York is one of the Premier tracks in Europe having recently won the Flat Racecourse of the Year Award, for the fourth year, and also came out top in The Times newspaper survey of all Britain's racecourses.
York traces a fascinating history back to Roman and Viking times. Today it is a bustling city growing as a commercial, tourist and regional centre. A fine range of restaurants, shopping opportunities and attractions, including the Jorvik Viking Centre and National Railway Museum, as well as the history of the Minster, Castle and City Walls, supplements York’s extensive selection of excellent hotel accommodation.
Horses raced at York during the days of the Emperor Severus in Roman times. However, many of the 360,000 racegoers who will visit the reigning "Northern Racecourse of the Year" this season are unlikely to realise they are taking part in a spectacle that first took place over 2,000 years ago.
York Corporation records show that the City first fully supported racing in 1530. In 1607, racing is known to have taken place on the frozen river Ouse, between Micklegate Tower and Skeldergate Postern.
The first detailed records of a race meeting date from 1709, when much work was done to improve the course at Clifton Ings which was prone to flooding. Despite this work, the flooding continued and in 1730 racing transferred to Knavesmire, where today's course remains.
As its name implies, Knavesmire was a mire with a stream running through it and a considerable amount of levelling and draining was required to create the horseshoe shaped course, which opened for its first meeting in 1731.
No permanent buildings were erected on Knavesmire until the noted York architect, John Carr, designed and built the first Grandstand in 1754. This was financed by 250 people who each paid 5 guineas. Every patron and their successors were entitled to use the stand for the period of the site's lease, and were issued with a brass token bearing their name and an image of the stand. This formed the proto-type for the late prestigious County Stand Badge. The Thoroughbred Racing Commentary documents the stands development across history here.
The York Racecourse Committee, (now part of York Racecourse Knavesmire LLP) still manages racing at York today, and was formed in 1842, to turn around a decline in the quality of racing. By 1846, the Committee had introduced the Gimcrack Stakes, which has since become one of York's most enduring races.
York's richest race, the prestigious Group One Juddmonte International is the highlight of the opening day of the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival, the contest was independently ranked as the best race in Great Britain by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities last season. The Thoroughbred Racing Commentary reviews the Juddmonte International's race history here.
York Races' progression has been reflected in the development of the grandstands over the years. New stands were erected in 1890 to incorporate much of the original building and a major improvement scheme, launched in 1962, led to the opening of the five-tier grandstand in 1965. The programme of development rolled on, and in 1989 the Melrose Stand opened, quickly followed by the award-winning Knavesmire Stand, with additional conference facilities in 1996. 2003 saw the opening of the Ebor Stand containing, amongst other features, the Nunthorpe Suite, kept on racedays for exclusive use by Annual Badgeholders.
In recent years York Racecourse, as well as hosting many spectacular York Races, has also played host to Royal Ascot at York in 2005 and The Ladbrokes St Leger in 2006.
The inspirational architecture of the racecourse that gave the world its first grandstand (above)
“It is reasonably believed there had always been some form of horseracing from the very earliest moment at which there were two horses and two Yorkshiremen in the county of Ridings,” reflected Robert Black, a 19th-century authority on British racing. Horseracing in York is celebrated for its ancient pedigree. Lore has it that it was imported to the city by Emperor Septimus Severus in the third century A.D.
Moreover, it boasts an architectural pedigree that, in the history of racecourse buildings, is second to none, for, in the 1750s, it became home to racing’s first grandstand.
Racing commenced on the present site of York Racecourse, the Knavesmire, in 1731. By the end of the decade, its August race week (now the Ebor Festival, which runs from today until Saturday) was the annual highlight of the city’s social calendar. Visitors swarmed to the course, and racegoers of all social classes jostled shoulder to shoulder as they vied to glimpse the action of the track. The haut monde often took refuge in the comfort of their carriages stationed in the infield, but otherwise, amenities at the racecourse were sorely lacking.
This typified racecourses up and down the country. Permanent buildings were not part of racing culture. However, with York Racecourse’s growing popularity, there arose a mounting need for a permanent building that would both physically and metaphorically elevate spectators.
