Around half past three yesterday, when two champion thoroughbreds were supposed to be slugging it out up the straight, the wide green horizon of the Knavesmire lay as forlorn and desolate as any ever surveyed by the ancient mariner. Misty curtains of rain swayed across the racecourse, and a flock of seagulls squatted curiously next to one of the lakes that had appeared on the infield.
A few minutes later, a course spokesman appeared, wearing a funereal expression. There was no point, he conceded, waiting for the official inspection scheduled for 4 pm. The overnight forecast now included a severe weather warning for the region, and today's card would have to join yesterday's in the same watery grave. An inspection, moreover, is scheduled for noon today to determine prospects for tomorrow.
The Ebor meeting reliably provides one of the most gorgeous spectacles of the sporting summer, but this time it is proving the most bedraggled, dispiriting of damp squibs. After six inches of rain this month, conditions had already promised to be vile for the showdown between Duke Of Marmalade and New Approach in the Juddmonte International Stakes on the opening card. Indeed, by the time it was abandoned, New Approach was already being broadcast as a non-runner.
By lunchtime, it was no doubt being argued in the city's taverns that the course management had pushed their luck in not calling a precautionary inspection overnight. Certainly the 8.30am abandonment caught many on the hop, and confused, smartly dressed punters were still wandering away from the course at lunchtime. Perhaps this meeting is too dependent on casual racegoers for anyone to have risked sending out negative vibes. But William Derby, the clerk of the course, insisted that the forecast gave him every right to hope that the ground, raceable on Monday afternoon, would not have deteriorated overnight.
"We had a forecast for patchy showers of rain that might miss us," Derby explained. "The Knavesmire, like all other courses, reaches a tipping point where it takes the first 5ml easily in its stride but then gets to a level where it can take no more. There's no science or magic formula for that, and it's difficult to predict, but we clearly reached that tipping point in the early hours of this morning."
Either way, Derby and his team are now being as positive and inventive as they can in trying to salvage something from the mire. Last night they were even exploring the possibility of staging an extra card here on Saturday, though acknowledging the obvious difficulties. Channel 4 is already scheduled to cover racing at Goodwood, Newmarket and Beverley that afternoon, while the Levy Board, British Horseracing Authority and race sponsors were also being canvassed over potential conflicts of interest.
It may yet prove that further rain overnight would require York to draw stumps for the remainder of the meeting anyway. "But we're determined to do everything we can to keep racing on," Derby said. "We've got a blotting machine out there at the moment, and another coming from Durham County Cricket Club tonight."
As things stand, the betting industry reckons to have seen nationwide turnover of £50m slip through its fingers. The Tote handled £1.7m in on-course business alone on the first two days of the meeting last year.
The racecourse itself is insured against losses that would otherwise have been catastrophic, but will be impatient now to proceed with a £2.5m redevelopment to improve the drainage and configuration of the track.
All in all, this test of their stoicism and adaptability was strongly reminiscent of that passed by their counterparts at Cheltenham in March. On that occasion, the second day of the National Hunt Festival was abandoned because of unexpectedly high winds, and big races were redistributed to create marathon cards on the third and fourth days. A similar strategy here would be complicated by the fact that the saturated surface could not cope with too many races. Certainly it is questionable whether connections of Duke Of Marmalade and New Approach would risk their horses on anything other than the fresh ground they expected yesterday, when the big race was the first scheduled on the round course.
Ironically, this was the first time that York had scheduled a fourth day of the Ebor meeting. Given that Cheltenham were only in the third year of a similar innovation, you might almost wonder if somebody up there does not like to see these racecourses getting too greedy.
* Officials at Carlisle were yesterday forced to abandon this afternoon's fixture, and Newcastle's Friday card would threatened if more rain arrives.