Boasting a total of nine tracks, the county of Yorkshire is certainly well served when it comes to racecourses. And, of those nine, two are to be found in the west of the county; the oldest of which lies only around 1km outside the historic market town from, which it takes its name.
Ideally situated within reach of the major urban hubs of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and York, the independently owned Pontefract Racecourse has been laying on racing action for centuries now and continues to draw in the crowds with its combination of highly competitive action and Yorkshire charm.
Of course, a wealth of racetracks is a fine enough attraction in itself, but the county of Yorkshire has a whole lot more to offer besides. As such, those paying a visit to Pontefract may not need too much encouragement to linger a little longer in the land of the white rose. And, helpfully, for those hoping to do so, numerous accommodation options are available, both close to the track, and a little further afield.
Closest to the Course
Lying only a short walk from the course, the town of Pontefract provides plenty to keep racegoers entertained following the action at the track. Pontefract Castle should satisfy the culturally curious, whilst a thriving confectionery industry will likely prove hard to resist for sweet-toothed racing fans. And, for those fancying a post-race tipple, the town also boasts a surprisingly high number of pubs and bars, including the Tap & Barrel, the Liquorice Bush, and the Maltshovel, all of which come very highly recommended.
In terms of accommodation options, the King’s Croft Hotel and the Premier Inn Castleford are both within a mile of the track, with the Barley Mow Hotel and very highly rated the Tower House Executive Guest House also within easy travelling distance.
Lay Down in Leeds
Charming as Pontefract is, some racegoers may hope for something a little livelier to pair with their trip. And luckily for those seeking the big city experience, a number of options are readily available – the closest of which is the thriving urban hub of Leeds. Just under 20 miles to the northwest of the track, and enjoying strong transport links with Pontefract town, Leeds is an understandably popular choice with punters looking to stay in the area.
As the largest city in the county of Yorkshire, Leeds unsurprisingly isn’t short of attractions. Home to no fewer than 16 museums and galleries, including the Royal Armouries Museum, those who like to take their racing with a dose of culture and heritage won’t be disappointed. And, if liquid refreshment is more your thing, the city also boasts a bustling pub scene, with highlights including the hugely popular Whitelock’s Ale House, the in-house brewed lager of the Brewery Tap, and the Victorian style Duck & Drake. And, needless to say, accommodation options are plentiful, from major chains including Holiday Inn, Hilton and Marriott, to high-end options, such as the Bells.
Head North to York
Only around 30 miles further to the northeast of Leeds lies one of the UK’s most popular tourist cities. Also benefiting from excellent transport links with Pontefract, the charming and historic city of York is always well worth a visit, and another viable base of operations for racing fans – and with York also boasting an exceptional racetrack of its own, it may even be possible to squeeze in a racing doubleheader.
Away from the racing, York may be smaller than Leeds but punches above its weight in terms of visitor attractions. From the delights of “The Shambles”, to the historically appealing Jorvik Viking Centre and York Dungeon, and much more besides, there’s something to suit all tastes on the banks of the Ouse. With pubs aplenty, the city also boasts a huge range of hotels. Best Western, Mercure and ibis are amongst the big brands represented, whilst Jorvik House and Judge’s Lodging are worth considering from higher up the pricing scale.
About the Racecourse
A flat-only track, Pontefract operates throughout the warmer months of the year, staging around 16 fixtures between the months of April and October. Interestingly there are no Saturday fixtures at the track, despite the standard of the fare on offer being a little higher than average. And in the absence of those Saturday cards, it tends to be the tracks Sunday meetings and three evening fixtures that prove most popular with punters.
Nestled in the midst of so many urban centres, Pontefract enjoys strong motorway links to most areas of the country. The track lies only half a mile from Junction 32 of the M62, which in turn links to the A1, M1 and M18. The racecourse is well signposted from all directions, but for those using satnav the postcode to enter is WF8 4QD. Upon arrival at the track, motorists will find ample free parking available for all racegoers.
For those travelling by rail, no fewer than three stations sit within easy reach of the course. Only just down the road from the track, Tanshelf is the closest of these, and lies on the Leeds to Knottingley line. The station at Monkhill is only a little further out at around a mile from the course – and enjoys a more frequent service from Leeds. And for those making the trip from York or Sheffield, the third of the town’s stations at Baghill is the most viable option – Baghill being around a 30-minute walk or a short taxi journey to the track. Once in Pontefract, an additional option for the final leg of the journey is to travel via public transport, with the Metroline operated 410 and 411 services both stopping right outside the course.
Initially employing a horseshoe-shaped layout, the two ends of the shoe were joined in 1983 to create an oval/pear shaped circuit. It’s a pretty substantial circuit too, with the circumference of 2m136y, making it not only the longest in British racing but amongst the longest in the whole of Europe.
Turning left-handed, the track features bends of varying severity, with the turn just before the six-furlong start being not far off ninety degrees. In addition to those bends, the track is also consistently undulating throughout. Running downhill for the first half of the circuit following the winning post, a series of ups and downs then leads into a severely uphill section, beginning three furlongs out and continuing throughout the two-furlong home straight and all the way to the line.
The fact that the final turn into the straight comes only two furlongs from the line means that races over all distances contain at least one bend. A generally stiff test over all distances, this is particularly true over the five-furlong and six-furlong trips, with the sprint course widely recognised as being amongst the toughest in all of British racing.
