The inside track
The Sun’s racing correspondent for 47 years, Claude Duval explains why York Racecourse is a firm favourite.
Apart from endlessly being pressed for racing tips, the question I am most asked is: Which is your favourite racecourse? I wish picking winners was as easy as York is my runaway leader in the favourite racecourse stakes – by a distance.
The Knavesmire’s lush green 200 acres on the edge of York is the venue for one of the best-loved tracks and little wonder that over 360,000 racegoers flocked there in 2016. Last season on one Saturday race day with live music entertainment afterwards, it drew a record 42,000 crowd.
There have been countless unique moments at York since the first race meeting took place in 1730. It took its name from ‘knave’ meaning of low standing and ‘mire’, meaning a boggy swamp for cattle. How times have changed to make the course the jewel in the crown of Yorkshire’s courses galore.
The pony-sized grey Gimcrack won 21 of his 36 races but never won on his two York appearances. But the York racegoers took him to their hearts and each year the Gimcrack Stakes is one of the top two-year-old races at the track. The Gimcrack Club dinner celebrated its 246th anniversary in December at the track and York’s hunting grandees make a splendid sight in their scarlet dinner jackets.
The draw at the elite function is vital. Shrewd local trainer Mick Easterby has been known to sell shares in horses to his unsuspecting next door dinner companions even before the soup course has finished. Gimcrack never won at York – nor did Voltiguer, who was involved in the famous match with the Flying Dutchman in May, 1851. But the Great Voltiguer remains one of York’s most famous races and a stepping stone to the St Leger at Doncaster. “York racegoers seem to love the underdogs” says track supremo William Derby.
My abiding memory of York will always be Yorkshire trainer Peter Easterby’s Sea Pigeon, ridden by jump jockey Jonjo O’Neill, winning the 1979 Ebor. He was involved in a tight photo finish and it took ten minutes for the photo finish to be printed. When it was announced that Sea Pigeon had won by a short-head you could have heard the cheers in Tadcaster. Sadly, ITV were on strike and there is no video footage of one of York’s most epic moments.
Brigadier Gerard’s one and only career defeat in 18 races came in the inaugural running of York’s Benson and Hedges Cup in 1972. He started 3-1 on favourite, ridden by Yorkshire born Joe Mercer, but was well beaten by Irish-trained Roberto, ridden by Panamanian Braulio Baeza. The Brigadier camp were stunned and the owner’s wife Jean Hislop shrieked: “Roberto must have been stung by a bee … or something!”
Fabulous Frankel’s romp in the 2012 Juddmonte International was so emotional and even battle-hardened punters were seen to wipe away the tears. It was one of the last public appearances of Sir Henry Cecil. It was plain for all to see that the great trainer – a true lover of Yorkshire – was so thin and gaunt by the ravages of his battle with cancer. He died not long afterwards.
The £25 million Ebor grandstand opened in 2003 has greatly added to York’s viewing facilities. The track has been lucky to have seen two visionary chairmen in recent years in Lord Halifax and Lord Grimthorpe – aristocrats quite happy to mingle with the Knavesmire throng.
On a trip to Lord Halifax’s Garrowby stately country estate from York’s Grange Hotel for a cherished dinner invitation, I asked a rather youthful taxi driver if he knew exactly where we were going. He said casually: “Of course, I was out there on Saturday night. It’s a pub, isn’t it?” When I repeated this conversation to his Lordship, he chortled: “Not far wrong” and Yorkshire’s Group 1 host then proceeded to pour out a splendid glass of bubbly.I have so many memories of sparkling moments at York. God, it’s all been so much fun. I’ve seen legendary Yorkshire cricketers Freddie Trueman and Geoff Boycott taking in the obvious enjoyment.
In contrast, the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin does not have such happy memories of the racecourse. He was hung on the Knavesmire in April, 1739 at the one mile, six furlong pole from where the Ebor now annually starts. Over the years so many racing ‘greats’ have galloped past the site of the track’s version of the Tyburn gallows in London.
Dashing outlaw Turpin does not know what he has missed. But on 18 race days in 2017 Knavesmire visitors will have the chance to enjoy unique racing treats. It doesn’t get any better.
This article was taken from This is Y 2017