When it comes to jump racing, the events that most people will see in their mind’s eye when they think about the sport are steeplechases. That’s because some of the most famous events in horse racing, such as the Grand National and the Gold Cup, are steeplechases. They are amongst the most physically demanding and challenging races that horses can take on.
The primary difference between hurdle races and steeplechases is the size and difficulty of the jumps, with hurdles being smaller and easier to negotiate. Steeplechase fences have to be at least 4 foot and 6 inches, unless they are water jumps. There can be different types of fence, such as plain and open ditch, with 6 fences to each mile of a steeplechase race.
Steeplechase Races At The Cheltenham Festival
|Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase||2m 62y||Grade 3||£108,200|
Foxhunter Challenge Cup
Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase
|3m 2f 70y||Class 2 Chase||£43,500|
|The Cheltenham Gold Cup||3m 2f 70y||Grade 1||£615,000|
|Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup||3m 2f||Class 2 Chase||£67,500|
|Stable Plate Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 3||£108,000|
The Festival Trophy
|2m 4f 127y||Grade 1||£345,000|
Golden Miller Novices' Chase
The Golden Miller Novices' Chase
|2m 3f 168y||Grade 1||£147,500|
|Cross Country Chase||3m 6f 37y||Class 2 Chase||£64,000|
|Queen Mother Champion Chase||1m 7f 199y||Grade 1||£392,500|
RSA Novices' Chase
|3m 80y||Grade 1||£172,000|
|Novices' Handicap Chase||2m 4f 44y||Listed||£69,000|
|National Hunt Chase||3m 5f 201y||Grade 2||£120,500|
|Festival Trophy Handicap Chase||3m 1f||Grade 3||£102,500|
|Arkle Challenge Trophy||1m 7f 199y||Grade 1||£172,500|
Steeplechase Races At Other Cheltenham Meetings
|Handicap Chase||3m 2f||Class 2 Chase||£25,000|
|Nicholson Holman Chase||3m 1f 56y||Class 3 Chase||£19,000|
|Silver Trophy Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 2||£60,000|
|Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Mares' Handicap Chase||2m 62y||Class 2 Chase||£25,000|
|Mares' Handicap Chase||3m 2f||Class 3 Chase||£21,400|
|Mares' Novices' Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Listed||£40,000|
|Shloer Chase||1m 7f 199y||Grade 2||£70,000|
|Arkle Trophy Trial Novices' Chase||1m 7f 199y||Grade 2||£30,000|
|Handicap Chase||3m 3f 71y||Grade 3||£59,000|
|Novices' Chase||3m 80y||Class 2 Chase||£25,000|
|Cross Country Handicap Chase||3m 6f 37y||Class 2 Chase||£25,000|
|Steel Plate Novices' Chase||2m 4f 44y||Class 2 Chase||No Race|
|Handicap Chase||1m 7f 199y||Class 2 Chase||No Race|
|Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase||3m 1f 67y||Class 3 Hurdle||No Race|
|Cross Country Handicap Chase||3m 6f 37y||Class 2 Chase||£34,500|
|December Handicap Chase||3m 2f||Grade 3||£59,000|
|Mares' Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Class 3 Chase||£14,750|
|International Decorative Surfaces Novices' Chase||3m 1f 56y||Class 2 Chase||£24,300|
|Gold Cup Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 3||£128,000|
|Cheltenham Club Handicap Chase||2m 62y||Class 2 Chase||£29,550|
|Ryman Novices' Chase||2m 4f 127y||Class 2 Chase||£24,600|
|Junior Jumpers Open Hunters' Chase||2m 4f 127y||Class 5 Chase||£5,000|
|Open Hunters' Chase||4m 97y||Class 4 Chase||£6,200|
|Mares' Open Hunters' Chase||3m 1f 56y||Class 4 Chase||£6,200|
|Mixed Open Gold Cup Final Hunters' Chase||3m 2f 70y||Class 2 Chase||£24,000|
|Open Hunters' Chase||3m 1f 56y||Class 4 Chase||£6,300|
|Championship Final Hunters' Chase||3m 2f||Class 4 Chase||£8,000|
|Open Hunters' Chase||2m 62y||Class 5 Chase||£4,800|
|Trial Cotswold Chase||3m 1f 56y||Grade 2||£97,500|
|Trophy Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 3||£69,000|
|Novices' Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Class 2 Chase||£27,050|
|Handicap Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 3||£69,000|
|Dipper Novices’ Chase||2m 4f 127y||Grade 2||£34,500|
|Handicap Chase||3m 2f 70y||Class 2 Chase||£25,600|
|Amateur Riders' Handicap Chase||3m 1f||Class 3 Chase||£15,000|
|Novices' Chase||3m 80y||Class 2 Chase||£25,000|
|Novices' Chase||1m 7f 199y||Class 2 Chase||£25,000|
|Novices' Chase||2m 3f 166y||Class 2 Chase||£25,000|
|Handicap Chase||1m 7f 199y||Class 2 Chase||£60,000|
|Handicap Chase||3m 1f||Class 2 Chase||£60,000|
|BetVictor Gold Cup||2m 4f 44y||Grade 3||£160,000|
Steeplechase Races Explained
In order to understand the modern day version of a steeplechase, we first need to travel back in time to the very beginning of horse racing as any sort of sport. The race type actually originated in Ireland in the 18th century, seeing the horses being guided from the church steeple of one village to the church steeple of another.