On December 7, 1753, the York Corporation authorised the building of a grandstand on the Knavesmire. Its opening, three years later, was a momentous episode in the history of sports architecture. This was not merely York’s first grandstand; neither was it simply the first grandstand at a Thoroughbred racecourse; it was – in the modern sense of the word – the first grandstand anywhere in the world.
Designed by local architect John Carr, it was an elegant, classical building, two storeys tall with a rooftop viewing platform. On the ground floor, a rusticated arcade led to a hall; above, a reception room extended the length and breadth of the building. From there, racegoers could socialise and watch the races, either from its large arched windows or from the stepped balcony that encircled the first floor.
The Grandstand provided a space in which to both socialise and view the action in comfort, and, through its sophisticated architectural vocabulary, it enunciated the éclat of York races and its patrons. In sharp contrast to the makeshift viewing stands of other courses, it quickly came to be emblematic of the meeting itself and, for the rest of the century, inspired a succession of other grandstands at other racecourses across the country.
The second half of the 18th century was an illustrious era for the York Races. By the 1830s, though, its star was in eclipse, due in large part to the ascendency of rival Doncaster Racecourse. Fortunately, recovery was at hand.
In 1842, a group of local racing enthusiasts banded to reverse this situation, forming the York Race Committee, and almost immediately set about making considerable alterations to the Knavesmire.
By 1844, the course had been made circular, an enclosure was built in front of the Grandstand, and a weighing room was built. A Stewards’ Stand was erected in 1851, to be replaced by another in 1853, on the north side of the Grandstand.
This, too, was short-lived. In December 1865, the Race Committee elected “to erect a new Stewards’ Stand with private boxes, retiring rooms, and other accommodation, for the use of the stewards and other subscribers to the stand”. In 1866-7, the 1853 Stewards’ Stand was taken down and replaced by the County Stand, which survives today.
“The ground front,” described The Yorkshire Gazette on the building’s opening in May 1867, “is principally of stone, designed so as to harmonise with the original Grandstand, having circular headed windows and stone pilasters. The terrace is enclosed with richly wrought iron work. The front of the saloon and private boxes is also protected with ornamental iron work, and the roof is supported on chaste iron columns with fretwork girders.”
For the rest of the century, the racecourse saw an almost continuous stream of new construction and additions. In 1875, a saddling paddock was created and a weighing room erected on its southern edge. This is the building known today as the Press Stand.
By 1880, a small polygonal stewards’ stand had been erected between the County and Press stands and, circa 1884, the Half Crown Stand was built south of the Grandstand.
In 1890, the 1756 Grandstand underwent a radical remodelling. Following the spring races that year, the upper storey and roof were demolished and, with the exception of the original arcade on the ground floor, all was swept away. Two new storeys of raked seating were erected above it, supported by ornamental iron columns and capable of holding more than 2,000 people. It was typical of the architectural typology of grandstands of the era.
In 1907, the Committee embarked upon its most dramatic phase of development since the racecourse’s creation nearly two centuries earlier. Since 1855, the Committee’s position on the Knavesmire had been one of tenants paying an annual rent on a year-by-year basis. However, in 1907 the racecourse was granted a 35-year lease for the land it had long occupied.
The change in tenure presented the Committee not only with greater security and control over the land, but also with an opportunity to expand its premises northwards. This marked the launch of an extensive and transformative redevelopment scheme, and the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between the Committee and architect Walter Brierley.
Brierley was Yorkshire’s most prominent architect. From 1907 to 1913, he presided over a series of improvement projects, which included extensions to the 1867 County Stand and the 1875 Press Stand, and new 5/ and 2/6 Stands.
Perhaps the most significant changes, though, were those made to the paddock. Between 1907 and 1909, the property line of the north end of the racecourse was expanded, allowing the creation of a new boundary wall, entrance gates, bars and weighing room.
The new perimeter wall and adjoining structures formed a unified ensemble built in red brick, humanly scaled and classically proportioned. Its coherency of massing, style and materials set the tone for succeeding building schemes throughout the 20th century, creating a visual consonance that few other courses can rival.
