Horse Racing in York

York Races by Thomas Rowlandson around 1800 - York Art Gallery

'Every year there be more noble lords, gentle dames, and commoners of high and low degree at York for the races,...all of one mind, looking on York as the place above all others for sport and sportsmen…

(Simon Scrope in his diary, 31 July 1730)


The tradition of horse racing at York can be traced back as far as Roman times.  There are records of gatherings in various open spaces around the city, particularly in the Forest of Galtres, but also Acomb Moor and even on the frozen River Ouse.  By the early eighteenth century, the sport was well established at Clifton; however, frequent flooding from the Ouse led the Corporation to seek an alternative venue.  York Races moved to their current location on the Knavesmire in 1731, a great improvement, although drainage would remain an ongoing issue.


North Yorkshire was at the heart of modern horse racing, as it played a key role in the development of thoroughbreds.  Imported, fast Arabian stallions were bred with strong local mares which had tremendous stamina.  Some of the horses that resulted from this breeding programme were destined to become stars.  Gimcrack, was particularly prized in York, and is still honoured annually in the city by the Gimcrack Club.


Over the eighteenth century, racing became increasingly organised, and grew into a social activity that sometimes attracted crowds of over 100,000.  The atmosphere was one of great fun, and the races were accompanied by side shows, gypsy singers, cock fights and even public executions.


York Races were timed to follow the assizes in August, when landed gentry travelled to town for court business.  Anyone convicted of a capital offence was executed soon after.  The gallows had been sited on the Knavesmire since 1379; they were now in full view of the race goers, and became part of the entertainment. 


The leisured classes combined evening balls at the Assembly Rooms with afternoons at the races.  Increasingly, ‘polite society’ desired its own space at the race course, separated off from the rest of the crowd.  Lord Rockingham, leader of the complex Yorkshire political scene, was eager to advance York’s status.  He proposed the construction of a grandstand overlooking the winning post.  John Carr’s elegant classical building was opened on 25 August 1755, providing a great room on the first floor and more viewing facilities on the roof. 

The very first race to pass before the new grandstand was won by Whistlejacket, later the subject of the famous painting by George Stubbs.

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