National Hunt racing
National Hunt racing is the official name given to the sport of horse racing in the United Kingdom, France and Ireland where the horses are required to jump over obstacles called hurdles or fences (except in the case of a 'bumper').
The core of the National Hunt season is over the winter when it is not competing with its more glamorous cousin (flat racing). The softer ground in this season is also more appropriate for jumping. The horses are much cheaper, as the majority are geldings and have no breeding value. This makes the sport more popular as the horses are not usually retired at such a young age and thus become familiar faces to the racing public over a number of seasons.
Jump racing is taken most seriously in Britain, Ireland and France. In Ireland the sport is far more popular than flat racing, while in England it is more balanced, but the different seasons mean that most fans of the sport can enjoy both forms of racing.
The horses come from a variety of sources, with many being former flat horses, while others are bred for jumping. National Hunt horses do not have to be thoroughbreds, but most are, and the ones who are not tend to be French. Many of the future stars of the sport come through Point-to-Pointing. The name reflects its hunting origins, from which the sport developed. The same skills of jumping ability and speed are required to succeed at both.
The two main highlights of the National Hunt Calendar are the Cheltenham Festival meeting at Cheltenham Racecourse, held over four days in the second week of March the festival features eleven Grade one races, culminating in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the best and most prestigious Chase race in the world, on the Friday. Also the Grand National meeting, which is held at Aintree over three days every April. Many of the best horses come to these festivals, which are watched by a huge television audience worldwide. Hundreds of millions of pounds are gambled on these festivals.
Other important festivals are the Galway Races - a hugely popular mixed (NH and flat) meeting in Ireland, Punchestown Festival - the Irish equivalent of the Cheltenham Festival, The Tingle Creek at Sandown Park Racecourse, the Scottish Grand National at Ayr Racecourse, King George VI Chase at Kempton Park Racecourse, and the Welsh National at Chepstow Racecourse.
National hunt racing originated in Ireland, particularly in the southern counties. Early races were mainly two-horse contests known as "pounding races" that became popular in the early 18th century. These involved long trips across country where horses were required to jump whatever obstacles the landscape threw in their way.
The first recorded race of this nature took place between the towns of Buttevant and Doneraile in the north of County Cork in 1752. The distance of the race was 4.5 miles (7.2 km). The start and finish were marked by the church steeple in each town, hence the term "steeplechase". Point-to-point races, amateur steeplechases normally run on farmland, remain hugely popular in the same region, and in many parts of rural Ireland, today.
The first use of the term steeplechase on an official racecard was in Ireland in the early 19th century. The 'official' first running of the world's most famous steeplechase, the Grand National, held annually at Aintree in England, took place in 1839. An Irish horse, Lottery, took the honours. The national, as its known, is run over 4.5 miles (7.2 km). Notably, the 'Liverpool Grand Steeplechase' (to give its' original name) was actually initiated in 1836, although the three earliest runnings have been overlooked in many historical chronicles.
Organised steeplechasing in Britain began with annual events being staged cross country over a number of fields, hedges and brooks, the earliest most notable of these being the St Albans Steeplechase (first run in 1830). For some years there was no regulation of steeplechasing, the sport gained a reputation as being a bastard relation of flat-racing and consequently fell into decline.
A breakthrough came in the 1860s with the formation of the National Hunt Committee, and the running of the National Hunt Steeplechase. This steeplechase would form part of an annual race-meeting staged at a different track each year. The 'National Hunt Meeting' established itself in the racing calendar, in turn moving around such courses as Sandown, Newmarket, Derby, Liverpool, Hurst Park, Lincoln, Leicester and many others.
In 1904 and 1905, Cheltenham hosted the meeting, and although Warwick was awarded it for five years after that, it then returned to Cheltenham which became the permanent home of the fixture. Further prestigious races were added to the card during the 1920s, such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.
As steeplechasing entered its modern era, the 'Cheltenham Festival' became the pinnacle of the season, providing a series of championship races which virtually all top horses would be targeted at.
With the introduction of sponsorship (starting with the Whitbread Gold Cup in 1957), a whole host of other important races have been added to the National Hunt racing season, although many of these are geared towards generating betting turnover in the form of competitive handicaps that attract large numbers of runners.
National Hunt Racing today
Given the sports origins, Irish-bred and trained horses remain a dominant force in national hunt racing today. In 2005 and 2006, Irish-trained horses captured the three main prizes at Cheltenham and won the Grand National. Best Mate who captured three successive Cheltenham Gold Cups between 2002–2004, was Irish-bred, but trained and owned in England.
In recent years however French-bred horses have also come to the forefront with horses such as Master Minded becoming the highest rated horse in Britain after winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Kauto Star who won the Gold Cup in 2007, 2009 and was second in 2008 is also French bred. There is however a slight doubt[why?] about the longevity of French-bred horses.