At the southern end of the expanded paddock, Brierley sited a standalone weighing-in room, built into the wall. To the north of the weighing-in building, he inserted a bar. This was no run-of-the- mill bar. Demonstrating a precocious appreciation of architectural history and example of adaptive re-use, it was created by re-erecting and re-purposing the only surviving portion of 1756 grandstand – the ground-floor arcade (now known as the John Carr Stand) – along the paddock perimeter.
Brierley’s improvements to the stands and the paddock had a transformational impact. They “elevated the Knavesmire into a specimen of what a model 20th-century racecourse ought to be”, applauded the Hull Daily Mail in 1909. “The place has no equal in Great Britain,” echoed the Sheffield Evening Telegraph.
Post-World War II
The 1950s and 60s saw profound changes in the approach towards racecourse design the world over. Society’s growing commercialism and leisure options bred new demands at racecourses: more comfortable seating, more seats under cover, more food and beverage outlets. All this ‘more’ necessitated bigger building York entered into the spirit of the age, and began an almost continuous sequence of building.
In 1957, a new stand was erected to the north of the Press Stand; the following year, the 5/ Stands were demolished and, in 1959, and new stand was opened in their stead, built to accommodate 7,000 at a cost of £100,000. In 1965, the historic Grandstand was demolished and in its place rose a large, five-tier stand.
These were buildings of their age: they provided bigger audiences with modern amenities. However, compared to the characterful stands of the Victorian and Edwardian era, they were lacking in spirit and personified instead by utilitarian standardisation. One by one they have all since been replaced.
In 1989, the 1957 stand was succeeded by the Melrose Stand, a three- storey, 27-box stand with red brickwork and a pitched roof intended to resonate with the Edwardian buildings of the Brierley era. Seven years later, the Knavesmire Stand opened on the site of the 1959 stand and in 2003 the Ebor Stand was completed where once the 1965 stand stood.
Both the latter buildings were designed by practice GWP, and reflected the new priorities for grandstand design: commodious, flexible internal spaces and unobstructed sightlines of the turf.
In 2015, the racecourse has completed its most ambitious remodelling since that of Walter Brierley in the early 20th century. Under the direction of architect Brendan Phelan, the paddock area has been transformed. Racegoers now enjoy improved hospitality amenities – most notably with the painstaking restoration of the John Carr Stand – but the focus of the project has been the horses and horsemen.
The equine athletes have a large new pre-parade ring, sporting timber-lined, slate-roofed saddling boxes and improved veterinary provision; adjoining the ring, jockeys can enjoy a new weigh-in building, far bigger, more commodious and more easily accessible than its Edwardian predecessor; while owners, trainers, and winning connections have two dedicated buildings nearby.
While the new buildings and landscapes offer modernised facilities for horses, horsemen and spectators, they have not diminished the historic spirit of the racecourse; indeed, they have succeeded in capturing and enhancing it. Paying deference to York’s heritage through a red brick and slate palette and ornamental cast iron, the newest chapter in York’s physical history is a fitting addition to the architectural legacy of this venerable track.
T. Gibson, ‘The Designs for the Knavesmire Grandstand, York’, The Georgian Group Journal, vol. 8, 1998, 76- 87
Hull Daily Mail, 30 August 1909
P. Roberts and I. Taylor, Racecourse Architecture, New York: Acanthus, 2013
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 24 August 1909
J. Stevens, Knavesmire: York’s Great Racecourse and its Stories, Pelham Books, London, 1984
R. B. Wragg, ‘The Stand House on the Knavesmire’, York Georgian Society Report 1965-6, 3-9
The Yorkshire Gazette, May 1867
For another version of York's history, please see the below artcicle from Throroughbred Racing Commentary from May 2018
'York Racecourse Profile- From Romans to hangings to great races
Racing historians like to locate the beginning of equine sport at York as far back as A.D. 208, and to no less a personage than the Emperor Septimius Severus, who had come from Rome to quell disorder in this remote outpost of the empire. To make amusement for his troops at the garrison of what the Romans called Eboracum, Severus brought over a quantity of Arabian horses and arranged for the staging of races on the stretch of land outside the city walls, now called the Knavesmire.
