YORK Racecourse has gone full circle as it prepares for the greatest season in its history.

The racetrack is now a new shape and longer. It was a horseshoe shape and now the gap has been linked to make a complete circuit.

The first race over the virgin turf will be in May at York's opening meeting of the excitingly extended season.

It will be the York Stayers' Handicap over two-and-a-half miles on Thursday, May 12, the second day of the May meeting.

Staging June's spectacular five-day Royal Ascot meeting on Knavesmire this year means that the course had to be changed to cater for the longer races on the Royal programme, but the changes are here to stay.

"We've now done what many people might think with hindsight what should have happened 200 years ago and made the course a complete circuit," said William Derby, York Racecourse chief executive and clerk of the course.

"The completed circle gives a course that is just short of two miles and we hope it will prove to be a lasting legacy."

The extension to the course was planned and designed by professional sports designer Mike Harbridge.

Before the work was started they even did an archeological survey. "Just in case they dug up a Roman chariot," said Derby. But they didn't find any evidence that there was chariot racing on Knavesmire 2,000 years ago.

The Jockey Club have approved the new ground and jockeys' representative Dale Gibson has inspected the turf.

"York's previous longest race was the Lonsdale Stakes at two miles, but now we can provide longer-distance races on our programme.

"The other benefit is that after the winning post there is now a smooth area for horses to decelerate instead of the former hard surface."

The number of racing days on Knavesmire this year goes up from 15 to 20 to accommodate the five-day Royal Ascot at York meeting (June 14-18 inclusive) and it is possible that York might apply to have more than their usual allocation on a regular basis.

"We would look at how things go this season and then consider the situation," said Derby.

"We believe there is capacity for more days of racing and we are not ruling it out, although it would not be outside the May to October period. The weather would be uncertain any earlier or later. Any extra days would be within the present period.

"Turf technology and maintenance has advanced a lot in recent years and it would be possible to have extra days without affecting the quality of the ground.

"The Royal Ascot meeting being in June is at just the right time of year to put on the extra days in our programme."

York's campaign starts with the three-day May Meeting, featuring major Classic trials such as the totesport Dante Stakes (the first three horses in last year's race finished in the same positions in the Derby at Epsom) and the Tattersalls Musidora Stakes, along with the Emirates Airline Yorkshire Cup, a famous race for stayers.

Britain's longest-running sponsored race, the 46th John Smith's Cup will attract several of the country's top middle distance handicappers in July.

The two-day Music Showcase Friday and Saturday will be a big hit at the end of the month.

The three-day Ebor Festival in August features a galaxy of top jockeys and equine stars, with the racing programme hosting Group races, valuable and competitive handicaps, plus Listed races and quality maiden contests.

The sixth Evening Press Raceday, always popular with families, takes place on Sunday, September 4, while the season ends on Saturday, October 8, with the Coral Sprint Trophy.

Updated: 10:43 Thursday, March 24, 2005