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Tuesday, 20 November, 2018

From knaves to royalty at track steeped in racing history

Tom Park delves into York's facts and figures

York has been welcoming racegoers through its gates for centuries
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1 York has been rich in horseracing history for centuries, dating back at least to the Roman period, and there is archaeological evidence that forms of equine racing took place on the Knavesmire as far back as neolithic times. Officially racing has been held in its current location on the Knavesmire since 1730 when York's meetings were moved from the previous site at Clifton Ings as it was prone to flooding.

2 Dante, after whom York's Group 2 Derby trial is named, was the last northern-trained winner of the Epsom Derby in 1945. Dante won eight of his nine races, with his only defeat coming in the 2,000 Guineas. His success on the track was achieved despite a serious eye condition that eventually left him completely blind. The Dante Stakes was first run in 1958 when it was won by Bald Eagle.

3 You probably already know that York's Juddmonte International is, in terms of ratings, one of the best Group 1s in the world but in 1607 the city hosted one of the most extraordinary equine contests when a race took place on the frozen River Ouse between Micklegate Tower and Skeldergate Postern.

York racecourse after the Ebor meeting was abandoned in 2008

4 The field in which York racecourse is situated has been known as the Knavesmire since medieval times – knave is Anglo-Saxon for low-standing and mire means swampy pasture for cattle. As the name suggests, the area is prone to flooding and in 2008 the Ebor meeting had to be cancelled due to waterlogging – the first time the whole festival had been called off since its inception in 1843. However, in 1776 the course was so saturated that horses had to race for about 50 yards up to their knees in water.

5 The Knavesmire used to be the site for public hanging with gallows erected in 1339. The most famous person to be hanged was Dick Turpin, an English highwayman who was executed for horse theft. The last public hanging on the Knavesmire was in 1801 after it was decided the execution site did not make a good impression on visitors to the city. The gallows were moved to a more discreet site near the castle. A small plaque marks the area where the scaffold stood.

Storm clouds gather behind the old Terry's chocolate factory in 2013

6 The huge building and clock tower situated behind the grandstand is the former Terry's chocolate factory. The plant, which opened in 1929, produced the Christmas stocking filler, the Chocolate Orange, and Terry's All Gold until 2004 when new owners Kraft moved production to European factories. The factory stopped production during the second world war to manufacture and repair aeroplane propellers. In 2005 the factory closed and the site is now being developed into a housing and leisure complex named The Chocolate Works.

7 York is one of the most popular racecourses in Europe and is well known for its large and knowledgeable crowds. The biggest crowd in the modern era was recorded in 2010 when 42,586 attended a Saturday meeting in July. However, that attendance is completely dwarfed by the estimated 150,000 who turned up in 1851 to watch The Flying Dutchman and Voltigeur – winners of the 1849 and 1850 Derby and St Legers – go head to head in what was dubbed the Great Match. The Great Voltigeur Stakes is now named in memory of the famous duel.

York is renowned for its colourful floral displays

8 York is one of the most vibrant and colourful racecourses with a vast array of flower displays. All of the plants used at the course are from the track's own floriculture unit, cared for by York's head gardener Zachery Rafferty.

9 York has welcomed many famous visitors over the years. Pope John Paul II said mass at the course for 200,000 Roman Catholics on May 31, 1982, while the Queen attended every day when the Knavesmire hosted Royal Ascot in 2005.

10 Ebor, which York's most famous meeting is named after, comes from the Latin word Eboracum, the early name given to a Roman fort on the site of what is now the city of York. The horse Ebor was bred, trained and raced exclusively in Yorkshire. Ebor was lightly raced – running only six times during a three-year career – and won the 1817 St Leger.

The last public hanging on the Knavesmire was in 1801 after it was decided the execution site did not make a good impression on visitors to the city

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