The more recent history of racing at York includes a record of a regular fixture in the 16th century in the nearby Forest of Galtres; King Charles I attending races on Acomb Moor in 1633; and races staged at Clifton Ings, on the banks of the River Ouse, in the early 18th century.
Queen Anne was the first monarch to race her horses at York, where in 1711 – the year she founded Ascot Racecourse – she presented a gold cup worth £100. In July 1714, Anne’s horse Star won a £40 plate at York – but by the time news of her win had reached London, the Queen had died.
A perennial problem at Clifton Ings was the state of the ground, for the Ouse was prone to burst its banks, and in 1731, racing at York was relocated to the Knavesmire, where the ghosts of Severus’s soldiers still raced across its vast expanse, and where public executions had taken place since the late 14th century – hence (though some philologists have other ideas) “Knavesmire.”
The first race on what may be considered the current York racecourse was a King’s Plate of 100 guineas on Aug. 16, 1731, the first day of a six-day meeting. On the morning of that first day, three convicted robbers had been executed on the infamous public gallows situated near what is now the Ebor Handicap start and known as the “Three-Legged Mare:” three wooden uprights positioned to form a triangle, with horizontal wooden beams connecting the top of the three posts, from which the miscreants were hanged.
Most famous criminal hanged on the Knavesmire was the highwayman Dick Turpin, who went to meet his maker on April 7, 1739. A witness described how Turpin “went off this stage with as much intrepidity and unconcern as if he had been taking horse to go on a journey.”
It is a nice conceit to imagine that, after the execution of Dick Turpin, the rabble crossed the Knavesmire and enjoyed a leisurely day’s racing, thereby taking to extremes the great tradition of race meetings providing ancillary entertainments (such as rock concerts nowadays).
But such a notion is undermined by the fact that there is no record of a York meeting that day in the racing calendar, which 12 years earlier had started providing “An Historical List, or Account of all the Horse-Matches Run, and of all the Plates and Prizes run for in England (of the Value of Ten Pounds or upwards).
That parenthetical phrase regarding “Ten Pounds or upwards” offers a lifeline for those who find the idea irresistibly appealing, as that day there might have been lowly races that were not recorded.
Public executions continued on the Knavesmire until 1801, and nowadays the position of Tyburn, as the York facility was known after Tyburn in London, where executions had also taken place, is marked with a commemorative stone. Mercifully, the Three-Legged Mare has long since disappeared.
York’s racing reputation steadily grew, and a mark of that status was the erection of a magnificent new grandstand, designed by John Carr, in 1756 – the first permanent racecourse building on the Knavesmire, and the model for similar buildings at other racing venues in the second half of the 18th century.
In their book Racecourse Architecture, published in 2013, Paul Roberts and Isabelle Taylor stress the importance of the Carr grandstand in the history of building for any sporting occasion: “This was not merely York’s first grandstand, nor was it only the first grandstand of any Thoroughbred racecourse, but – in the modern sense of the building type – it was the first grandstand of any sporting venue anywhere in the world.” Yet another historical landmark for York.
The following decade saw the racing careers of two of the all-time giants of the turf, both of whom ran at York.
The little grey Gimcrack won 26 races and was immortalised in some of George Stubbs’s greatest paintings as well as in the Gimcrack Stakes, top 2-year-old race of York’s August meeting – though ironically, Gimcrack was beaten on the two occasions he raced at York.
An even greater racehorse was Eclipse, who on Aug. 20, 1770 walked over (that is, no other horse took him on) for a King’s Plate at York worth 100 guineas, and three days later returned to the Knavesmire to beat two rivals, one of whom bore the unpromising name of Tortoise.
On the human front at this time, much was done to organise York racing by the Marquess of Rockingham, who was twice prime minister (1765-6 and again in 1782) and has a special place in equine history as owner of the racehorse Whistlejacket, subject of the unforgettably enormous portrait by Stubbs that now hangs in the National Gallery in London. (A huge copy of the painting is on display at York Racecourse.)
