious. I had just missed the first race, the 1.45pm as I ducked under the rails and walked through a large area which normally has lots of football goalposts and is a great place to walk a dog. High above me were three huge stands, with luxury boxes and balconies for those race fans that want a bit of comfort.

      Race meetings are not my usual entertainment fare, and when they are I prefer steeplechase or jump racing, where the nags are not thoroughbreds, the races are longer, the action more exciting with the many fences and spills, but York is definitely top quality flat racing, and one of the most handsome racecourses anywhere

       They have been racing horses in York since Roman times and other entertainment also attracted fans. Gallows were erected in this area in 1379 and in 1739 the most infamous hanging took place when Dick Turpin the highwayman was led from York prison and he paid for mourners to accompany him and the cart to the gallows and his death. The last hanging took place in 1801 but along with bear baiting, cock fighting, sideshows, gypsy singers, and other pursuits had added to the festive atmosphere at the races.

      There were four days of racing this week at the Ebor Meeting and this day was Ladies Day. They came in groups or with their menfolk with exciting outfits to parade in the same way that the horses were paraded in the ring prior to each of the six races.  I paid 5.00 for the infield enclosure which was packed with families and friends, and dozens of bookmakers with their stalls shouting the odds. You can place a bet for as little as 1.00 but I am not a betting man.

      I do enjoy the party atmosphere, the horses, riders with their silks and all the razmataz.  There were places to buy all sorts of fast food and if you paid more, restaurants and enclosures with live music and sit down meals.  There is a 50,000 capacity many in comfort who come to all four days and the other meetings throughout the summer flat season.

      Back in 1730 Simon Scrope commented  in his diary that 'every year the most noble lords, gentle classes and commoners of high and low degree come to York for the races."   Arabian stallions were brought over and bred as they are all over North Yorkshire, a hotbed of breeding and training.  Lord Rockington proposed a grandstand for the gentler set to keep them apart from the masses, and a grandstand, designed by John Carr, was opened on 25th August, 1755.

    The first winner that day was Whistlejacket, the subject of a later famous painting by artist George Stubbs. York is the centre of assizes for trials and landed gentry travelled to the city for court business in August which became a popular time for racing to take place.

      The big race of the day was the Yorkshire Oaks and it was a dramatic start. The favourite SARISKA wouldn't come out of the starting stalls and so MIDDAY ridden by Tom Queally won despite having been beaten by the favourite in each of their 3 previous races. She was a filly trained by Henry Cecil. 

     The next race I walked back to see the start of the next race and see how the various racecourse handlers checked the horses, riders and equipment, after putting on hard hats. These animals can kick hard and do some damage. There were vets, commentators, the starter and others on hand to get the show on the road and I and a dozen others there chatted with some of the riders before they led their mounts into the starting stalls.