York Racecourse Guide

Whilst many of the UK’s most prominent racecourses are based in the south of the country, the north of England also boasts a thriving racing scene. And the undoubted jewel in the crown of racing “up north” is the magnificent venue of York. Not only one of the oldest tracks in the land, with the first meeting taking place close to 300 years ago, York is also amongst the most prestigious, lying behind only Ascot in terms of the average prize money per meeting.

Beloved by local racegoers and regularly attracting the attention of the wider racing world, the “Knavesmire” provides the stage for some of the most highly rated events of the entire British season. Excellent single-day meetings feature throughout the year, but it is one of the most popular late-summer festivals which provides the season’s centrepiece.

Ebor Festival

Ebor Festival

In terms of top-class flat racing festivals, the British summertime really is the hottest time of year. From Chester’s May meeting and on to Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood, the consistent stream of quality action is the envy of many a racing nation. Not to be left out, the north’s premier racing venue plays host to its own multi-day bonanza with this eagerly anticipated event.

Ebor Festival Details

One of the UK’s most historic cities, the title of this meeting takes its name from the Roman name for York. Combining history with some of the most impressively modern facilities around, and of course racing of the highest order, the Ebor Festival has become a beacon of the summer months for fans of the flat racing game.

  • Running from Wednesday through to Saturday, the four-day Ebor Festival takes place in mid to late August each year.
  • A total of 28 contests make up the meeting, including 10 at Group 3 level or above.
  • For many fans the highlight of the festival comes on the opening Wednesday, with the feature event of the Juddmonte International being one of the classiest contests held anywhere in the world.
  • Day two is Ladies Day, and it is the female performers who duly take centre stage on the track, with the fillies-only Lowther Stakes and Yorkshire Oaks topping the bill.
  • Speed is the name of the game on Day 3, with the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes being one of the highlights of the sprinting season.
  • The closing Saturday card features a Group class double act in the shape of the Strensall Stakes and City of York Stakes, but it is the historic Ebor Handicap for the stayers that headlines the card.
  • The total attendance at the meeting regularly breaks the 80,000 barrier, with over 30,000 expected on the final day.
  • With a total of £4.7m on offer over the four days, the Ebor Festival is one of the most valuable meetings of the season.

Visiting York Races

York Racecourse Crowds
Credit: alljengi Flickr

York Racecourse is thoroughly deserving of its lofty reputation amongst racegoers, with a visit highly recommended should the opportunity arise. Looking to sample what York has to offer? The following information will certainly be of assistance to you.

  • Location – The track lies around a mile to the south-west of York City Centre.
  • Address – York Racecourse, Racecourse Road, Knavesmire Road, York, YO23 1EX
  • Contact details – Phone: 01904 620 911, Twitter: @yorkracecourse, or via the track’s email enquiry form.
  • Tickets – York operates three main enclosures at the majority of meetings: The Clocktower Enclosure, the Grandstand & Paddock Enclosure and the County Enclosure. See the ticketing section of the official website for up-to-date details.
  • Dress code – Whilst many racegoers do opt to dress smartly for a day at the races, the only official dress code exists in the County Enclosure, where gentlemen are asked to wear a jacket, collared shirt, and tie.
  • Transport – For those driving to the course, the A64 is the recommended approach road, with free parking available at the track. York Train Station is within walking distance of the course and is frequently served by many of the UK’s major cities. And for those who don’t fancy a stroll, a free shuttle bus operates from the station to the track on all race days.
  • Accommodation – As a hugely popular tourist destination, York benefits from a wide array of accommodation choices. Close to 20 hotels and guesthouses lie within a mile of the track, whilst something to suit all tastes and budgets can be found in the heart of the city centre.
  • Hospitality – The track offers a wide range of highly-rated hospitality deals, from fine-dining to bespoke private box experiences. See the hospitality section of the track website for further information and the latest prices.
  • Food and Drink – Racegoers are spoilt for choice in this area, with 21 individual bars split between the Grandstand & Paddock and the County enclosure, and almost as many food outlets. The family-friendly Clocktower Enclosure also boasts its own bar and a selection of catering outlets in the Food to Go area.

York History

York Racecourse History

To say that the city of York boasts a rich racing heritage would be an understatement, with many archaeological finds suggesting equine events have taken place in the area since the neolithic era – a mere 6,000 years ago!

Moving slightly closer to the present day, the year 1530 saw the City Corporation lend their support to the sport with early events including an annual race held on the frozen surface of the River Ouse. However, it wasn’t until a little later that the action moved to the current Knavesmire site.

Dick Turpin’s Least Favourite Course

For those wondering, the name “Knavesmire” loosely translates to a “swampy pasture for a man of low standing”. Irrespective of that fairly unglamorous moniker, the site was selected as the new destination for racing in the area in 1731 – the year in which the previous site of Clifton Ings finally folded under the weight of consistently waterlogged ground.

Moving the action to an area known as a swampland seems a dubious move on paper, but for York, it appears to have worked out. Although track officials must have been wondering about their decision at the 1776 fixture which featured a knee-deep pond as part of the course.

A relatively low-key affair in the early years, one of the most notable events came in 1739 when a large crowd turned up to witness the hanging of notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin.

