The steeplechase is a form of horse racing (primarily conducted in the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, Australia, France, and Ireland) and derives its name from early races in which orientation of the course was by reference to a church steeple, jumping fences and ditches and generally traversing the many intervening obstacles in the countryside. In the UK and Ireland the official term now used for the sport is National Hunt racing.
It is a term now used to refer to a distance horse race with diverse fence and ditch obstacles; the most famous of these is the Grand National run annually at Aintree Racecourse, in Liverpool, since its inception in 1836 (the official race was held 3 years later).
The steeplechase originated in Ireland in the 18th century as an analogue to cross-country thoroughbred horse races which went from church steeple to church steeple, hence "steeplechase". The first steeplechase is said to have been the result of a wager in 1752 between Cornelius O'Callaghan and Edmund Blake, racing four miles (6 km) cross-country from Buttevant Church to St. Leger Church in Doneraile, in Cork, Ireland. An account of the race was believed to have been in the library of the O'Brien's of Dromoland Castle. Most of the earlier steeplechases were contested cross-country rather than on a track, and resembled English cross country as it exists today. The first recorded steeplechase over a prepared track with fences was run in Bedlam, North Yorkshire in 1810.The first recognised English National Steeplechase took place on Monday 8 March 1830. The 4 mile race, organised by Thomas Coleman of St Albans, was run from Bury Orchard, Harlington in Bedfordshire to the Obelisk in Wrest Park, Bedfordshire. The winner was Captain Macdowall on "The Wonder", owned by Lord Ranelagh, who won in a time of 16 mins 25 seconds. Reports of the event appeared in the May and July editions of the Sporting Magazine in 1830.
Number of jumping races by country in 2008.
- Great Britain : 3366 
- France : 2194
- Ireland : 1434
- United States of America : 168
- Australia : 146
- Japan : 132
- New Zealand : 129
- Germany : 58
Great Britain and Ireland
Collectively Great Britain and Ireland account for over 50% of all jump races world wide, carding 4800 races over fences in 2008. Jump racing Great Britain and Ireland is refereed to colloquially as National Hunt Racing. See separate Wikipedia entry for National Hunt racing.
French jump racing is similar to British and Irish National Hunt races, with a few notable differences. Hurdles are not collapsible, being more akin to small brush fences. Chases often have large fences called Bullfinches, a large hedge up to 8 ft tall that horses have to jump through rather than over. There are also a larger number of Cross-Country Chases where horses have to jump up and down banks, gallop through water, jump over stone walls as well as jump normal chasing fences.
Unlike in most countries where the Thoroughbred is almost exclusively used for jump racing, many of the horses in French jump racing are AQPS (Autre Que Pur Sang), a breed of horse developed in France crossing Thoroughbreds with saddle horses and other local breeds.
Auteuil in Paris is perhaps the best known racecourse in France for French jump racing.
In the United States, there are two forms of Steeplechasing (or jumps racing). The most prevalent kind of racing over jumps is Hurdles racing. There are two types of hurdles, National fences (developed by the National Steeplechase Association), and Camden's - the latter, for the most part, have been retired. National fences stand 4 ft. 6in. tall at the highest point, but are mostly made of synthetic "brush" that offers little resistance to a horse passing through. The fence is made up of a 2.5 ft. foam quarter round placed in front of an approximately 3 ft. frame that holds the brush pieces. The manner of construction allows a horse to run into the hurdle without jumping at all, and still have a good chance of remaining upright. Because of this, a horse is not severely penalized for lacking an arc to its jump, since it can brush through the top foot or so of the brush jump. In racing over fences, the horse is trained to jump in as much of a regular stride as possible. This allows the horse to maintain its speed upon landing. Since it is not always possible to meet a fence in stride, the horses are also schooled in how to jump out of stride. An out of stride jump can decrease a horses speed drastically. Hurdle races are commonly run at distances of about 1 3/4 - 2 1/2 miles. In the United States, hurdles races are sometimes held at the major tracks such as Keeneland, Saratoga and Belmont, as well as at race meets dedicated solely to jumps racing.
