Jump Racing Grades and Classes

classificationFor those uninitiated in the world of horse racing it would be easy to assume that everything is organised in pretty much the same way. After all, you have of horses, the ground that they run on and the stuff they jump over. This train of thought couldn’t be further from the truth, with the world of horse racing actually being incredibly complicated. The nature and style of each race can differ depending on the age of the horse that’s running, their sex and more. Even the ability of the jockey can make a significant difference.

Just as each race differs depending on any number of factors, so to does the terminology involved in describing it. What’s the difference between a hurdle race and a steeplechase? What’s a Bumper? Is it the jockey or the horse that’s the 'novice'? If you’re the sort of person that has previously only tended to place a bet on a major event such as the Grand National or Cheltenham Gold Cup then this could all seem a bit like a foreign language. That’s where this guide comes in, as on this page we’ll attempt to explain what these phrases mean and the reason it matters.

Origins Of The Classification System

jumpSome horses are bigger and more powerful than others. Older horses tend to be stronger than younger ones, whilst horses with experience are always likely to do better when it comes to race day than those that are just starting out. That’s why the idea of adding grading and classification to horse racing came about, to ensure the playing field is as level as possible. If you’re a football fan then you might like to think of it as being similar to the league system, or how teams get seeded in cup competitions. National Hunt racing has its origins in the Southern counties of Ireland during the 18th century, eventually making it’s way over the England in the 1800s.

Back then it tended to be between just two horses who would race long distances and if they came across an obstacle then they’d simply have to jump it if they wanted to win. It’s believed that the first race of this kind took placed over the four and a half miles or so between the Irish towns of Buttevant and Doneraile in 1752. As the horses ran from the steeple of the church in one town to the steeple of a church in another, the term 'steeplechase' was coined. We’ll go into the detail of the history of National hunt races elsewhere on the site, but mention it here because it’s helpful to know where a lot of the terminology we use nowadays came from.

Grading & Classification

racing graphicAll official National Hunt races are put into a Grade and a Class system. This can seem quite complex at first, but in reality is merely a way of sorting through things so horses race against others of similar ability. The most prestigious type of race is known as a Grade 1 race, with those after called Grade 2, Grade 3, Listed races, races with a Handicap and then Bumper races. As you’d expect, the best horses run in Grade 1 races and these are also the events the attract the highest amount of prize money.

Because the races beneath those that are either Graded or Listed are merely named after their type (so 'open handicap' or 'steeple chases'), the Class system helps to explain which bracket each of the races falls into. Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3 and Listed races are all Class 1, for example, with races that hold less prestige fitting into the other Classes depending on several factors.

There are forty different Grade 1 races that take place in Great Britain under the jurisdiction of the British Horseracing Authority. There are sixty-eight Grade 2 races, with thirty-seven different Grade 3 races. Suffice to say, that is simply too many races to list here and that’s before we even begin to talk about the Listed or handicap races. Instead we’ll tell you about the type of race and the Class that it fits into.

Class 1

  • Grade 1
  • Grade 2
  • Grade 3
  • Listed

Class 2

  • Open Handicaps
  • Weightforage Conditions Races
  • Handicaps 0145+
  • Open Novices’ Handicaps
  • Weightforage Juvenile, Novices' & Beginners' Races
  • National hunt Flat Races
  • Hunters' Steeple Chase

Class 3

  • Open Novices' Handicap Steeple Chases
  • Handicaps & Novices' Handicaps 0125 to 0140
  • Weightforage Novices', Beginners, Juvenile & Maiden Races
  • National Hunt Flat Races
  • Hunters' Steeple Chases

Class 4

  • Handicaps & Novices' Handicaps 0105 to 0120
  • Weightforage Novices', Beginners, Juvenile & Maiden Races
  • Weightforage Claiming & Selling Races
  • National Hunt Flat Races
  • Hunters' Steeple Chases

Class 5

  • Handicaps & Novices' Handicaps 0100
  • Weightforage Maiden Races
  • Weightforage Claiming Races, Selling Races & Selling Handicaps
  • National Hunt Flat Races
  • Hunters' Steeple Chases

Class 6

  • National Hunt Flat Races
  • Hunters' Steeple Chases

As you’ll have noticed, the same type of race can take place in amongst all of the different Classes, so it’s not that the style of race helps to decide the class that it fits into.

At the end of every National Hunt season the British and Irish Jumps Handicappers classify horses according to their ability. Races are run in each class, with the ability of the horse determining which class it runs in. We’ll now have a look at the different types of race we’ve just mentioned.

Graded Races

As we’ve already pointed out, these are the very best races that can be run and they are held in high esteem within the racing world. Some races might have weight allowances for the horses taking part depending on their age, with mares always given an allowance.

Grade 1

The handicap system used in this level of racing is based purely on the age and sex of the horse taking part. Whether or not the horse has won previous races is irrelevant.

Grade 2

Weight-for-Age is relevant again in Grade 2 races, with additional weight added if a horse has won in the past. Some events might also have a handicap applied.

Grade 3

In Grade 3 races the horse’s handicap rating is used to determine how much weight a horse has added to it.

Listed Races

These are races that are a notch below Graded races.

Handicap Hurdle or Chase

This is when the amount of weight carried by a horse is determined by the handicapper according to the horse’s official rating.

National Hunt Flat Race (Bumper)

Also known as Bumper races, these are for National Hunt horses but don’t involve any jumps or obstacles. They tend to be restricted to horses aged four to six and this is often how horses get their first experience of the National Hunt world.

