How the richest-ever Dante Festival can spark exciting season at York - with £10m prize money on offer across the season

York chief executive William Derby says they are “excited” by the return of racing next week as the racecourse continues its recovery from the Covid pandemic.

The famous three-day Dante Festival kicks off York’s 2022 season on the Knavesmire this Wednesday afternoon, with the meeting offering a record prize fund of £1.35m – part of an overall purse of £10m across the 18-day season – another financial high watermark.

Derby told The Yorkshire Post: “We are really excited about the season ahead, especially as we haven’t hosted a Dante festival with racegoers since 2019 because of the pandemic.

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“We are looking forward to the prospect of a full season of 18 race days ahead.

Racing legend: Stradivarius ridden by Frankie Dettori wins the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup Stakes during last season's Ebor meeting - his fifth win at the Knavesmire. Picture: Nigel French/PA Wire.

“We have invested a record amount of prize money – £10m – across the season to attract the best horses we can to York and Yorkshire for us all to be able to enjoy.

“It’s a big commitment by the racecourse to fund that level of prize money and lots of investment and projects have been carried out over the winter – both for horses, people connected with horses and racegoers – to try and further improve the site and experience of coming racing at York.”

On-course investment will see the County Stand Champagne Pavilion given a bright new look, complete with huge HD televisions to keep racegoers in touch with the action.

Elsewhere, the return of the County Stand Garden for the season and the new Roberto Village Bar will help improve speed of service between races.

Exciting times: York chief executive and clerk of the course, William Derby. Picture: Simon Hulme

The main restaurant in the Grandstand and Paddock is being given a new name, the 1731 Pie Bar, a nod to the founding season on the Knavesmire.

Facilities for horses have been further enhanced, notably in the Stableside area, where a rolling programme of improvements has seen a further unloading ramp, additional and improved horse showers as well as an improved equine walkway from the stables to the main racecourse.

Derby, who is also the clerk of the course, says Covid affected York’s business badly, like countless other sporting bodies, but is pleased to report ticket sales for this season are in line with 2019 levels.

He said: “Covid hit us hard especially in 2020 and first half of 2021 when we had no spectators on site. Eighty-five percent of our revenue both on race days and non race days is from people coming onto site and enjoying the facilities and events here.

King of York: Tim Easterby's Great Habton-trained Copper Knight has won six races at York - including last season's Sky Bet And Symphony Group Handicap under David Allan. Picture: Nigel French/PA Wire.

“To have that sort of impact on our business was a huge jolt.

“Obviously, we received the Government’s support through furlough and we have kept the team intact throughout.

“We have had a huge amount of support from racegoers, our sponsors and partners so we ‘survived’ it and had an amazing last half of 2021, after we were able to allow racegoers back.”

Day one of the Festival starts with the Tattersalls Musidora Stakes as the highlight, a key trial for the Cazoo Oaks, with John and Thady Gosden’s highly fancied and unbeaten Emily Upjohn due to run.

The following day it’s The Al Basti Equiworld Dubai Dante, the race that gives the Festival its name by honouring the last Yorkshire-trained winner of the Derby in 1945.

The Group Two contest is offering a record prize fund of £175,000 – making it the richest Classics trial in the country.

Then on Friday, three-time Ascot Gold Cup winner Stradivarius bids for a third win in the Yorkshire Cup – which is this year being sponsored by Paddy Power for the first time.

The Gosden-trained eight-year-old is unbeaten at York and is looking to join Great Habton trainer Tim Easterby’s Copper Knight as the joint-winningmost horse at the track, if he can secure a sixth triumph overall.

Derby, who has been at York since 2003, said: “Ticket sales are in line with 2019 which we are taking as a huge positive because other events, not just racing, football, cricket, the arts and so on, have seen a drop off, due to a combination of factors.

“There’s some reticence from people to return to events and also a backlog of other things people want to do having had the pandemic, so there’s a big competition for people’s leisure time and considerations of the wider economy, too.

“So the fact we are level pegging with what was an amazingly successful season in 2019 we are taking as a real positive.”