In Conversation with York Racecourse’s James Brennan
A Special Relationship
There’s been horse racing in Yorkshire for centuries, and public gatherings have been held on the Knavesmire, on which York Racecourse is situated, for even longer. In those days, hangings were the sport of the day, but today the entertainment is somewhat more civil. That said, the atmosphere on a Saturday and at Ebor in August is extraordinary, and a thrill to be a part of. All around the course, the history of racing is tangible, with the names of bars and restaurants echoing the names of champions of years gone by: Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, Gimcrack and Voltigeur to name just a few. The quality of champions in more recent years has, if anything, been even better with protagonists from the celebrated English and Irish Classics racing at the Ebor Festival in August before going on to the end of season championship meetings at Ascot (Champion’s Day) Longchamp, Paris (Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe) and also the Breeder’s Cup in America. Put simply, York offers racing of the very best quality against a backdrop of a social occasion that is a highlight of the Yorkshire summer calendar. I’m keen to see what James remembers of these more recent times. So we sit in front of the handsome Edwardian weighing room, with Lester Piggott’s statue watching over us, and have a chat.
I want to understand what James’ highlights are from the last 10 years at York Races, both on and off the track.
‘Well, 99 out of 100 people will tell you Frankel, the hundredth person will think about it, and then tell you, Frankel,’ says James. ‘He was a superstar. The stats say the best ever. But what you remember most was the atmosphere: every vantage point filled, the 30,000 strong crowd silent as the commentator intoned “they turn for home and Frankel sits in last place”,’ he continues. ‘Luckily, neither that position nor the silence lasted for long.’
James goes on to discuss the many honourable appearances there have been at York. ‘Enable ‘Queen of the Turf’ in the same Juddmonte silks as Frankel; a devastating turn of foot by the Aiden O’Brien-trained Snowfall, not once but twice in the 2021 season; if you like ‘em fast none have gone quicker than Battaash when he set the five-furlong record. Want a handicapper? Look no further than Copper Knight, the most successful on the Knavesmire of all time with six wins and counting!’
I was lucky enough to be there the day Frankel won the Juddmonte, and in the Paddock too. I’ve never seen the like – Frankel was a true champion, and he will be there forevermore as a statue of him, aptly positioned beside the Sir Henry Cecil Gates, stands for all to admire. There are too many other horses to mention, but meeting the great, late Sir Henry Cecil shortly before he died was something I will never forget: his love of Yorkshire was very real.
While racing is the main event at the racecourse, it’s also been a pivotal part of the city and as a result it’s been a vital part of the local economy, and an important venue to stage all manner of other events. As James explains, some can be especially memorable. ‘Racing is fun, and you could tell the connections of Heartbreak City were enjoying the craic after winning the Sky Bet Ebor in 2016, allowing for very memorable scenes in the Winner’s Enclosure, but there have been many others too.
‘Visits by the Olympic Torch complete with Harvey Smith riding the wrong way down the track carrying it, the Paralympic Lantern, actual Olympians like Nicola Adams and Georgia Taylor-Brown all made for fantastic selfies,’ he says.
The honour of hosting the start of day two of The Grand Départ of the Tour de France stretched the team. ‘If the action is on the pathways and the Champagne terrace is closed (it being just after 7am on a Sunday when fans arrived) how do you direct them around the site?’ says James.
Challenges and occasions such as these are great new experiences, and provide good new learning curves, but they are also important occasions and part of Yorkshire’s contemporary history. One of the reasons these are able to take place is that York Racecourse has always invested hugely in its infrastructure, allowing it to be amongst the very best in the world, yes as a racecourse primarily, but as a great venue too. James tells me a little more.
‘A decade ago, the site of the Melrose Club Lounge was just some wind-whipped steps, and just four years ago, you took a shortcut through a gloomy walkway instead of watching a 50” inch television in the now Premier Racing Lounge,’ he explains. ‘The team also used the challenges of lockdown to build back better with the Stableside complex undergoing a major revamp; adding ensuite facilities and a fresh new look for the stable staff accommodation (and choirs, cyclists and schoolchildren outside the racing calendar).’
Successful though those improvements have been, their impact is dwarfed by the scale of the Northern End Development. This bold scheme, covering just an extra third of an acre, has seen the facilities for horsemen and racegoers alike transformed. ‘A new weighing room, new saddling boxes, and new water-misting fans (thanks Equestrian Team GB, whom we stole the idea from after seeing their Greenwich Park base of 2012) have made a phenomenal difference,’ says James. ‘Racegoers can now enjoy the enlarged flat Champagne lawns, a superb pavilion of fizz, complete with roof terrace and the Parade Ring Restaurant.
‘The joy of having so many famous races and race days is that you are never far from a milestone; the Diamond Jubilee of the John Smith’s Cup (2019), the 50th Macmillan Charity Raceday (2021), 30 years since the only defeat of Brigadier Gerard (2022),’ James adds.
Alongside the iconic and historic occasions that have taken place, there have been lots of different events, and I’m delighted to say that Living North has hosted two of them every year since 2012. This not only keeps the racecourse ticking over but also ensures that it remains a venue which can stage large-scale events throughout the year, which in turn adds value to the city in terms of visitor numbers and profile.