Growing Popularity

By 1754 the racing action was attracting sufficient attention to require the building of the track’s first Grandstand. Initially held back by funding issues, 250 loyal patrons revived the plans when chipping in five guineas apiece to finance the creation of respected architect John Carr.

With the stand in place, the popularity of the track began to soar. 1842 then saw the establishment of the York Racecourse Committee which continues to oversee the operations of the track to this day.

Further Improvement’s and a Papal Visit

With an ever-improving racing programme and increased attendance, it soon became apparent that further facilities were required, leading to the building of a second stand in 1890.

Ticking along nicely in the first half of the 20th century, York’s next surge in development began in the 1960s. 1965 saw the unveiling of the spectacular five-storey main stand, followed by the Melrose Stand in 1986, Knavesmire Stand in 1996 and Ebor Stand in 2003.

And amid the renovations came the track’s largest attendance to date, as a whopping 190,000 turned up to take in a sermon delivered by Pope John Paul II on 31 May 1982.

Royal Meetings, Classic Contests, and Racecourse of the Year

Moving ahead to the present day, York is almost universally accepted as northern racing’s shining light. However, diehard fans would suggest that even that accolade doesn’t do justice to a truly world-class racing venue.

Selected to host not only the rerouted St Leger of 2006 but also the 2005 edition of Royal Ascot, the quality of York’s racing offering was further acknowledged when winning the title of Best British Racecourse in 1997, 2003 and 2017.

Other Meetings & Races at York

Meeting at York Racecourse

The Ebor Meeting may be the track’s signature event, but in truth, there is never a bad time to visit this outstanding course. But what if you can’t make the August Festival? Fear not. The following three fixtures, in particular, are also well worth a look.

Spring Festival

The first major meeting of the York season falls in early May each year. Running from Wednesday through to Friday, this three-day event features a clutch of Group class contests in addition to an abundance of competitive handicapping action. Highlights of the fixture include the 1895 Duke of York Clipper Logistics Stakes, the Yorkshire Cup for the stayers, and the Dante Stakes which regularly throws up a legitimate Derby contender.

July Meeting

Moving ahead to early summer, this two-day Friday/Saturday fixture is another which never fails to draw in the crowds. A Friday night of racing lends itself to a real party atmosphere in the stands on the opening day, with the Listed class Lyric Stakes providing the highlight on the track. Things then move up a notch on an excellent Saturday card headlined by the Group 2 York Stakes and also featuring an intriguing sprint handicap restricted to jumps jockeys.

John Smiths Cup Day

July also sees one of York’s biggest single-day fixtures – backed by one of the track’s biggest supporters, John Smiths. A mid-summer Saturday afternoon slot all but ensures a near sell-out crowd. And those heading to the Knavesmire are well rewarded, with an excellent seven-race card featuring the Group 3 John Smiths Silver Cup, the Listed John Smiths City Walls Stakes, and the feature event of the John Smiths Cup Handicap.

Biggest Races at York

Staging around 18 meetings over the course of a season which runs from May through to October, York is not so frequently used as many other tracks. It does however manage to squeeze in more quality than most, with the following ten contests featuring amongst the highlights.

  • Ebor Handicap, Ebor Festival – Handicap, 1m6f
  • International Stakes, Ebor Festival – Group 1, 1m2f88y
  • Nunthorpe Stakes, Ebor Festival – Group 1, 5f
  • Yorkshire Oaks, Ebor Festival – Group 1, 1m4f
  • Gimcrack Stakes, Ebor Festival – Group 2, 6f
  • Lonsdale Cup, Ebor Festival – Group 2, 2m88y
  • Lowther Stakes, Ebor Festival – Group 2, 6f
  • Great Voltigeur Stakes, Ebor Festival – Group 2, 1m4f
  • Dante Stakes, Spring Festival – Group 2, 1m2f88y
  • Yorkshire Cup, Spring Festival – Group 2, 1m6f

The Track

York Racecourse Stands

Despite boasting such a long history, the course at York only acquired its current layout in relatively recent times. Previously one of only a small number of horseshoe-shaped tracks, it wasn’t until 2005 that the two straight sections were joined in order to create a complete circuit.

Close to two miles in circumference, the track rides left-handed and is almost completely flat throughout with no ridges or undulations of note. This factor combined with the sweeping bends and long straight sections makes York one of the fairest tracks in the land – albeit one which does slightly favour stamina over speed, particularly on soft ground. And when the rain arrives at York, this slow-to-drain track can become very soft, very quickly.

A chute leads directly into the home straight of four and a half furlongs and creates a straight sprint course for events over five furlongs and six furlongs. Seven-furlong contests begin in a second spur which veers left-handed into the straight, whilst staying events over 1m6f and two miles commence in a third chute running into the back straight.

For years, York has been viewed as a frontrunner’s track, but this opinion isn’t borne out in the results. Whilst long-striding, galloping types who like to bowl along in front can go well, it is essential that they set the correct fractions. Any miscalculation leaves the leaders vulnerable, with that long home straight giving the hold-up performers plenty of time to build up a head of steam. And with York being a notably wide track, those looking to come from behind are unlikely to experience many traffic problems.

In terms of the draw, York is again one of the fairest tracks around, with the only slight bias coming on the sprint course where those drawn low appear to boast a very slight edge.