Maiden Hurdle or Chase

These types of race are for horses that have so far not been able to win any hurdle or chase.

Novice Hurdle

This is similar to the Maiden Hurdle, expect the horse must not have won a race before the start of that season. In other words, horses in a Maiden race can never have won but horses in a novice race can have won as long as it was only in that season of racing. They’ll need to carry what is known as a 'winner’s weight' penalty in order to run.

Beginner Chase

This is essentially the same as the Novice Hurdle, except it is for horses that hadn’t won a chase before the start of the season. The difference between a hurdle and a chase, if you’re wondering, is that the obstacles in a chase tend to be larger and more rigid than those used in a hurdle.

Juvenile Novice Hurdle

The clue is in the title, here. This type of race is restricted to horses that were three at the beginning of the season and hadn’t won a hurdle.

Novice Handicap

This is for horses that carry a handicap and hadn’t won a race of any description before the season got underway.

Hunter Chase

These races are for horses that had been certified as being used in a hunt by the Master of Hounds within the year. They’re run on a weight-for-age basis and are only for amateur jockeys, allowing them to gain some experience.

Conditional Jockeys

Once more the name tells you all of the important information. These races are for jockeys that essentially 'apprentices'; known in the industry as conditional.

Amateur Races

An obvious one, really. These races are for amateur jockeys who are yet to turn professional.

Prize Money

The amount of money involved in each type of race varies depending on its prestige. In a Grade 1 Steeple Chase the minimum purse will be £100,000, for example, whilst that drops down to £1,500 in a Class 6 Hunters' Steeple Chase.

There’s also a general rule of thumb that Steeple Chases will be worth more money than Hurdles, which will be worth more money than Flat Races.

Types Of National Hunt Jump Race

In their most basic form, races can be broken down into one of three different types. They’ll either be a Steeple Chase, a Hurdle or a Bumper. Though we mentioned the difference briefly above, we’ll explain it in more detail now:

Flat Race

horse flatWe’ll start by looking at the type of race that a horse new to the world of National hunt racing would start with, a flat race. Also known as a bumper because of the fact that the horses and jockeys lack experience and don’t run as smooth as their peers, bumping around a lot, these tend to be the last races run at a meeting because the horses aren’t experienced and are therefore less interesting for most punters to watch.

They are run over much longer distances than races that take place in the Flat Racing season and are designed to give young, inexperienced horses a sense of what it’s like to take part in a race. They’re normally quite low class races and certainly don’t have the sort of prize money associated with them as Hurdles or Steeple Chases, but if you watch enough of them you’ll soon start to get an idea of how to spot talented horses that might be worth keeping an eye on in the future.


horse hurdleOnce horses have enjoyed a Flat Race or two they’ll graduate to running in a Hurdle. The minimum height of an obstacle in a Hurdle race is 1.07m or three foot six inches. That’s a fair bit lower than the minimum heights involved in Steeple Chases, as we’ll explain shortly, and allows horses a chance to get to grips with the idea of jumping over things. The obstacles are also flexible at the top, meaning that they bend if a horse’s legs crash into it. This makes it less likely that the horse or jockey will fall.

Because the horses taking part in the races are younger than in Steeple Chases, typically aged three of four, and because they don’t have to jump as high to get over the obstacles on the course, Hurdle races tend to be run at a faster pace than Steeple Chases. This is also why the races are often called Juvenile or Novice events. If you’ve followed a horse from Bumper racing to Hurdles then this is your chance to see how well they cope with having to jump.

Steeple Chase

horse steepleIf you’re the sort of bettor that has previously only tuned in for the big events in the National Hunt hose racing calendar then it’s a reasonably fair guess to say that you’ll have watched a Steeple Chase. As mentioned before, these originated back in in the 1700s when horses would be run from one church to another, dealing with any obstacle that it came across.

In real life the horse might well have had to deal with canals, fences, bushes, thick hedges and more. In the artificial world of the race course it’s not easy to replicate this, so certain rules have been put in place to things are challenging as possible for the horses racing in the event. The minimum height of the obstacles are as follows:

  • Plain Fence - 1.37m or four foot six inches
  • Water Jumps - 0.91m or three foot high, with water at least 7.6cm or three inches deep
  • Open Ditches - Obstacle of at least 1.37m or four foot six inches, in addition to a ditch on the take off side

The obstacles are intended to be rigid, meaning that horses have to work hard to get over them. Horses have to be big, strong and powerful and if they fall it can be particularly troublesome. That’s why horses start off doing Hurdles before graduating to Steeple Chases, meaning that they can learn how to cope with jumping in an easier environment before being pushed to their limits. This is also why the most prestigious Steeple Chases, such as the Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup, are run by older horses that have gained a good degree of experience.

National Hunt Jump Racing Distances

As you might expect, the distance run in races can also vary widely. A Steeple Chase tends to be run over distances from two miles to four and a half miles. Hurdle Races are normally run over a distance of two miles to three and a half miles. When it comes to Bumper Races, these tend to be run over distances of about 1 and a half miles to three miles, though they can be longer.

You'll sometimes here talk of a horse being a 'Stayer'. This means that they run best over distances of more than a mile and a half. They might not be the fastest horse in the business, but they can run with a degree of stamina that makes them worth watching out for. There are races aimed specifically at stayers, such as the Stayers' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival that is run over a distance of three miles.