Racing - York

IF the summer had been a racehorse you'd say its performance on Knavesmire was a mixture of the awful and brilliant, and maybe call it Full of Surprises or What Next. York racecourse had not experienced a season like this before.

It brought floods, postponements, a fire, record attendances, the richest-ever contest there, and what the broadcaster Derek Thompson describes as 'the greatest racing in the world. It doesn't get any better than this, anywhere.' Thompson knows his stuff. He's a member of the Channel 4 Racing team, and based at Newmarket, the sport's headquarters. We were chatting during the Ebor Festival in August, and his enthusiasm for the event is shared by colleagues in the Press Box, some of whom can be hard to please. Ladies Day was the social highlight and attracted a crowd of 32,000, a record for a Thursday at York, and took the total attendance for the meeting to over 75,000.

Julian Muscat, of The Times, wrote of 'a huge, Champagne-swilling crowd on a blissful afternoon. The three-day Ebor meeting has never felt better'. He added a warning, though, about having too much of a good thing. Next year York's track faces one of its most significant overhauls since racing on Knavesmire began in 1731, involving realignment and drainage.

As a consequence its autumn programme will be brought forward, and the 2008 season will end with the Ebor Festival having an unprecedented fourth day, on the Friday. Some observers believe that similar extensions at Royal Ascot and Cheltenham have diluted their meetings' impact and The Times' Muscat says it would be 'a crying shame' if that also happened at York. On the other hand, the temptation to make a four-day Ebor permanent is understandable.

Next year it will have record prize-money of over �2m, and the public is being lured to Knavesmire in ever-increasing numbers in the modern era. The social scene is one reason. Another is the quality of the racing. This year's Juddmonte International Stakes, on the opening day of the Ebor showcase, was, according to some commentators, the Flat race of the season. Frankie Dettori shrugged off flu symptoms to claim the winner's prize of nearly �300,000 on board the Epsom Derby winner, Authorized.

The colt defeated the previous year's victor, Notnowcato, and the brilliant Dylan Thomas, trained by Aidan O'Brien in Ireland. It was an overcast day, but 48 hours later was glorious, and so warm that people were fainting, and the course announcer urged spectators to drink 'plenty of liquid - but not alcoholic liquid.' Some chance. On the turf, the drama was dominated by youngsters. There was another winner for William Buick, the apprentice jockey who has already earned the nickname, the 'baby-faced assassin'. He looks so boyish you half expect him to rush from the Weighing Room, get on his bike and go and do a paper round. In the Nunthorpe Stakes, the first prize of �136,000 was earned, in about a minute by Kingsgate Native, a two-year- old which had not previously won a race, and in the process defeated 15 of his elders, one of them aged ten.

He is owned by a retired bookmaker, reinforcing the belief that one way or another the bookies always win in the end. The York management promoted the Ebor Festival as 'World Class Racing Meets with High Society', except that among the female contingent on Ladies Day the biggest cheer was for the victory of Wannabe Posh in the 4.25. I checked with the filly's connections, and her name was not inspired by Mrs David Beckham, as many of her backers had assumed, but because the owner's wife aspires to a truly posh lifestyle of the aristocratic type.

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The vibrant, cloudless scene contrasted with the June deluges which left Knavesmire waterlogged, and wiped out the two-day Timeform Charity meeting. The cancellation meant up to �500,000 in lost income, and then came more crises. After water, they had to fight fire. A blaze in the Ebor Stand during a non-racing function, followed by more heavy rain, threatened the John Smith's Cup meeting in July. In the event it went ahead, and after losing out the previous month, the response was remarkable. On Cup day itself there was a crowd of 42,548, another record for York in recent times, excluding Royal Ascot's transfer there two years ago.

It created traffic problems and complaints about overcrowding - almost a hardy annual with this fixture - but that can be avoided in the enclosure opposite the stands. From here there is, arguably, no finer view of the magic that is Knavesmire, with its cross-section of history and architectural styles. Towering structures shelter the prim County Stand area and those lovely barber's-pole columns and, within all this, the social mix that makes racing unique. It has always blurred the class structure and provided an occasion for finery, and the not-so-fine. The characters and the contrasts come thick and fast. What else in our society unites a country gentleman and coach-party lads, a countess and the brassy twenty-something spilling out of her dress, as readily as a handicap over a mile and six furlongs? On his pitch in the enclosure, bookmaker Robin Fletcher's slogan summed it up perfectly:

'Remember, a bad day at the races is better than a good day at work'. When the sun's shining, the Knavesmire crowd's roaring, the favourite wins the Ebor Handicap, and Frankie's doing his victory leap from the Derby winner, you can't quibble with that, even as you tear up another of Mr Fletcher's betting slips.

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