What is Steeplechase?

Everyone knows the Kentucky Derby – all the horses run around a big circle, women wear hats, and eventually, a winner is declared. Also, one of the horses wins the race.

But lesser known to the general public are steeplechase races, which are run cross country and include jumps. They are great events to attend. Crowds spread out along the course to watch multiple races, which usually include some exhibition races like sidesaddle or jack russell terriers. I love watching steeplechases. It’s horses, a day outside with friends, and a picnic all in one.

I had a whole list of steeplechases and point to points to attend this spring, but thanks to this pesky virus they have been cancelled or postponed. Instead, I am going to appreciate steeplechase, alone, inside, and mostly virtually, unless I can convince Berry that her secret ambition is actually steeplechase (she might be into it, I’ve seen her jump the barnyard fence. Kind of similar, right?)

Ready yourself for more posts on this. I am going to appreciate the heck out of it while I’m stuck inside. But let’s start with the basics.

The Origins of Steeplechase

The first recorded steeplechase was held in Ireland in 1752 between two men. It started out as a very simple, “My horse is faster than yours.” The race was held from Buttevant Church to St. Mary’s Doneraile, a distance of about 4 1/2 miles. The churches were chosen because of their prominant steeples, standing out in the landscape, and the race was run across the country, jumping over the natural terrain. 

This form of racing spread to England, where the first reported race with more than 2 horses was held in 1792. In 1810, the first race over an established course was held in 1810 in Bedfordshire. The sport grew, and in 1839, the first Grand National was held at Aintree.   

It is believed that steeplechase first came to America through fox-hunting. The same people who loved foxhunting also loved racing their horses through similar terrain. 

In 1895, the National Steeplechase Association was created to keep records, govern, promote and hold races. Some of the oldest Steeplechases are the Maryland Hunt Cup (1894), the American Grand National (1899) and the National Hunt Cup in PA (1909).

Timber vs. Hurdle

Timber on the left, hurdle on the right.

Hurdle

Also called National fences, these are plastic or steel fences 52 inches tall, that also have traditional packed pines and live hedge fences. Hurdle horses are trained to jump “in stride” to maintain their speed upon landing. The courses are usually 2-3 miles long.

Timber

Done over solid and immovable wooden rail fences that may reach five feet tall. Because of the size of the fences and solidness of the jumps, the horses are trained to jump with an arc. The courses are 3-4 miles long.

Timber Fence – Solid and wooden

Steeplechase vs. Point to Point

I’ve been to both, and began wondering what the different was between them. They both seem the same – horses race cross country, jumping over things. Googling it didn’t even seem to help. Both types of races have the exact same description. 

A distance horse race in which competitors are required to jump fence and ditch obstacles.

General definition of both Steeplechase and Point to Point

Luckily though, I did find the answer, and confirmed it with my neighbor, who rode in a point to point as a teenager, and then a pro took the same horse into the steeplechases (my neighbor is a super cool lady). Point to Point is for amateur riders who are usually riding their own horses, similar to how you, general adult amateur, might take your horse to a horse show. They are usually hosted by Hunt clubs, and have no prize money. Steeplechase is the professional league – owner hires a trainer, hires a jockey, and potentially wins money.

So feel free to give your thoroughbred a break from the ol’ hunter/jumper circuit and go train for some Point to Points. Just be aware that the pros do use them to train for the steeplechases, so you’re probably not going to win. But maybe you can be the next underdog story? It’ll be worth it when they make a movie about you!

When are the Races?

Steeplechasing runs in a spring circuit and a fall circuit. There are races in Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York.

On Monday, the Director of Racing at the National Steeplechase Association, announced a tenative schedule for the spring races that were postponed, having the season start on May 20, 2020, with the Middleburg Spring Races. However, since that announcement, the Virginia governor announced we are all to stay home until June 10th, so the schedule is sure to be reworked. 

There’s a few more steeplechase posts coming – I hope you enjoy appreciating steeplechase virtually!

If you need more steeplechase to tide you over, here are some previous races covered in the blog:

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