Magical moments on Knavesmire

GLAMOUR, colour, excitement, world-class horses, trainers of genius and big-name jockeys, York's world-famous Ebor Festival has it all but, like every crowd-pulling extravaganza, it comes alive thanks to the efforts of an army of men and women, grafting away behind the scenes.

Whether it is the Ebor, the Dante Festival in May or the last meeting of the season in autumn, York is always a blaze of colour and the man responsible for that, head gardener Ian Halstead, has been working at the racecourse for 44 years.

He spends most of the year encouraging his seedlings – violas, pansies, geraniums, Busy Lizzies and the rest – in his greenhouse at Middlethorpe, half-a-mile or so from the hustle of the crowds and takes enormous pride in the results which do much to create Knavesmire's unique atmosphere – from the famous "Welcome to York" display on the approach to the course to the 240 flower boxes on the front of the Melrose Stand.

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The son of a railwayman, he joined the racecourse staff after a couple of years working as gardener for a solicitor in Bishopthorpe and admits to having missed a few lessons in his school days to pursue his love of the soil.

He describes Rob Paver, his manager at the time, as "a decent gardener" quantifying the "decent" by adding: "He was conscientious, as every gardener needs to be. If it was 4.30 and watering needed to be done it was done, there was no going home until it was finished."

Ian and his wife Deborah, who has been head cleaner at the course for the last 22 years, met on the Knavesmire and had their wedding reception – on the Saturday before the August meeting – in the Dante Suite in the old Ebor Stand. The big meeting being so close, he worked until 11 o'clock that morning before taking off his overalls and changing into his wedding suit.

Nick Johnson, York's corporate hospitality manager, is in his second spell at the course, having spent five years at Redcar in between.

"With the new stands which have been built, the corporate side of the business has grown massively," he says. "We now attract more family occasions than previously – with lots of 50th and 60th birthday parties and one of the great changes over recent years has been the profile of the corporate market. We still have business people entertaining clients, but more often than not they invite the partner of their guests.

"We also have groups of ladies who might have been first to a hen party then come back just to enjoy a great day out with their friends. Racing has sold itself to women without doubt.

"Bookings were slow this year – people were waiting to see how the economy and the election went – but now I've exceeded my target."

That means he will be spending most of Ebor week flitting between the corporate boxes, making sure everything is running smoothly and, on the odd occasion things might not be quite right, taking action on the spot. "I don't want to hear about a problem the day after it happened," he says.

He loves going racing in his free time with Cheltenham as his favourite course away from York but he also has a soft spot for Thirsk. "My other half, Karen, likes it there; if it's good enough for her, it's good enough for me," he says. Son Callum, now 11, also enjoys his racing – by the time he was three he had been to 14 courses.

Stuart Arksey, York's stables and hostel manager, knows all about racing being in the blood. His grandfather worked on the course at Beverley during the Second World War and his father took his first step in tending racing ground at Catterick in 1962. He then worked at Ascot before returning North, this time to York in 1971, and he stayed at Knavesmire until his retirement in 1993.

Stuart studied at Newcastle University then tried various posts until, two weeks after he had lost his job as a salesman in the slump of 1980, he was offered the position of head groundsman at Redcar. Five years there were followed by three at Newbury then he became assistant to his father at York, taking over the senior post when dad retired. He took up a new challenge in 2006 when the Race Committee took over the running of the hostel and stables after the previous franchising arrangement had ended.

As manager, he is responsible for accommodation for the horses and grooms who travel to York, including those from Ireland who arrive sometimes at four in the morning two days before their charges are due to run.

The hostel has 130 beds and at any given time there are 170 boxes available. "We are never quite full but we have to ensure we have space for 140 horses every race day," he says. "That's seven races each with a maximum of 20 runners in line with our safety limit."

"The Irish fly or come by ferry but more of the Newmarket trainers these days are travelling up here in the morning, racing, then going straight back so their horses are home by nine o'clock. It used to take five hours, now it can take three."

He also takes care of the school parties who use the hostel in ever-increasing numbers on non-race days, either as a base to explore the city and its treasures or to rehearse theatre or musical performances before entertaining proud parents.

From the garden to the corporate business to the hostel and stables, York is moving with the times and has the right people in place to make it happen.


Nick Johnson – corporate hospitality manager

Magic moment: "In 1992, Lester Piggott rode to Rodrigo de Triano to victory in the International and, following his prison sentence, was unsure about the he reception he would receive. I dashed to the winner's enclosure and the look of surprise on Lester's face was amazing. The applause made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end."

Stuart Arksey – stables and hostel manager

Magic moment: "I'll never forget the first running of the International in 1972. York has always been known as a galloping track and Roberto certainly galloped that day; when he was about a furlong out the crowd, realising that Brigadier Gerard was not going to catch him, were, quite suddenly, absolutely silent. It was amazing."

Ian Halstead – head gardener

Magic moment: "One of our casual workers, a chap I went to school with called Stuart Reynard, found a top hat and wore it round the paddock as we prepared for the 1969 Ebor Meeting. The Ebor itself was won by Big Hat and although I'm not really a betting man – I would never go into a bookies' shop – I had a few shillings on it."