In addition to placing considerable demands upon stamina, the track also challenges the balance and adaptability of contenders, making it generally well suited to nippy, agile sorts able to handle the sharp turns and undulations. Frontrunners can go well around here, but it is crucial that they judge the pace correctly, with a common mistake being to go for home too early during the downhill sections of the course.
In general, a low draw is an advantage over all distances; the one exception to this is sprint contests when the going is soft, as the field tend to quickly switch over to the quicker ground on the stands rail, handing the edge to those drawn high.
A distinctly relaxed venue, there is no official dress code in place in either the Grandstand and Paddock or the Picnic Enclosures. Things are a little stricter in the Premier Enclosure and hospitality areas, where a smart casual requirement is in place. Smart jeans are permitted in these areas, but scruffy/ripped denim, sportswear, t-shirts, and trainers are all prohibited.
Priced at £18 for adults and £13 for OAP’s and students, the Grandstand and Paddock Enclosure is the most popular area of the track, and provides terraced viewing stands, access to the parade ring and a range of bars and eateries, including the Furlong Bar, Paddock Bar and Balcony Bar.
Slightly pricier at £25 for adults and £20 for concessions, a Premier Enclosure badge provides a prime viewing spot close to the winning post, access to a covered seating area, and slightly swankier facilities in the shape of the Champagne Bar and Terrace, Premier Dining Room and Premier Sports Café Bar.
Last but not least, amongst the standard ticketing options we have the Picnic Enclosure – priced at an excellent value £7 for adults, £4 for concessions or £20 per vehicle containing a maximum of four occupants. Recently upgraded following the addition of the Pavilion Café, this area regularly features an array of entertainment for the kids, making it a hugely popular choice with families. In common with the two other main enclosures, all under 18’s go free with a paying adult in this section of the track.
For those racegoers looking to push the boat out, the track also lays on a range of hospitality options, beginning at around £60 per head for a buffet-style experience. A number of private box and bespoke ticketing options are also available, with the best advice being to contact the track in order to discuss your individual requirements.
Not the most high-profile track in the land, competitive handicapping fare provides the bulk of the action at this West Yorkshire venue. That said, a total of five Listed class events spread over the course of the season is more than many tracks can manage. The six Sunday and evening fixtures always prove popular with punters, but in terms of profile and attendance, it is the following three meetings that top the pile.
Taking place in early August each year, this Wednesday afternoon fixture regularly benefits from the summer sun and sees Yorkshire’s finest don their most glamourous outfits. With cracking cash and holiday prizes on offer in the Best Dressed Lady and Best Dressed Gent competitions, there’s plenty of incentive to go the extra mile when choosing your outfit for the day. An excellent seven-race card helps maintain the buzzing atmosphere in the stands, and if there is one day that sees the track live up to its “Ponte Carlo” nickname, it may well be this one.
Father’s Day Racing
The first of the track’s Sunday meetings is also just about the biggest. Taking place on the mid-June Sunday celebration of Father’s Day, this seven-race fixture also doubles as something of a Yorkshire jamboree, with activities including whippet racing and Yorkshire pudding throwing. Flat caps at the ready for a race day that was recently selected to feature as part of the televised “Sunday Series” of events.
For something a little different, how about this August meeting which acts as the final Sunday fixture of the year. Designed to cater to all tastes, “In-the-Zone Raceday” sees the track segregated into seven separate zones, including a Kids Zone featuring a funfair and free sweets, and a Tipster Zone with expert opinions on offer from a select Punter Panel. Throw in seven exciting contests on which to put those tips to good use, and it is no surprise that this meeting is always one of the best attended of the year.
Racing in the Pontefract area has been reported from as long ago as 1648, with those early meetings taking place on meadowland near the town. That initial run was however relatively short-lived, with the historical stick in the mud Oliver Cromwell promptly banning the activity after having taken over the nearby Pontefract Castle.
Re-emerging following the removal of Cromwell from office in 1658, declining popularity then saw racing disbanded once more in 1768. Not to be deterred, a further event was reported as taking place close to the modern site in 1790, with 1801 then marking the first officially recorded contest at the current venue.
In search of investment, organisers came up with an innovative initiative in 1802, when offering badges which, for the princely sum of £50, granted access to every fixture to be held at the track for the next 20 years. Something of a unique offering at the time, it nevertheless proved to be a success, with the monies raised funding the building of a new grandstand.
Ticking along nicely until forced to close during WWI, the track was then one of only two northern courses to remain open throughout WWII, stepping in to stage a number of major races, including the Lincoln, November and Ebor handicaps.
First Track to Introduce a Dope Testing Facility
One of the earliest adopters of photo-finish technology in 1952, Pontefract then became the first English course to introduce a dope testing facility not long after. Another notable feature of the course came in the shape of the relatively late start time of 2:45. Introduced to enable local mineworkers to finish their morning shift and make it in time to the races, this scheduling endured until the closure of the mines in 2002.
Alterations to the Track Design
A second transport-related disruption came in 1971 – this time when works on the M2 motorway necessitated that the one-mile start be moved. The next alterations were, however, solely at the discretion of the track, with a new watering system added in 1980, before the historically horseshoe-shaped layout finally became an oval in 1983.
With improved facilities came improved racing. 1993 saw the Listed Class Flying Fillies Stakes and Silver Tankard Stakes added to the schedule, with the Pontefract Castle Stakes following 12 years later in 2005. Independently operated to this day, the track continues to invest in facilities, both for racegoers and those working in the industry, ensuring it maintains its position amongst the upper echelons of Yorkshire tracks.