Jump racing is different from its flat racing cousin in virtually every sense, with the very presence of jumps changing so much about a race. Not only do the horses have to run further than flat racing horses but they also have to jump obstacles during the journey. It’s why a jump racing horse is so different to a flat racing one, with trainers and owners looking for different traits in the animals that they enter into the races.
Each type of jump race asks for its own speciality from the horses, with hurdles being a significantly different proposition to steeplechases. Add in cross country events and you can see why it is that a horse has to be older and more experienced in order to take part in the tougher races. The Cheltenham Festival is a meeting that boasts countless different jump races, so it’s worth having a look at the ones with the most fences.
Cheltenham Festival Races With The Most Fences
|Cross Country Chase||32||Class 2 Chase||3m 6f 37y|
|National Hunt Chase||23||Grade 2||3m 5f 201y|
|The Cheltenham Gold Cup||22||Grade 1||3m 2f 70y|
|Foxhunter Challenge Cup||22||Class 2 Chase||3m 2f 70y|
|Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup||21||Class 2 Chase||3m 2f|
|Festival Trophy Handicap Chase||20||Grade 3||3m 1f|
|Brown Advisory Novices' Chase||20||Grade 1||3m 80y|
|Mrs Paddy Power Mares' Chase||17||Grade 2||2m 4f 127y|
|Ryanair Chase||17||Grade 1||2m 4f 127y|
|Plate Handicap Chase||17||Grade 3||2m 4f 127y|
Logically the races with the most fences also tend to be the longest races at the Festival. In fact, the top 7 races in the table match the table for the longest races. This makes a lot of sense given you need a longer distance to squeeze in 20+ obstacles in a race and still have time for the horses to prepare for each jump.
We also know that longer races with a lot of obstacles to jump are also ones that favour older horses with more stamina. Therefore, it is no surprise to see the Cross Country Chase, with 32 to be jumped, is not only the longest race but also the race with the highest average age for the winner. In fact, 8 of the races in the table above also feature in the top 10 highest average age for the winners races.
Given many of us that prefer jump racing to flat racing do so because the races are more involved, the table above is useful for those that want to pick out the races likely to produce more drama. These can also be the races that produce the most heartache too, seeing your horse stride out in front for most of the race only to lose it on the last couple of jumps. There is a nice mix of grade 1, grade 2, grade 3 and handicap races too.
There are ten races that take place during the Cheltenham Festival that contain 17 or more fences, so it’s worth taking a closer look at them. The type of race is obviously what dictates the type of fence that horses and their jockeys will encounter, with all races on this list being steeplechases. Cheltenham isn’t like Aintree, so the fences don’t have quite the same sense of personality as the Liverpool course.
Cross Country Chase
The meeting’s longest race, taking place over three miles, six furlongs and 37 yards, is also the one that contains the most fences. Not only that, but the obstacles that horses have to cope with during the Cross Country Chase are tougher than those that they’ll jump during a standard steeplechase or hurdle event. Cross country races are designed to replicate the original jump racing events of yore.
When races were first run, steeplechases would literally involve horse running from the steeple of one church to that of another, so cross country events would involve them jumping rivers, walls, a farmer’s fence and more. Whilst the Cross Country Chase doesn’t quite replicate that, despite only having been established in 2005, the race nevertheless attempts to offer a real challenge for those taking part.
There are 32 different obstacles for the horses to get over, which is why the age limit for the event is five and over. The challenge of coping with the length of the race as well as the number of fences means that a horse has to be physically able to cope as well as experienced enough to understand what each jump entails. Some of the fences replicate those you’d find during the Grand National at Aintree Racecourse. Therefore, it is no surprise that it has already become a Cheltenham classic, thanks in part to the Grand National legend Tiger Roll winning the race a record three times.
National Hunt Chase
With 23 fences to get over, the National Hunt Chase boasts the second-most obstacles of the Cheltenham Festival races. It is run over three miles, five furlongs and 201 yards, showing just how many fences the Cross Country Chase packs into a race of a similar length. This steeplechase still asks the horses to be aged five or older, demonstrating the importance of experience in the toughest races.
A race that travelled around different courses during its more formative years, it was actually run on the New Course between 2005 and 2007 and took place over a longer distance. It returned to the Old Course after that and has been run on it ever since, but that shows that it is adaptable and the fences across Cheltenham Racecourse are of a sufficient challenge to be able to take on all races.
When it comes to the challenge of the race, this one is usually limited to amateur jockeys. It is a chance for them to gain some genuinely priceless experience over fences that present difficulty to even the most experienced of jockeys. Previous winning horses include names such as Tiger Roll, who went on to win the Cross Country Chase three times as well as the Aintree Grand National twice.
Foxhunter Challenge Cup
Considered by many to be the ‘amateur Gold Cup’, the Festival Hunter Chase takes place over the same distance as the meeting’s blue riband event and, more importantly as far as this piece is concerned, over some of the same fences but is only open to amateur jockeys. Three miles, two furlongs and 70 yards is what the horses have to keep running for if they want to win the event, jumping 22 fences as they complete the course.