‘Perhaps you only really miss things when they are gone,’ says James. ‘But the two years of the pandemic meant we missed being host to nearly 2,000 non race-day events. In the absence of the fabulous Living North Christmas and Spring LIVE Fairs we were forced to look online for all those perfect gifts. We had no model railway layouts to marvel at, and the sundry antiques, quilts, stamps and coins went unsold in the absence of their events. Thankfully we are now rediscovering their delights, and Santa’s list can again be filled over the four days of Living North’s Christmas Fair in November.’
Indeed, Christmas has become a busy time for a venue more associated with Pimm’s and a summer afternoon of fun; as more than 10,000 turkey dinners are due to be served to festive revellers this year (thanks for the kind words about our events, by the way).
In an ever-evolving world of leisure, from Esports to health festivals, it’s important for all sporting venues, however well established, to keep mixing up their offer, keeping it fresh and relevant but not forgetting the basics which to some extent in the world of racing remain constant.
‘The principles of a traditional, fun day at the races haven’t changed all that much since Lord Rockingham and his pals,’ laughs James. ‘Lord Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury cheered on Gimcrack, standing on the roof of the John Carr Building in the 1770s – a good time with friends, enjoying good food whilst hopefully beating the bookie as a magnificent thoroughbred battles home. Is it so very different to watching the champion stayer Stradivarius, on what is now the John Carr Terrace, just last August?’ While it is true that World Pool (and the global tech that sits behind it) now sees punters in Hong Kong, Melbourne, Paris, Cape Town and across the UK having a dabble on the Ebor, the heart of a traditional day at the races remains the same.
‘It’s also the case that new race days are a result of the desire to spread the word to as wide an audience as possible. Ladies Days, Family Days and Music Days are now familiar to racegoers across the land. Not forgetting the advent of Sunday racing and evening meetings, both of which only came to us at York this century. A new breed of racegoer has discovered that the addition of a headline music act from the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, or for this year, Madness, to the traditional charms of competitive racing, really is both great value and great fun,’ James continues.
As mentioned, like the Minster, York’s museums and galleries, and the historic Shambles, York Racecourse is a significant part of the city and the management team understand the importance of this in terms of what the racecourse adds to York and the community it serves. As James is keen to emphasise: ‘We’re not an NFL franchise. Racing has been staged on the Knavesmire since 1731 and the clue to our role in the city is in the name, York Racecourse. Understandably, the majority of the team live locally with people acting as school governors or football coaches in the community.’ (The football pitches form part of the inside of the track).
In economic terms, an independent study by Sheffield Hallam University concluded that York Races alone brings £69 million to the local economy each year, with racing as a whole netting the whole county some £230 million. ‘Most seasons see couples returning to a venue where they met, got engaged or these days, often married,’ says James. ‘The awards dinners, charity balls and school proms that are held here keep the racecourse at the heart of the community. The showcase events such as hosting the Olympic Torch contrast with a cold winter’s night when the Blood Transfusion Service or local ward meetings use the grandstands, but they are all just as important in their own way. The national obsession with our canine friends has seen the Knavesmire become the destination of choice for thousands of owners with their dogs – so opening that coffee and cake van wasn’t such a bad idea!’ he laughs.
Perhaps this last decade, since Living North has been working at the racecourse, demonstrates very aptly that nothing in life can stand still. Some aspects remain sacred, but investment, imagination and development are all essential components to remaining at the head of the field. With that in mind I’m keen to hear of the plans which lie ahead.
‘I’m pretty sure the investment plan of millennium year didn’t forecast a six-figure spend on things like Wi-Fi, HD cabling, or air conditioning in every new building, but that’s where the new century has taken us. By the way, it also didn’t include building the northern bend to complete the circuit and so be able to host Royal Ascot at York. The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic inevitably calls for a period of prudence before the next major capital project, but it will come, hopefully garnering the same plaudits as the Northern End.
‘The important first step is to accept that you are in the leisure business and so need to keep improving and keep adapting: the Disneyland of 2030 will offer a different experience than its year 2000 predecessor. So it will be with racing. Some changes will come in the sport itself as new training methods, improved turf husbandry, international competition and opportunities with broadcasters all present themselves. Others will be in the customer expectation of a food or drink trend. Do you have any idea how challenging it is to supply the amount of ice that the number of drinks now served ‘over ice’ actually requires?’ laughs James. ‘Technology will also keep improving, from the television coverage to the digital ticketing and admission systems.’
There’s much to play for and much to be done to promote racing at York and across Yorkshire too, from the glorious Thirsk to Pontefract. Many here wrap a day’s racing into an extended visit, some continue the party into the city, but whatever your plans you will find much to enjoy at this magnificent sporting location and the city it serves.
• If your home city is blessed with arguably the finest Gothic cathedral in the world, then it’s worth telling people to take it in on a stroll, time it in the early morning and you may be rewarded with hearing the Choir at practice.
• Long before the Hogwart’s Express charmed us, there has been a romantic fascination with trains, indulge it at the world-class National Railway Museum – admission is free but we think it is well worth a donation.
• Spending just over an hour to reach the East Coast will be richly rewarded, maybe Flamborough lighthouse or the mini sea battles staged on the lake in Peasholme Park in Scarborough, or just fish ‘n’ chips on the seafront in Filey (tip: The Brown Room.)
• Indulge in a little retail therapy, maybe take home a bottle of York Gin, or a fabulous potion from the Shambles, perhaps pick up a designer bargain at the McArthurGlen Outlet on the ring road.
• If you want to continue your sporting connections, the city has a Championship golf course in Fulford as well as the new tourist attraction of Wizard Golf, which could be handily combined with a visit to its neighbour, the Jorvik Viking Centre.