Timber racing is conducted over solid and immovable wooden rail fences that, in the most extreme case, may reach 5 feet high. The courses are longer, ranging from 3 to 4 miles in length, and the jumping effort required of the horse is much different. Because of the size of the fences and their solid and unyielding construction, a timber horse is trained to jump with an arc, unlike a hurdle racer. An important factor in success at timber racing is for the horse to land in stride, so that it can carry its speed forward on the flat part of the race course. This is harder than in Hurdle races because the nature of the obstacle being jumped - if a horse hits a timber fence hard enough, it can bring it almost to a complete stop. There are many timber races of note in the United States, both because of their difficulty and/or their purse. Some of these are The Colonial Cup in South Carolina, the Virginia and International Gold Cup held in Old Tavern Virginia, and the Maryland Hunt Cup, the last of which is limited to amateur jockeys. Timber Races are not currently held at any major tracks, but can be found at almost all steeplechase meets.
Except for the hurdles races at Keeneland and the Iroquois Hurdles at Nashville, jumps racing in America is exclusively an East Coast phenomenon.
Thomas Hitchcock (1860–1941) is known as the father of American steeplechasing. In the late 1800s, he built a steeplechase training center on his 3,000-acre (12 km2) property in Aiken, South Carolina and trained horses imported from England. No less important are the contributions by fellow Aiken seasonal resident F. Ambrose Clark. Clark held many important chases on his Brookville (Long Island) estate, Broad Hollow, in the 1920s and 1930s. Ford Conger Field was built by F. Ambrose Clark and is the site of the annual Aiken Steeplechase, a part of the Triple Crown in March. The first Steeplechase Meet in Aiken was held March 14, 1930 in Hitchcock Woods. In addition to the Aiken Steeplechase, South Carolina is also home to the Colonial Cup and the Carolina Cup, which is the largest event on the circuit. Both of these races are held in Camden, South Carolina.
The Virginia Gold Cup is also among the oldest steeplechase races in the United States, with its first running in 1922. Up until recently, the Gold Cup was a four mile long hurdle race. The length of this race prompted many jokes - such as the jockey's putting marbles in their mouth, spitting one out each lap to keep track of what lap they had completed. Since the Gold Cup moved to the present course, it has been changed into a timber race with a very large purse. Every first Saturday in May, more than 50,000 spectators gather at Great Meadow near The Plains, Virginia (45 miles west of Washington, DC). The 4-mile (6.4 km) grass course with 4-foot (1.2 m) high timber fences is often referred to as the "crown jewel of steeplechasing."
The Iroquois Steeplechase event is held in Nashville, Tennessee. Beginning in 1941, with one year off during World War II, the race has been run continuously at Percy Warner Park on the a course inspired by Marcellus Frost and designed by William duPont.
The Queens Cup Steeplechase is another major annual steeplechase event. It is held the last Saturday of April at Brooklandwood, a farm and estate in Mineral Springs, North Carolina, about 20 miles (32 km) from Charlotte. This day long event of racing and social activities attracts over 10,000 spectators, many of whom travel great distances to attend.
The Breeders' Cup Grand National Steeplechase (formerly known as the American Grand National) is held each October at the Far Hills Races in Far Hills, New Jersey and draws about 50,000 spectators for a single day race-meet. It is the richest event in American steeplechasing with a purse of $300,000.
During the 1940s and 50s, the Broad Hollow Steeplechase Handicap, the Brook National Steeplechase Handicap and the American Grand National were regarded as American steeplechasing's Triple Crown.
Kentucky Downs near Franklin, Kentucky (originally Dueling Grounds Race Course) was built in 1990 as a steeplechase track, with a kidney-shaped turf circuit. At its inception, the track offered some of the richest purses in the history of American steeplechase. The track has undergone numerous ownership changes, with steeplechase races playing an on-and-off role (mainly off) in the track's limited live race meets.
