Nowadays, horse racing fans know all about the prestige of steeplechases. The Grand National, for example, is often referred to as the ‘World’s Greatest Steeplechase’, such is the extent to which the Aintree event is watched by people from all over the globe as they look to guess which of the 40 horses is going to cope with the various challenges that are thrown their way.
At the Cheltenham Festival, the Gold Cup is the blue riband event, being watched by just as many people as the National, if not more, bringing the week to a close.
In modern parlance, a steeplechase is simply a horse race run over distance in which obstacles need to be jumped. These obstacles can take numerous different forms, but the main point is that they exist and that riders need to guide their steeds over them if they wish to complete the course and win the race.
Primarily taking place in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, France and Australia, the form of racing has a quite literal origin in terms of its name, involving racing from one steeple to another in two different villages using the church as a guiding point.
18th Century Ireland & Into England
If we want to get a sense of the origins of steeplechasing, we need to head back to the island of Ireland in the 18th century. Quite literally, the horses would be raced from the steeple of one church to the steeple of another, with the first ever such race believed to be the one that took place as the result of a bet between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake.
They raced from St John’s Church in Buttevant to the church of St Mary in Doneraile, both in County Cork (see image above). Indeed, most of the early steeplechases took place in such a manner. This is also the same origin as point-to-point racing.
It wasn’t until 1810 that the first steeplechase over an actual racecourse was recorded, taking place in Bedford. A race had been run at Newmarket in 1794, but the distance as well as the size of the jumps meant that it isn’t really thought of as being a true steeplechase.
A steeplechase had taken place in Leicestershire in 1792, but that was from Barkby Holt to Billesdon Coplow and therefore fitted in more with the type of race that had taken place in Cork in 1752 rather than a race on a course that could be recorded as such.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were few purpose built tracks designed for horse racing. As a result, riders needed to make use of the natural environment around them if they wanted to get the most out of the horses that they were racing.
Even the likes of maps weren’t as prolific as they are nowadays, to say nothing of the fact that technology such as G.P.S. was years away from existing. Consequently, riders needed to know where they were racing and to be given a clear target to follow. One of the tallest things around was the local church.
The steeple of the church would tower over all of the local buildings and vegetation, making them the idea thing for the riders to keep an eye on as they raced from one area to another. Given the fact that the land wasn’t purpose built for racing, the horses would need to be guided over any and all obstacles that came between the two steeples.
These could include the likes of fences, ditches, shrubbery and rivers, all of which presented the horses with a tough journey and added to the excitement of the race. If it was in the way, the horse needed to jump it.
The Move To Racecourses
When racecourses became more and more prolific around the country, there was a desire from the race organisers to do what they could in order to ensure that the races reflected the events that had been established in nature.
Consequently, courses were built with a few of the obstacles that the horses had needed to jump when racing from one steeple to another. This is why fences came to be build on the courses, as well as ditches dug and water obstacles created, presenting horse and jockey with the same sort of obstacle that they’d been taking on for years.
In 1839, the Grand National was established at Aintree, asking the horses to run over some genuinely treacherous obstacles during the four mile or so event. It became world famous in the years that followed, growing to such an extent that horses would travel from all over the world in order to take part in it.
Other races were designed to replicate its success, which is why the Gold Cup is such a prestigious event when it takes place during the week of the Cheltenham Festival. Different courses came up with their own events, presenting unique challenges as a result.
The Modern Race
As the years passed, the National Hunt did what it could to make racing more and more safe. The jumps at Aintree Racecourse, for example, were made safer with every passing year.
Hurdle racing was essentially brought in in order to give younger, less experienced horses the chance to learn how to jump over obstacles without needing to go straight to taking part in steeplechase races. The event spread around the world, though the racing that takes place in the United Kingdom and Ireland remains the most influential.
To give you a sense of that, it is worth bearing in mind that Great Britain and Ireland accounts for more than 50% of all of the jump races that take place anywhere in the world.
In 2008, 4,800 races were carded by the National Hunt. Other countries have developed their own form of jump racing, including the likes of the Velká pardubická in the Czech Republic, but regardless of the format that the jump racing takes, its origin can be traced back to the event that saw horses run from the steeple of one church to another back in 1752.