During the running the horses would have to negotiate all sorts of obstacles, including rivers and fences. There is a general belief that the first ever steeplechase was the result of a bet between Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake in 1752. They had to race 4 miles, going from St John’s Church in Buttevant to St Mary’s Church in Doneraile, Cork.
The sport moved to England in 1792 when three horses ran from Barkby Holt to Billesdon Coplow in Leicestershire and back, a distance of 8 miles. Whilst a race featuring five-foot bars was run at Newmarket in 1794, the first steeplechase officially run over a prepared track took place at Bedford in 1810.
Nowadays the races that most closely resemble those early steeplechases run from steeple to steeple are cross-country races. Steeplechases as we know them in the modern day still keep the basis of those early races, run as they are over long distances and with a wide variety of obstacles that they need to negotiate before the end.
In terms of the rules that are in place for steeplechases, which are often referred to simply as chases, they are run over a distance of between 2 miles and 4 and a half miles. Fences must be at least 4 and a half metres high and are made of a mixture of spruce and birch tree branches. The obstacles can be anything from water jumps, open ditches and plain fences.
Many horses and jockeys begin their chasing careers by taking part in point-to-point races, which are for amateurs and give them a time to learn how the race type works. Because of the nature of the races and the difficulty of them, chasers are often older horses that mastered hurdling before moving up to steeplechases.
High Profile Steeplechases
Forty different racecourses in the United Kingdom host steeplechases during the year, so you can imagine that the variety of race on offer can vary wildly. The best way of helping you to understand the manner in which steeplechases can be so different from one another is to take a closer look at some specific examples of races.
As you read through these various examples, make sure to have a look out for the different lengths of race, the variation in the number of obstacles that horses must jump as well as the age of the participants and the different ways in which the weights work.
The Grand National
There is no other race to start with when discussing chases than the race known as ‘The World’s Greatest Steeplechase’. Run at Aintree Racecourse every year, it takes place left-handed and is run over a distance of 4 miles and 514 yards. There are 30 fences that need to be jumped in that time, with some of them being amongst the most famous fences in horse racing.
Names like The Canal Turn, The Chair and Becher’s Brook are famous in their own right because of what has happened at them over the years. The race was run for the first time in 1836, though officially the 1839 running is considered to be initial one. It is for horses aged 7 years and over, with a rating of 120 of more according to the British Horseracing Authority.
Horses must also have placed in a recognised chase of 3 miles or more if they wish to take part in the National. It is a handicap race with a maximum weight of 11 stone and 10 pounds. Considered to be the most valuable jump race in Europe thanks to the £1 million purse it boasted in 2019, it is the finest example of a steeplechase in horse racing.
To give an indication of why the race is so beloved of both horse racing fans and those with little more than a passing interest, you only need to look back to the 1967 renewal. A horse that had unseated its rider caused a melee at the 23rd fence, allowing Foinavon, a rank outsider who was far back from the field, to skip past everyone and win at odds of 100/1.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup
If we hadn’t started this look at alternative races with the Grand National then it’s probable that we would have turned to the Gold Cup instead. Whilst the Aintree race is considered to be one of the most entertaining steeplechases in horse racing, the Gold Cup is the event for the horse racing connoisseur. Run for the first time in 1924, it is the most prestigious National Hunt event.