Types of race
- Chase -
- run over distances of 2 - 4½ miles.
- over obstacles called fences that are a minimum of 4½ feet high.
- Hurdling -
- run over distances of 2 - 3½ miles.
- over obstacles called hurdles that are a minimum of 3½ feet high.
- National Hunt Flat race (NH Flat) -
- are flat races for horses that have not yet competed either in flat racing or over obstacles, often called 'bumper' races.
- run over distances of 1½ - 2½ miles.
Grades and classes
Races are graded. The most prestigious are Grade 1, then Grade 2, Grade 3, Listed, Handicaps, to Bumpers the least prestigious. The more highly graded races attract more prize money and better horses. (In flat racing the more prestigious races are Group 1, 2, and 3, then Listed)
All National Hunt races are also classified in classes 1-7 (class 1 best). Graded and listed races are class 1.
Major National Hunt festivals
The capital of National hunt racing in the UK is Cheltenham Racecourse, in the Cotswolds, which hosts the Cheltenham Festival in the third week of March each year, as well as other important fixtures during the NH calendar.
There are numerous well-known trainers operating in the Cotswolds including Jonjo O'Neill, Richard Phillips, Tom George, Nigel Twiston-Davies and latterly Kim Bailey.
The highlight of the Cheltenham Festival is the Gold Cup. All races run at Cheltenham finish with a long uphill run-in in front of the stands. The Gold Cup is run over a distance of about 3 miles 2 furlongs and on numerous occasions the hill at the finish has found out the brave. All horses carry the same weight in the Gold Cup. Famous winners of the Gold Cup include Dawn Run (mare, ridden by Jonjo O'Neill), Arkle (arguably the greatest horse of all time), Golden Miller, Best Mate and Desert Orchid.
The most famous NH race is probably the Grand National, run at Aintree in April each year. The race is a different sort of contest to the Gold Cup in that it is run over a distance of more than 4 miles, there are up to 40 runners, the course at Aintree is essentially flat, and the horses are handicapped (the best horses carry the most weight). Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that the Grand National fences at Aintree are far bigger than any fence at Cheltenham, and a number of fences incorporate significant drops. The Canal Turn is a huge fence, with a substantial drop and a 90 degree turn. It is jumped twice and accounts for many fallers each year.
Famous winners of the Grand National include Red Rum (won 3 times, runner up twice), Mr Frisk (the last winner to date to be ridden by an amateur jockey and who ran the Grand National in the fastest time), Aldaniti (ridden by Bob Champion shortly after he had recovered from cancer; his story was made into a film) and Foinavon (winner at 100 to 1 in 1967 when all other horses fell or refused 8 fences out; the fence is now named after the winner).
1973, the first year that Red Rum won is generally acknowledged as being his most exciting victory. Crisp, carrying top weight (12 stone), had built up a lead of about 20 lengths from the rest of the field. Red Rum gradually eroded this enormous gap with a couple of fences left to jump. As Crisp came into the elbow, a slight crook in the course where the long run-in starts, his jockey brought his whip out to try and encourage the horse for the final effort required. Unfortunately the effect was to put the horse slightly off balance allowing Red Rum, carrying 24 lb (11 kg) less weight, to rob him in the shadow of the post. Much is made of the huge difference in weight carried by the two horses. Supporters of Red Rum point out that he carried top weight in all subsequent renewals, and yet went on to win twice more.
Other notable National Hunt races
Other NH races of note include the King George VI run at Kempton Park on 26 December and the Hennessy Gold Cup run at Newbury at the end of November.
Hunter chase racing
Hunter chases take place at national hunt racecourses but are only open to thoroughbred horses that have hunter certificates. Hunter certificates are issued to horses that have hunted for at least four days in the season before racing starts in January. In addition the jockey must be an amateur who has obtained a certificate from the hunt secretary.
Unlike point-to-points licenced trainers may have runners in Hunter Chases as well as amateur trainers. This often causes controversy when big name trainers run former Grade 1 horses in Hunter Chases as amateur trainers feel they are unable to compete. New rules due to take effect in 2009 will prevent horses which have finished in the first 3 of a Grade 1 or 2 chase in the previous season from taking part.
The two biggest Hunter Chases are the Aintree Fox Hunters' and Cheltenham Foxhunter. The Aintree Fox Hunters' is run as the feature race on the first day of the Grand National meeting over one circuit of the Grand Nation course. This gives amateur riders the chance to jump these famous fences before the professionals.
The Cheltenham Foxhunter is run after the Gold Cup over the same distance and is often referred to as the amateur Gold Cup.
Point to point racing
- Steeplechase for this style of horse racing more generically ('steeplechase' being the term used for similar styles of racing in the USA)
- BBC Gloucestershire's Virtual Cheltenham: An insider's view of the world famous National Hunt course