The Stoneybrook Steeplechase was initiated in Southern Pines, North Carolina on a private farm owned by Michael G. Walsh in 1949 and was held annually in the spring until 1996, with attendance near 20,000. It resumed as an annual spring event at the new Carolina Horse Park in 2001.
Australia has a long history of jumps racing which was introduced by British settlers. In the 20th century the northern states of Queensland and New South Wales phased out all jumps racing. Tasmania ceased jumps racing as of April 2007 due to economic unfeasibility. Jumps racing is set to end in Victoria after the 2010 season.
The jumping season in Australia normally takes place from March until August (some minor races are held either side of these months). Horses for steeplechasing are primarily former flat racing horses, rather than horses specifically bred for jumping. There is an emphasis on safety in Australia which has led to a reduction in the size of obstacles. As jumps races take place at flat racing meetings there is also a need for portable jumps. Most chasing occurs on steeple lanes but also includes parts of the main flat racing track. From Easter to May the major distance races occur. The Great Eastern Steeplechase is held on Easter Monday at Oakbank, South Australia drawing crowds of over 100,000. The Grand Annual, which has the most fences of any steeplechase in the world, is held in May at Warrnambool. Each state holds its own Grand National, the most prestigious is the VRC Grand National at Flemington run in the winter. The jumping season culminates with the set weights and penalties Hiskens Steeple run at Moonee Valley. The Hiskens is regarded as the Cox Plate of jumps racing.
The most famous Australian horse in the field was Crisp, who was narrowly beaten by the champion Red Rum in the English Grand National. Crisp subsequently beat Red Rum at set weights. More recently Karasi has won the Nakayama Grand Jump, the world's richest jumps race held in Japan, three times.
Opposition to jumps racing
Jumps racing has been phased out in all states in Australia except for Victoria and South Australia. This was the result of a federal senate select committee inquiry into animal welfare in 1991, which concluded that jumps racing should be phased out on the grounds of cruelty. The NSW government banned jumps racing in 1997.
Since that recommendation, over 250 horses have been killed in jumps races in Australia. Three horses died in May 2009 during the Warrnambool jumps racing carnival. The 2009 season, which began in March, has resulted in five deaths in Victoria and two in South Australia, though only five of the deaths were directly the result of actual falls. Five occurred in hurdle races, one in a steeplechase and one in a trial. However the fatality rate has decreased from over 20 deaths annually before 2002 to an average of 8 up until 2008 since the introduction of new safety measures.
Jumps racing is opposed in Australia by many groups including the animal rights organisations the RSPCA Australia, Animals Australia, and Animal Liberation (South Australia), and by political parties such as The Greens.
The equestrian sport of eventing has a steeplechase phase, which is held in its "classic" or "long format". Unlike the racing form, horses do not race each other over the course, but rather are just meant to come under a pre-set "optimum time." The fences are usually very similar in type, all with brush that is meant to be jumped through rather than over. Ditches, post-and-rail, and other upright fences are not used. Penalty points are added to the horse's score if he exceeds the optimum time, but there is no reward for an especially fast round.
- ↑ Great Britain Year 2008
- ↑ Bourke, Tony (2007-04-28), "Tasmania calls end to jumps races", The Age, http://www.theage.com.au/news/horse-racing/tasmania-calls-end-to-jumps-races/2007/04/27/1177459980505.html
- ↑ http://www.theage.com.au/sport/horseracing/jumps-racing-hits-the-wall-20091127-jvol.html
- ↑ Wirth, Hugh (2009-05-12), "The case against jumps racing", Herald Sun, http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,25465045-5000117,00.html
- ↑ Animals Australia (2009-04-27), Call to stop Warrnambool jumps racing Carnival, http://www.animalsaustralia.org/media/press_releases.php?release=115
- ↑ Animal Liberation, Animals in Sport and Entertainment, http://www.animalliberation.org.au/sport.php
- ↑ Pennicuik, Sue (2009-05-07), Sue Pennicuik calls for jumps racing to be banned now once and for all, http://mps.vic.greens.org.au/node/1105