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As the new flat racing season begins, Chris Titley looks back at a winning decade for one of our major courses
Sea The Stars, considered one of the greatest racehorses in history, was heavily backed at the Ebor Festival at York last August. He didnt disappoint. The colt surged past Royal Ascot winner Mastercraftsman in front of an ecstatic crowd, smashing the course record in the process.
The memory of his victory last August will live with James Brennan for a long time. The best racehorse in the world running in our richest ever race, the Juddmonte International he was special, as was the warmth of the crowds reception. They knew they had seen a star, and welcomed him as such.
In those few thunderous seconds Sea The Stars epitomised the class and stature of York Racecourse.
James, head of marketing, can consider last season with justifiable satisfaction. As well as record crowds, York attracted a plethora of awards.
It was named Racecourse of the Year by the Racehorse Owners Association, was voted the favourite flat course of the Racegoers Club and the groundstaff were judged the best in the land by the Racecourse Association.
As the new season approached the first race takes place at York at 1.40pm on May 12th James took precious time out from preparations to look back over one of the most momentous decades in the courses 279 year history.
This was the 10 years which brought fire and flood, the Queen and a classic, Sunday and evening racing to Knavesmire.
The Queen attended every day of Royal Ascot at York in 2005, relocated here while the Berkshire course underwent a facelift. Has the event had an enduring legacy?
Certainly, says James. The same horses that run at Royal Ascot have always run here. But it moved on our perception. Because it was the first time since 1708 and in all likelihood the only time ever Royal Ascot would move away from Berkshire, it generated a wider celebration for us and for the county.
As a result, many people who were first time race-goers at the relocated Ascot that summer have since returned to York for the Dante Meeting and Ebor Festival which offer a cracking atmosphere, great priced champagne, top quality horses, the roar of the crowd.
Progress at York is visible on both the race card and the racecourse. The standard of the race programme has advanced throughout the decade 10 races have been upgraded, seven to Group 2 and Group 3 status, reflecting the increased quality of the field and size of the prize pot.
And on-course improvement has been continuous. The most blatant symbol of this is the magnificent 20 million Ebor Stand which opened in 2003. But this is only one of a long list of renovations, from the development of the gull-wing Champagne Terrace to an improved parade ring to enhanced course drainage.
This year changes have centred on the Melrose Stand. A larger owners and trainers club has been created, with plenty of room to cater for all the members of racehorse-owning syndicates. And the spacious new Melrose Club Lounge, with a glazed front overlooking the home straight, its own bar and a conservatory at the back, looks set to be another winner.
The lounge will admit no more than 200 people a day each paying 50 on top of the normal admission price. Food will come from the Yorkshire Tapas menu, with dishes like Bleikers smoked salmon blini and Sand Hutton asparagus and saffron risotto.
Horseracing is a sport which, more than any other, appeals across the social divide. From the Queen in the royal box to the family paying a fiver to picnic in the course enclosure, race day is all-encompassing.
Nowhere highlights the evolving nature of English society better than a racecourse. John Smiths Day celebrated 50 years last year, says James. Its fascinating to watch the coaches unload that morning.
Its always been closely affiliated with the John Smiths pub and club network. Now you can see grandad coming and the son coming with him. And the way that society has changed the son would be perhaps the first generation who didnt automatically work in the pits or in the steelworks, and got the job as the insurance broker or whatever.
Now grandson is coming as well and hes moved away from Yorkshire or the North East and is living in London, but he comes home to spend the day at York races with them.
And its developed further because granddaughter now comes too. The first people off the coach are the half dozen girls who will upgrade themselves into the County Stand and go and sit on the Champagne Terrace while dad and grandad will turn left and find a John Smiths bar.
Thats a marvellous social commentary which always makes me smile.
Last season about 325,000 people came to the races. According to research by the University of York, the business generates 44 million for the city each year and supports 1,350 full-time jobs.
Most of this is generated through the 17 race days per year, but the venues extracurricular activities like hosting enterprise expo Venturefest, and the Model Railway Exhibition make an important contribution.
As the racecourse has no shareholders its profits are reinvested into racing, whether to boost the prize money or enhance the stands. They are always looking for new ways to widen the appeal of the sport of kings, whether by extending the hours or by adding a touch of showbiz pizzazz.
Sunday racing was introduced in 2000. It was, and remains, a day geared towards the family. Jamess own children have always enjoyed taking part, and were studying the form book from the start.
When Tom was five and Maddie three years his junior, he was just reading. He pulled at his mothers sleeve and said, Look theres a race for Maddie. It was the Maxiprint Nursery Handicap for two-year-olds.
He recognised the word nursery, from collecting her at nursery every day, and knew that she was a two-year-old, so it was a race for Maddie.
From Maddie to Madness the popular group are to headline the opening evening of Music Showcase Weekend, Friday July 23rd. York Racecourse has been combining music and racing since 2005.
Add in the announcement that the regional tourism body Welcome To Yorkshire has signed up to sponsor the Ebor Festival, and it seems York is entering a new decade as it left the last at full gallop.
10 years at York Racecourse
2000 Sunday racing introduced.
2003 20m Ebor Stand opened.
2005 Royal Ascot at York.
2006 Hosts the St Leger classic meeting.
2006 First evening races.
2007 Fire damages the Ebor Stand.
2008 Ebor Festival washed out by record rainfall.
2009 First four-day Ebor Festival hailed a success.