08/16/2002 12:00AM

Get out your jerkins and ducats for York


York, the medieval English city in the heart of Yorkshire's magnificently sculpted rolling hills, is the historical-minded tourist's dream destination.

Eschewing strip malls, neon billboards, and international folk festivals, it remains everything Disneyland dreams of but never can be. It is every inch the real thing, right down to the 900-year-old city wall that still surrounds three-quarters of the old city. Standing astride Micklegate Bar on the city's south wall, Richard the Lionhearted bade farewell to his subjects before embarking on an ill-fated Crusade after which he would be held captive for two years by Austrian allies of his arch enemy Prince John. The Micklegate is still there in all of its medieval glory, although instead of knights riding off to battle, the traffic that passes beneath its heraldry-bedecked tower is of the automotive kind.

The vehicles that will be steaming through the city gates next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday will be carrying the descendants of the King Richard's faithful York subjects to one of the world's most beautiful race meetings. Called the Ebor Meeting, because the Latin name for York, founded by the Romans in the third century A.D., was Eboracum, its many delights include a race called the Knavesmire Handicap.

A 1 1/2-mile race for 3-year-olds and up, it is named for the plot of ground upon which they have been racing horses just south of the old city since 1709. Indeed, the Knavesmire was a very heavy plot of ground, given to flooding as it lay close on the banks of the River Ouse, from which the waters would ooze with regularity. As prisoners who had managed to outfox their York jail keepers would always head south to the relative comforts of London, their escape route would inevitably lead them through the aptly named swamp, in which the knavish devils would inevitably become mired in muck up to their hips.

If convicted of a capital crime, they would eventually be returned to the Knavesmire to make the acquaintance of the "three-legged mare." This was the gallows upon which three murderers were hung from their necks until dead a few hours before the King's Plate was run on Aug. 16, 1731. That race was taken by one Monkey, owned by Lord Lonsdale, who has been memorialized at York with the Lonsdale Stakes, a two-mile Group 3 race that will be run this Tuesday. The unhappy victims on that long ago day, Joseph Askwith, John Freeman and his brother Richard Freeman, have been granted no such commemorative niceties.

Two fillies will provide one of the highlights of this year's Ebor Meeting, as Kazzia and Islington are expected to line up for the Yorkshire Oaks on Wednesday in a race that looks like a major stepping-stone to more important races later this autumn.

Undefeated after four races including the 1000 Guineas and the English Oaks, Kazzia is using the Yorkshire Oaks as a prep for her assault on the British fillies triple crown in the St. Leger Stakes next month. In Islington, Kazzia, a German-bred Godolphin trainee, will be facing the fast improving winner of the Group 1 Nassau Stakes who could eventually be seen at Arlington Park in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

At 1 1/2 miles, Tuesday's Great Voltigeur Stakes is the traditional prep for the 1 3/4-mile, 132-yard St. Leger. Named for Voltigeur, the horse who lost to The Flying Dutchman in England's most famous match race of all time in 1851, it will feature Bandari, the recent winner of another St. Leger prep, the Gordon Stakes.

But the centerpiece of the Ebor Meeting this year will be, as usual, the Juddmonte International Stakes, which was first run as the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup in 1972 when Braulio Baeza aboard Roberto gave Joe Mercer on Brigadier Gerard a lesson in pace with a front running victory that would prove to be the Brigadier's only defeat in 18 career starts.

On Tuesday, the $693,000 Juddmonte will be the venue for a rematch between the first two finishers in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, Golan and Nayef. The drop in distance from the 1 1/2 miles of the King George to the 1 1/4 miles, 85 yards of the Juddmonte, would appear to favor Golan, who was making his seasonal debut when he defeated Nayef by a head at Ascot.

They will be challenged by Noverre, the Godolpin miler who is being given a chance to break a six-race, 12-month losing streak with a step up in distance. Golan currently rates as the 11-8 choice with Coral Eurobet, who offer Nayef at 3-2 and Noverre at 13-2.

But the biggest betting race of the Ebor Meeting comes on Wednesday with the Ebor Handicap itself.

With battles to the death between the nobility and the lower orders now largely consigned to history, it is perhaps fitting that a horse named Bourgeois has been backed down to 10-1 favoritism by William Hill for the 1 3/4-mile Ebor. His safe passage home should be considerably less complicated than the unfortunate path taken by Messrs. Freeman and Askwith on that fateful day in 1731.