Racing in the UK and Ireland is essentially split into two categories; Flat Racing and the National Hunt. Because this site is mainly focused on the Cheltenham racing such as the Cheltenham Festival, we’re mainly interested in looking at the National Hunt, including when it started and the types of races that you’ll find at a National Hunt meeting. In essence, the difference between National Hunt meetings and Flat Racing meetings is that the National Hunt involves jumps; though even this isn’t technically true, as we’ll explain shortly.
National Hunt races tend to take place in the winter months. The idea behind this is that the ground should be softer during this period, with the increased rainfall you’d expect leaving the courses less hard. That in turn means that it’s less painful for horses to land after jumping, which protects both the horses and the jockeys. Technically the National Hunt begins in October, but as the Flat Racing period doesn’t end until November that can be seen as the month when it truly kicks in. It runs until the April of the following year, though there are often races outside of this period too.
Flat vs Jump Racing
The main reason why there are two types of races over the course of a year is the horses themselves. Someone once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. Just as every animal has its own special skill, so too do different types of horses have various strengths and weaknesses.
Horses that have strong and robust forequarters will be excellent at running quickly over short distances but will peak between the age of three and five. These are the sorts of horses that will take part in Flat Racing events. The fact that they will be ‘past it’ by the age of six means that they tend to get put out to stud, with the most successful horses able to command huge fees for that act.
The best known example of this was Frankel, commanding a fee of £125,000 every time he mated. Because of this, the most successful Flat Racing horses tend to earn more after they’ve retired than when they were racing. You can also trace the genealogy of a well-bred horse back through many generations. It is seen as the ‘purer’ sport by many in the industry, but in some ways that snobbery makes it less accessible to the general punter.
Horses that are successful in the National Hunt are far more robust than their Flat Racing counterparts and normally come into their own between the age of seven and ten. Consequently they have much less breeding value. For this reason a high proportion of National Hunt horses are castrated and are called geldings. National Hunt horses don’t even really get going in the sport until they’re about the same age as Flat Racing horses are when they’re at their peak. This is because horses become more robust as they get older, with stamina being equally as important as speed when it comes to National Hunt races.
Although thoroughbreds do move into jump racing, either directly or after a flat racing career, in general jump race horses tend to be partially outbred. Thoroughbreds are so tightly bred for speed that a lot of the time their muscles cannot last into older age, generally more liable to snapping and tearing. By introducing other genes into the pool national hunt horses are bred for both speed and long term stamina.
History Of The National Hunt
Now that we know why the different types of racing exist and the horses that run in each, it’s worth having a look at the history of the National Hunt. It all began in Ireland in the early part of the 18th century, when horses would run from one town to another in what was known as a ‘pounding race’. This was particularly popular in the Southern counties of the country and the horses that took part in the races would have negotiate any obstacle that they came across if they wanted to win. This could include things like large hedges, overgrown bushes, walls, canals and ditches dug in farm land.
The earliest example of such a race that there is a written record of took place in 1752 when horses ran from the Irish town of Buttevant to nearby Doneraile in County Cork, about four and a half miles away from each other. the starting and ending points of the race were the two steeples of each town’s church, which is where the phrase ‘Steeple Chase’ originates. This sort of racing still takes place nowadays and is known as point-to-point, normally run on farmland by amateur riders. The term ‘steeplechase’ was first used on an official race card in in the early part of the nineteenth century.
As far as England is concerned, the most notable early steeplechase took place in 1830 when the St Albans Steeplechase was run for the first time. This wasn’t the first type of steeplechase of any form in England, however, with Newmarket running a race featuring five foot high obstacles in 1794. A further race was run at Bedford in 1810 and this was the first recorded example of a steeplechase run over a prepared track outside of Ireland.
Originally horses ran over fields, hedges and brooks and to begin with the sport had no regulation whatsoever. This led people to consider it to be a lesser sport to Flat Racing, which was more regulated and watched by society’s finest. The Liverpool Grand Steeplechase was run for the first time in 1836, though the official first running of it was in 1839. We mention it because that went on to become the race that is considered to be the most famous steeplechase in the world, the Grand National.
