York Racecourse, situated on the Knavesmire southwest of the city centre, is considered one of the finest racecourses in the whole of Europe, and certainly one of the most heard of within the sporting industry. North Yorkshire was known as the “heart of modern horseracing”, and attracts over 100,000 visitors a year.
Over the 18th Century, horseracing became increasingly popular, and grew into a social event, with people flocking from all over the country to watch the horses run. The atmosphere was electric, and crowds of people would gather to watch the side shows including cock fights, gypsy singers and public executions. Some of the early race meetings were timed to coincide with the York Assizes which were periodic criminal courts held around England until 1972. This is where the most serious cases would be heard, and the outcome of execution was often called for. The local County Court hearings were held 4 times a year, and anyone convicted of a capital offence was ordered to be executed soon after. Timing the race meetings with the court hearings allowed for additional entertainment at the racecourse, and the gallows had been sited on the Knavesmire since 1379, in full view of the race goers.
Originally the racecourse was established at Clifton Ings, a place prone to flooding from the Ouse. A lot of work was done to improve the ongoing drainage issue on the Ings, however it became too much and the Corporation had to seek an alternative location. In 1730 the racecourse was relocated to the Knavesmire. It wasn’t all plain sailing on the new site though, and the course often became waterlogged. Due to flooding, no permanent buildings were erected on the Knavesmire until York Architect, John Carr, designed and built the very first Grandstand in 1754. Apparently, the Grandstand was financed by 250 people who each paid 5 guineas towards the project. A guinea was considered a more gentlemanly amount than £1, and you would pay tradesman, such as a carpenter, in pounds, but gentlemen, such as an artist, in guineas. Everyone who donated money to the fund was entitled to use the stand until the site’s lease ran out, and each patron was given a brass token bearing their name and an image of the stand engraved onto it. This evolved to what we now know as the County Stand Badge.
During the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, the term “Freeman” became increasingly common within the city. A Freeman was a former serf, described as an “agricultural labourer bound under the feudal system to work on his lord’s estate, who had been made free and granted the right to work for himself rather than for a feudal master”. During this time, areas of grazing land were allotted to the Freemen, which were areas of the city, enclosed and allocated according to area. These became ‘Strays’, and the Knavesmire was captured into one of these areas. Each Freeman had the right to graze one or two cows on the appropriate strays, and about 500 cows and 200 horses were reportedly depastured in all of the strays around the city in 1835.
The 1840’s brought the introduction of 2 important races, the Ebor Handicap and the Gimcrack Stakes, both of which were the basis for the course’s success today. Today, the racecourse typically holds 15 days of horseracing throughout the year, and York saw its last meeting of 2011 last weekend with the October Finale Meeting. The Knavesmire is still home to the famous Ebor Festival Meeting held in August, which is the biggest meeting of the year for York. The meeting, first held in 1843, is one of the richest in the north of England and offers total prize money of £2.7m. The festival is usually held mid-week but organisers this year moved the event to include a Saturday. Organisers said they were “delighted” that 93,316 people attended the meeting, and Ladies Day, which took place on Thursday, was the best attended day, with more than 28,000 people heading to the course.
The track won the Racecourse of the Year title in 2003 and came out on top in The Times newspaper survey of all Britain’s racecourses. In June 2005 York Racecourse held Royal Ascot, due to Ascot Racecourse being closed for its £185 million redevelopment, which saw the arrival of the Queen and her Royal party.
The races are still an event as popular as it was when the sport first surfaced in York. The tradition can be traced back as far as the Roman times, and there are records of gatherings in various open spaces around the city, including Acomb Moor, forests surrounding the city, and even the frozen River Ouse. A tradition that remains strong, attracting hundreds of thousands of people to York annually, for an excellent day out.