Although it is only the third biggest racecourse in the UK in terms of prize money, and second (behind Ascot) regarding prize money per meeting, York racecourse is widely regarded as the #1 course in Britain. During the year, York hosts three Group 1 races: The Nunthorpe Stakes, the Juddmonte International Stakes, and the Yorkshire Oaks. All three take place during the epic Ebor Festival which is run every August.
Suggesting that York is Britain’s number 1 course is no idle boast as it has won the Racecourse Association’s coveted award for best racecourse in the UK on four occasions, most notably in 2016 and 2017. York also routinely wins The Racegoer’s Club award for the best Flat course. York racecourse is dripping with tradition and history, but why should it be considered the cream of the crop?
A Brief History of York
Believe it or not, racing at York goes back to Roman times. It was known as Eboracum by the conquering Romans who founded the city in approximately 71 AD. According to legend, Emperor Septimius Severus (who reigned from 193 – 211) enjoyed visiting the races and placed his share of wagers. Indeed, Severus died in York after suffering an illness.
The city’s corporation supported horse racing from the early 16th century, and some events were run over the frozen River Ouse in 1607! According to York Racecourse, which is also known as ‘The Knavesmire,’ the first meeting took place in 1730 after being moved from Clifton Ings. On a more sombre note, the course was the scene of Dick Turpin’s hanging in 1739.
There was the main meeting in May and another in August in most years during the 19th century, and new stands were erected in 1890. Despite the historic reputation of York, the racecourse only saw significant development in the second half of the 20th century. An impressive grandstand was opened in 1965 and was doubtless packed when Pope John Paul II visited in 1982.
In 1989, the Melrose Stand was opened, followed by the Knavesmire Stand which was upgraded in 1996. The Ebor Stand was opened in 2003 and today; the course has a fantastic spectator capacity of 60,000. York’s reputation is such that in 2005, it was chosen as the venue for Royal Ascot because the famed course was undergoing redevelopment. Queen Elizabeth II was reportedly extremely impressed with the course and its facilities.
The highest ever attendance for a race meeting occurred in 1851 when 150,000 people turned up to watch the ‘Great Match’ between Voltigeur and The Flying Dutchman. The latter won the Derby and St. Leger in 1849 and proved too good for his challenger. However, Voltigeur recovered to win the Derby and St. Leger in 1852!
York was also the scene of a memorable Frankel triumph. Widely regarded as the greatest Flat racecourse in history, Frankel was simply incredible as he blitzed a world-class field in the 2012 Juddmonte International Stakes and won by seven lengths.
However, this is ONE name that has become synonymous with success at York.
Piggott has a great record at most courses; you would expect as much from a man with 4,493 career wins! The 11-time British Flat Racing Champion Jockey’s favourite racecourse in the world is York. It was here that Piggott won his first ever race in 1948; as a 12-year old when he rode The Chase to victory in a selling race. It was also at York in 1954, when the ‘wonder-boy jockey’ first wore the Queen’s colours.
Unsurprisingly, he has a phenomenal record in the three Group 1 races at York, winning them a combined total of 16 times.
Is There Another Lester Piggott at York?
More pertinently, is there a jockey who loves York racecourse almost as much as ‘The Long Fellow’? In the last five years, only five jockeys (with 5+ rides) have won more than 20% of their races at York:
- Georgia Cox: 4/15 – 27%
- Callum Rodriguez: 6/23 – 26%
- Louis Steward: 3/12 – 25%
- Thomas Brown: 2/8 – 25%
- Robert Havlin: 4/18 – 22%
All but Havlin would provide with you a semblance of profit if you backed all of their entries. Rodriguez offers a Betfair ROI of 53.3% during that time. More importantly, he only started riding at York in 2017 and is 3/14 last year and 3/9 this year. Perhaps the bookies have caught up to him because he would have lost you 22% this year despite a great strike rate.
P. J. McDonald is one of the most prolific jockeys at York in recent years. Despite a low strike rate of just 11.72% from his 128 rides since the start of 2014, backing all of his entries would have resulted in a profit of 154%. After a dismal 2014 where he was 0/16, McDonald has gone from strength to strength at York. 2015, 2016, and 2017 saw a profit of at least 61% but with 2/16 so far this year, McDonald needs to find a few more winners if punters want to make money from his York exploits in 2018.
Other jockeys worth following include Jim Crowley, Jack Garritty, Oisin Murphy, and Francis Norton. Although none of them have high strike rates, they seem to ride winners at decent odds and all of them would have earned you a total profit since 2014 at York, with some years far better than others.
What Makes York Racecourse Great?
No single thing makes York stand out. Rather, it is a combination of its rich history, excellent facilities, the fact it offers outstanding views from almost anywhere, a friendly atmosphere, and affordable pricing.
The ‘Ascot of the North’ is an extremely wide course with a sweeping turn that intensifies the excitement of races. The upcoming Ebor festival is a four-day extravaganza with multiple Class 1 events to complement the three Group 1 races. At just £194 for a four-day ticket, the Ebor festival at York offers better value for money than most. For reference, Gold Cup day at Cheltenham in 2019 will cost £95, a price that increases as the day draws nearer.