The formation of the National Hunt Committee in the 1860s brought a degree of respectability to the sport, especially when the National Hunt Steeplechase began to be run on an annual basis. Initially it moved from course to course, going to places such as Derby, Newmarket, Liverpool and Leicester. In 1904 and then 1905 it was run at Cheltenham before heading to Warwick for five years. It returned to Cheltenham after its stint in Warwick and has remained there ever since. In fact, it has been supplement by a host of races over the years to the point that the Cheltenham Festival is now the most prestigious National Hunt meeting in the calendar.
National Hunt Racing Today
Traditionally the National Hunt calendar has been dominated by Irish horses, which isn’t all that much of a shock when you know the sport’s history. Best Mate, for example, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on three successive occasions between 2002 and 2004, having been bred in Ireland and trained in England.
It isn’t just in England and Ireland that Jump Racing is popular, however. It’s also the most popular form of horse racing in France and the French have been developing their horses more and more in recent years. Master Minded became the highest rated horse in Britain after it won the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham, with fellow French-bred horse Kauto Star winning the Gold Cup in both 2007 and 2009.
The Grand National and the Cheltenham Festival are the two most obvious examples of National Hunt meetings, watched by millions of people around the world. They aren’t the only Jump Racing moments of note in the calendar, though, with King George VI Chase at Kempton Park in December being another stand out event. The month before that the Hennessy Gold Cup is run at Newbury and is also remarkably prestigious.
Different Types Of National Hunt Race
There are three different types of race that take place during the National Hunt season, namely Steeple Chases, Hurdles and Bumper Races. Here’s some information on each:
These races are the most closely linked to the origins of the sport, trying as they do to replicate the conditions the horses would have faced in those ‘pounding races’ of the 1700s. Obviously there needs to be more structure to racing nowadays, so allowing horses to run across numerous fields wouldn’t make sense. Instead race courses have found ways to artificially recreate similar conditions for horses to compete over.
They do this by having fences, jumps and ditch-type obstacles around a race course that horses need to navigate in order to finish the race. The race takes place over a course that will range from two miles to four and a half miles and the fixed objects that the horses need to jump over must be at least four and a half foot tall. Open ditches need to have a ditch on the side of the track that the horses take off from and must then be the same height as the plain fences. If there’s a water jump then it needs be at least three foot high, with water that’s a minimum of three inches deep.
As you might have guessed from the description, Steeple Chases are the toughest types of races that National Hunt horses can take part in. They put horses through their paces and in order to win the animal needs to have a perfect blend of power, pace and stamina. For that reason it tends to be the older, more seasoned horses that do well in Steeple Chases, meaning that there needs to be a slightly easier type of race that less experienced horses can run in to earn their stripes, so to speak.
That’s where Hurdle races come in. They tend to be run over smaller courses, from two miles to around three and a half miles, and the obstacles that need to be navigated are less intimidating. They still need to be a minimum of three and a half foot tall, which isn’t small by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re also flexible. This degree of bend in the fences, especially at their top, means that horses legs can catch the fence without it doing them any serious damage. The horses that run in Hurdle races are normally younger than their Steeple Chase counterparts.
Also known as National Hunt Flat Races, these are what you might consider to be the entry level races on the National Hunt calendar. They are run over longer distances than the Flat Races of the Flat Racing season, mainly because National Hunt bred horses have more stamina and strength. These races are run by novices that are learning how competitive racing works, meaning that are low grade races and attract significantly poorer prize money. It’s a good opportunity to spot a talented young horse and stick with it throughout its career, however, so don’t dismiss a Bumper race if you see it on your race card.
As a matter of interest, the name ‘Bumper’ comes from the style with which both horses and jockeys tend to run the races. With both Hurdle and Steeple Chase racing the horses and the jockeys have got a number of years of racing under their belts. As such they tend to be able to run them in a much smoother manner than the inexperienced horses and jockeys that run in Bumper races. Because of that, watching the National Hunt Flat Racing will give you the impression that the person on the back of the horse is ‘bumping around’ a lot.
Jump Racing Grades And Classes
You can read a much more in-depth article about grades and classes elsewhere on the site, but it’s worth giving you a bit more of an indication of how it works now. National Hunt races are split into different Classes, ranging from the best (Class 1) to the worst (Class 6). Within each class there are different types of race that are run, with a degree of overlap between each. The Class of a race isn’t dictated by its format, but rather by the quality of horse that runs in it.