The horses must be five and over to take part, with their experience over fences designed to make up for the supposed lack of experience of the jockeys. This is seconded by the fact that the horses have to have qualified for the event by winning other races within a specified period. The New Course places its emphasis on the stamina of the horses, though that doesn’t take away from the challenge of the fences.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
The Grand National at Aintree Racecourse, which is considered to be one of the toughest jump races in the world, requires horses to be aged seven or older to take part. The fact that the age limit for the Gold Cup is five-years-olds shows that the fences don’t present quite the same challenge as at Aintree, which perhaps explains why they don’t have the same sense of reputation as the Liverpool fences.
The race gets underway with two plain fences before horses need to get over the water jump and some open ditches. There are then some plain fences as the horses run downhill, having climbed up over the first few jumps. With 22 fences to jump in all, the Gold Cup isn’t as challenging as some of the other races during the Festival but is not without its challenges, hence its reputation in the world of jump racing.
The fact that the course takes the horses uphill to begin with and then downhill afterwards adds a sense of difficulty to the race. That is especially true when it comes to the open ditches, given the nature in which an uphill ditch presents the horses with a challenging sense of perception that they need to cope with. They also jump the fences twice, meaning that there are two opportunities for them to catch the horses out.
Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup
Open to horses aged five and over, this event is run over three miles and two furlongs and asks the participants to cope with 21 fences during that distance. Run on the New Course, it is another of the Cheltenham Festival races that is only open to amateur jockeys. That’s been the case since it was introduced as the Kim Muir Amateur Riders’ Steeplechase in 1946, which adds a degree of difficultly to the fences.
A steeplechase event, the idea behind it is that it replicates the run from church steeple to church steeple that horses had to endure during jump racing’s more formative years. As time has passed, of course, the fences have become a lot more friendly in order to reduce injuries to the participants, but the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup is no less challenging because of that fact.
The other races that contain a decent number of fences for the horses to jump are as follows:
- Festival Trophy Handicap Chase
- Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase
- Mrs Paddy Power Mares Chase
- Ryanair Chase
- Plate Handicap Chase
Each of the races is a steeplechase event, presenting the horses with a various challenge depending on the number of fences involved. Regardless, the horses have to be of sufficient ability to cope with the obstacles and usually need to be aged five or over to do so.
Each race boasts its own quirks and peculiarities that helps differentiate them from each other, but one thing that they all share is that the fences make them difficult to win.
Fences At Cheltenham Racecourse
Fences at Cheltenham Racecourse are a minimum of four foot and six inches in height, compared to the three foot and six inches of the hurdles. They are made of a mixture of materials such as birch and spruce. The majority of fences that are jumped during the Cheltenham Festival are normal, but there are also jumps that have a water aspect as well as some open ditches that present unique challenges in their own right.
Steeplechase races must, by design, contain at least twelve jumps in the first two miles of the race. Each subsequent mile then requires at least six more fences. That’s the basis on which race organisers create the events during the Festival, so it tells you a fair amount about what to expect when you find out the length of each race. It also tells you how many more fences have been added to increase a race’s difficultly.
Changes To The Course & Fences
In the wake of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, during which seven horses died, significant plans were put in place to ensure the safety of participating horses. A review was carried out by the British Horseracing Authority, which included the likes of extra veterinary checks. There were 17 recommendations in all, which included some changes to fences and the location of them during the races.
Changes were seen as a necessity, with critics believing that horses were four times more likely to die at Prestbury Park than at Hexham Racecourse. This was an important choice of venue because of the fact that it hosts a similar number of race meetings to Cheltenham Racecourse and is also of a similar length. It’s believed that the likes of race length, amateur jockeys taking part and how many horses were running made a difference.
Research discovered that the penultimate fence on the Old Course saw a higher percentage of fallers than elsewhere at the racecourse, so race organisers decided to move it. It became just the second fence to be moved in more than 20 years at Prestbury Park, showing just what a momentous decision it was to shift it. The move was designed to give jockeys more time to see it and prepare their horses for it.
Prior to the move, the fence came just before the bend in the track. Horses would often jump it but then struggle with their landing. It was moved to the final straight in 2010, with faller rates dropping as a result. Even so, it remained the location of a large number of high-profile falls, including when Ruby Walsh broke his leg when falling with Al Boum Photo in 2018.
Simon Claisse, the Clerk Of The Course, and his team therefore decided that the most sensible thing was to move the fence again. It was shifted ten yards further up, moving it up hill and closer to the finish line. This meant that horses had a longer amount of time to get into the stride, thereby reducing the risk that they wouldn’t be set correctly before trying to take on the jump.
Of course, the flip side of that is that the fence was moved closer to the final fence on the course. This means that the horses need to adjust much more quickly to get into their stride before the final jump of the course. The likes of the RSA Novice Chase is affected by the change, with horses starting that race between the two fences. It was one change that was seen as a necessity, however.
Those that enjoy the Cheltenham Festival and don’t want it to endure too many changes pointed out that the rate of fatalities between April 2018 and New Year’s Day was 0.37% compared to a national average of 0.39%. That being said, there’s no question that the jumps at Cheltenham present a challenge to horse and seven deaths at one meeting is far too high a number for race organisers to ignore.
Ultimately, most of the races that are run during the Cheltenham Festival are well-established, meaning that the event organisers will be loathe to make too many changes to the location, height and difficulty of the jumps. Obviously exceptions are made when it comes to horse welfare, but racegoers will also be reluctant for the races to change that much when they’ve become so loved.