August 01 2009
August is the month when serious racing lovers head north. The pattern of the flat-racing season still reflects the traditional calendar of the social season – which is partly why Royal Ascot takes place in June – and at the end of July, London society would invariably desert the capital for the grouse moors and great estates of Scotland, Yorkshire and the north of England. The main gambling action was provided by York races, and the annual Ebor meeting – which takes its name from York’s Roman title and begins this year on August 18 – remains one of the sporting and social highlights of the summer.
York Racecourse, historically known as the Knavesmire, is arguably the finest flat-racing track in the land, and the Ebor Festival the nearest equivalent on the flat to the all-embracing passion of Cheltenham over jumps. It combines top-class racing with a beautiful setting. The £20m Ebor Stand, which opened in 2003, is as good as any modern racecourse stand in Europe. But the real gem is the listed County Stand, the oldest part of which is Georgian and has wooden terraces and balconies with red, white and blue barbershop poles.
On the first floor of the Old County Stand are the Gimcrack Rooms, where the celebrated Gimcrack Dinner, a Mansion House-type event, takes place on the second Tuesday in December and has done for the past 238 years. The occasion honours the winner of the Gimcrack Stakes, the big two-year-old race at the Ebor meeting named after one of the most famous racehorses of the 18th century, whose portrait by George Stubbs is considered one of the finest equine paintings. All of the food is locally sourced, and on race days the Gimcrack restaurant serves excellent lunches – including grouse in August – and is renowned for its sumptuous afternoon teas.
York Racecourse’s CEO William Derby points out that there are invariably as many female as male racegoers at York, and the crowds are a colourful mixture of shrewd northern punters and stylish metropolitan sophisticates. There is always a strong Irish presence too – further underlining the Cheltenham comparison – with trainers such as Aidan O’Brien and John Oxx sending over some of their best horses every year.
Over £2.3m of prize money will be on the line over the four days, and the on-course betting market is a fierce one, especially on the week’s highlight, the Totesport Ebor Handicap on August 19 – the most valuable race of its kind in Europe. Zaynar, part owned by the bookmaker Victor Chandler and successful over hurdles at Cheltenham in March, is an intriguing entry for this season’s contest and if he does line up, odds of 10-1 with William Hill could be on the generous side. But punters should also pay particular attention to anything saddled by Newmarket trainer Luca Cumani, who has won the race three times in the past 10 years and whose 2007 victor Purple Moon went on to finish second in the Melbourne Cup. Cumani also trains Bauer, who was the Melbourne Cup runner-up in 2008, and the grey horse – who could run first at York this month – is 23-1 on Betfair to go one better this November.
As well as its decorous side, the Knavesmire was once a location for public hangings and, mindful of the fate that befell the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin who met his end there in 1739, smart punters should prepare carefully for their tussle with the bookies. They could do no better than read Enemy Number One, the intriguing autobiography of the professional gambler Patrick Veitch (Highdown, £18.99). Once a precociously brilliant maths student at Trinity College Cambridge, the “Baby-Faced Assassin” has gone on to enjoy a highly successful career as a student of the turf, and one of his most audacious coups was pulled off while a guest in a bookmaker’s box at York in 1999. His methods involve a relentless search for value, and if you too dream of relieving the old enemy of the folding stuff, be it at York, Melbourne or elsewhere, his opus would make the perfect holiday read.