The race is open to horses aged 5 and over and boasts the following weight information:
- 5-year-olds: 11 stone 8 pounds
- 6-year-olds and over: 11 stone 10 pounds
- Mares are given a 7 pound allowance
The Gold Cup is run left-handed over 3 miles, 2 furlongs and 70 yards, with 22 fences during that distance. You can already see, therefore, the manner in which the National Hunt’s most famous steeplechases are so very different from each other. Yes, there are certain things that have in common but the age of horses, length of race and number of fences are all different.
Some of the best horses ever to run have been crowned winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, including Arkle, Golden Miller, Best Mate and Kauto Star. In 2020 it had a prize purse of £650,000 on offer, making it the richest non-handicap chase in the United Kingdom. The history of the Gold Cup is storied and fascinating, helping it to develop into the race that it is today.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
Another steeplechase run at Cheltenham during the Festival is the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Lasting for 1 mile, 7 furlongs and 199 yards, it is open to horses aged 5 and over with a weight of 11 stone and 10 pounds, though mares get a 7 pound allowance. There are 13 fences to be jumped in this Grade 1 offering, which is the National Hunt’s leading medium-distance chase.
The feature race on day two of the Festival, it was run for the first time in 1959 as the National Hunt Two-Mile Champion Chase. Given its current title when the Queen Mother turned 80 in 1980, the race differs again from the other two steeplechase’s looked at so far here. Badsworth Boy won the race three times between 1983 and 1985.
King George VI Chase
Moving away from Cheltenham, the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park is another well-respected steeplechase in the world of horse racing. Inaugurated in 1937, it is run right-handed over 3 miles and is open to horses aged 4 and over. The following weight information is at play for the race:
- 4-year-olds: 11 stone 3 pounds
- 5-year-olds and over: 11 stone 10 pounds
- Fillies and mares are given an allowance of 7 pounds
There are 18 fences that need to be jumped during the 3 miles of the Grade 1 race, which was named in honour of the newly crowned monarch at the time of its creation. It traditionally takes place on Boxing Day every year and was considered to be the most prestigious steeplechase for some time until the Cheltenham Gold Cup took that honour.
The Ascot Chase is one of the chief steeplechases that takes place at Ascot, which is a racecourse better known for its association with flat racing. It is run over 2 miles, 5 furlongs and 85 yards, with 17 fences to jump. Usually taking place in February each year, it began life in 1995 under the title of the Comet Chase.
Back then the distance was 2 miles and 3 and a half furlongs, but it was modified when it was briefly switched to Lingfield Park, It received its current length in 2008. Until 1998 it took place on a Wednesday, but has been run on a Saturday since 1999. A number of horses have won the race more than once, such as Cue Card in 2013 and 2017.
Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase
A Grade 2 race run over 2 miles, the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase has 12 fences that the participants need to jump during its running. It usually takes place in December during Kempton Park’s Christmas Festival and is named in honour of Wayward Lad, who won the King George VI Chase three times.
Originally ran over 2 and a half miles, the race’s length was extended by 10 yards in 1992. It was missed off the National Hunt calendar altogether in 1999 but when it returned in 2000 its length was 2 miles. It has been a Grade 2 race since 2005. The manner in which the race’s length has been altered back and forth shows how length isn’t the crucial part of a steeplechase.
Trophy Handicap Chase
A Grade 3 race for horses aged 5 and up, the Trophy Handicap Chase has been known by a number of different names over the years because of sponsorship. Run on Cheltenham’s New Course, it lasts for 2 miles, 4 furlongs and 127 yards and boasts 17 fences. A handicap race, it is on the schedule to be run in late January.
The inaugural running of the Trophy Handicap Chase was in 1993 and it was given Listed status in 2002. Back then it was known as the Ladbroke Trophy Chase, giving you an indication of how many times it has endured a change of title. The race was given its Grade 3 status in 2005 and has enjoyed some decent winners over the years.
Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase
Sticking in Cheltenham for the final race we’ll tell you about in the steeplechase category, the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase was run for the first time in 2005 and is a race that boasts the most similarities with the sort of races that took place when steeplechases were first being run. It’s for horses aged 5 and over and is a handicap event.
Run over 3 miles, 6 furlongs and 37 yards, the race boasts 32 obstacles. You’ll notice that we’ve opted for the phrase ‘obstacles’ rather than fences, which is because there are a series of unique things that need to be jumped. Horses that do well in this race during the Festival often go on to be competitive in the Grand National, such as Tiger Roll. He won this in 2018 and 2019 before then matching Red Rum in winning back-to-back Nationals in those same years.