Class 1 races are made up of Graded and Listed races. The very best type of race in the entire National Hunt calendar is a Grade 1 race, of which both the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup are examples. You then have Grade 2 races and Grade 3 races, with Listed races sitting just beneath them. The more prestigious a race is the better the level of horse that can run in it and, consequently, the more money it will attract for prizes.
Nation Hunt Racing Distances
National Hunt races are run over different lengths from each other, as we’ve mentioned, but they’re also run over different lengths than Flat Racing events, too. To give you some indication of what we’re talking about, there’s more than a mile difference between the length of the quickest National Hunt race and the shortest Flat Race. In that respect, National Hunt racing is the horse equivalent of long-distance running, whilst Flat Racing is more like a 100m sprint.
A specific type of National Hunt race that we haven’t mentioned is a Stayers’ race. These are run over a long distance and are designed to test the ability of the most stamina-fuelled horses in the industry. A good example of such a race is the Stayers’ Hurdle, which is run during the Grand National meeting at Aintree race course every year. It takes place over more than three miles and rewards a horse’s ability to keep running over a decent distance and to do so at a fair pace. You’ll normally find that it’s older horses that do well in this category of race, with more mature animals having much better stamina than their younger selves.
Age, Sex And Weight
Again, this is something that you can read about in more detail in ore age, weight and sex article. That said, if you want to know about National Hunt racing then you should at least be given some information on why these things matter when it comes to the racing itself.
As mentioned elsewhere in this piece, the older a horse is the better their stamina is likely to be. They’re also likely to be quicker and stronger than younger horses, meaning that they have an advantage over horses that are younger than them. Because of this, older horses will have extra weight added to them when they’re taking part in a race that is open to horses of varied ages.
The same is also true of male horses. They are typically stronger and better built than female horses, so the mares get given a weight allowance in National Hunt races that isn’t afforded to the males.
The amount of weight a horse will carry differs depending on the type of race, too. Handicap races are designed to make the playing field as level as possible, with the weights assigned to each horse designated by the handicappers depending on its ability. Obviously the horse considered to be the best will carry the heaviest weight and the amount of weight carried by a horse will lessen depending on how good it’s considered to be.
In a perfect world, handicap races would finish with all horses crossing the finishing line at the same time. This would show that the handicapper had done a good a job and is actually the point of handicap races. It’s why many owners who don’t have the best horses in the entire industry consider handicap races to be their best chance of winning something.
Following A Horse
One of the beauties of National Hunt racing is that horses are around for such a long time. Unlike with Flat Racing, where horses are sent off to stud at around five or so, National Hunt horses can run until they’re into double figures. This allows observant and studious fans of horse racing to follow a horse’s career from the early days in Bumper racing right the way through. It’s also why such a buzz can form around one horse or another, with experts in the industry having followed its development from early on.
It’s also how even those without major experience can learn the craft of betting on horse racing, of course. Racing isn’t generally a private affair, so you could follow a horse’s progression throughout its career just as closely as the most highly respected pundit in the horse racing world could. There’s nothing to stop you from doing that and picking up a huge amount of information along the way. If you’re in it for the long-haul then it’s a recommended activity, in fact. Follow one horse over a number of years and you’ll soon learn what sort of conditions it enjoys running in, what it dislikes and what type of race it favours.
This is also the reason so many rivalries develop in the National Hunt world. That’s not only rivalries between owners, trainers and jockeys, but also between the horses themselves. One of the great rivalries of the modern era at the Cheltenham Festival grew between Kauto Star and Denman, for example. The two horses were stablemates and Kauto Star won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2007 before finishing second behind Denman in 2008. 2009 saw Kauto Star back in the top spot and Denman this time in the runner’s up position. Neither were to win the prestigious trophy again, though Denman would finish second twice more in the race over the following two years, Kauto Star claiming third in 2011.
It led to headlines being written such as, “Is Kauto Star vs Denman the greatest showdown in horse-racing history?”, “Kauto Star and Denman: rivals for Cheltenham Gold Cup, yet best mates” and “Kauto Star v Denman and the top 10 greatest sporting rivalries“. That is the sort of rivalry that there just isn’t the time to develop in the Flat Racing season, owing to the fact that the horses aren’t around long enough. That doesn’t make one type of racing better than the other, of course, but if you’re the sort of person that loves the likes of Liverpool v Manchester United and Nadal v Federer, then it’s clear which one is for you.