Possibly not unconnected with the discontinuation of the grisly sideshow of Knavesmire executions, racing at York went into a decline in the first half of the 19th century, allowing Doncaster Racecourse, at the southern end of Yorkshire, to overtake it in sporting esteem. To halt this downward trend, the York Racecourse Committee was formed in 1842 to run the course on more efficient and businesslike lines than hitherto. (Now part of York Racecourse Knavesmire LLP, the Committee continues to run the course.)
The founding of the Ebor Handicap by clerk of the course John Orton in 1843 contributed to the revival of fortunes, and before long the well-endowed Ebor was one of the major races in the calendar. Its founding was closely followed by that of the Gimcrack Stakes in 1846.
Another signal of that revival was the great match race in May 1851 between Voltigeur and The Flying Dutchman, run over 2 miles for 1,000 guineas a side – and the most famous match in British horseracing history.
The Flying Dutchman, by then a 5-year-old, had landed the Derby at Epsom and St Leger at Doncaster in 1849, while 4-year-old Voltigeur had won the same two Classics in 1850, dead-heating for the St Leger and winning the run-off. (In those days, dead-heaters did not share the spoils, but had to take part in a rerun over the full distance of the race.)
Two days later, Voltigeur beat The Flying Dutchman in the Doncaster Cup, and the rematch the following spring was the subject of feverish expectation. The task of setting the weights between the 4-year-old and 5-year-old was given to Admiral Rous, a giant of racing history whose calculations of the weight-for-age scale are still, in broad terms, followed today. He declared that The Flying Dutchman, the older horse, should concede 8½ pounds to his rival, the weights carried being 8 stone 8½ pounds (120 ½ pounds) and 8 stone (112 pounds).
The match drew a crowd to the Knavesmire of the proportions that had turned out to witness executions the previous century – the attendance figure is usually given as 150,000 – and they were not disappointed by what they saw: Voltigeur set the pace, but The Flying Dutchman kept close to his rival, and in the final furlong managed to get past Voltigeur and win by a length.
Like Gimcrack before him, although he never won a race at the course, the runner-up in the great match is remembered in one of York’s major races: the Great Voltigeur Stakes.
Jump racing took place at York between 1867 and 1885, but the flat was always the dominant code there, and through the 20th century the course consolidated its position as one the leading British racecourses. Many held that the notion that York was “the Ascot of the north” was misguided; rather, Ascot should be considered “the York of the south.”
The racecourse became a prisoner-of-war camp during the World War II, and when racing resumed in September 1945, the first meeting included the St Leger, as Doncaster, home of that Classic, was not yet ready to return to action.
Since the war, York has managed to modernise stands and facilities and enhance the quality of the racing programme while not sacrificing recognition of its rich history. That balancing of the old and the new was also at the core of English racing’s most glittering occasion, Royal Ascot, so when it was announced in 2005 that the royal meeting would have to leave its Berkshire home while the enormous new stand was being built, York, only a couple of hundred miles to the north, was always hot favourite to provide a suitable home-away-from-home – and it was duly announced that Royal Ascot 2005 would take place on the Knavesmire.
Royal Ascot at York proved an outstanding success, but occasionally even the best-run racecourse has to give best to the unpredictable British weather, and in 2008, York suffered a serious blow.
That year was expected to see the beginning of a new shape to the course’s flagship event, the Ebor Festival in August. Tradition dictated that this star-studded meeting was held over three days – Tuesday to Thursday – but the temptation to have an additional day and attract a large pre-weekend crowd on the Friday proved irresistible. The 2008 meeting was scheduled for four days, Tuesday to Friday, but then unseasonably wet weather intervened. The Knavesmire was severely waterlogged, and the entire meeting was lost. Several of the pattern races – including the course’s three G1 contests – were relocated to other tracks, and the Ebor Handicap run at Newbury as the Newburgh Handicap.
But that was a rare blot on the success story of York racecourse in recent years, and 2014 saw evidence of further renewal, as changes in the northern part of the racecourse were completed. These involved re-siting the pre-parade ring – always a popular destination for racegoers prepared to defer consumption of Champagne in favour of the opportunity to study the horses close up. The major change brought about by this development was construction of a state-of-the-art new weighing room.
Steeped as it may be in history, York Racecourse never stands still.
This article was updated on May 7, 2017