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    Explanation of Steeple Chase Racing
Explanation of Steeple Chase Racing
Steeple Chase Racing. Source: Grand National

Explanation of Steeple Chase Racing

Steeple Chase and point-to-point racing share many similarities. However, they also have significant distinctions, one being that Steeple Chase is considered professional racing, whereas point-to-point racing is more of an amateur pursuit. While Steeple Chase racing is sometimes mistakenly associated with other forms of racing like jump racing, it stands as a distinct category of its own in the purest form of UK racing. The British Horse Racing Authority (BHA) oversees Steeple Chase, ensuring its proper regulation and management.

Early days of Steeple Chase Racing. Source: Europeana
Early days of Steeple Chase Racing. Source: Europeana

From Origins to Modern Courses

The Olympic discipline known as the human Steeple Chase involves a course with obstacles that must be overcome. However, in this context, we are specifically referring to Steeple Chase horse racing and point-to-point racing with horses. Despite the difference in participants, the underlying theory remains the same—a course with obstacles that need to be conquered.

Steeple Chase horse racing is a professional sport that occurs on a specially designed track. It originated in Ireland during the 1700s and later spread to the United Kingdom. The term "Steeple Chase" originates from the historical practice of racing between two steeples or church towers, with natural obstacles like fences and ditches, as opposed to the artificial barriers used in modern races. 

The term "jump racing" or "National Hunt racing" is employed to encompass both steeple chases and hurdle races together, although the term "National Hunt racing" technically includes some flat races as well. 

According to historical accounts, the origins of the first steeple chase can be traced back to a bet made in 1752 between Cornelius O'Callaghan and Edmund Blake in Cork, Ireland. The race covered a distance of four miles (6.4 km) across the countryside, starting from St John's Church in Buttevant and ending at St Mary's Church in Doneraile. It is believed that a description of this race was kept in the library of the O'Briens of Dromoland Castle.

Early steeple chases were primarily held off-track, resembling the modern-day English cross-country races. The first recorded steeple chase on a prepared track with fences took place in Bedford in 1810. However, a race with similar features had already been held in Newmarket in 1794, covering a mile (1600 m) with five-foot (1.5 m) barriers placed every quarter mile (400 m). The first recorded steeple chase in England, regardless of the type, occurred in Leicestershire in 1792. This race involved three horses competing over an eight-mile course from Barkby Holt to Billesdon Coplow and back.

The first recorded hurdle race occurred at Durdham Down near Bristol in 1821. This race featured a mile-long course with five hurdles, and it was run in three heats.

The inaugural English National Steeple Chase, officially recognised as such, was held on Monday, March 8, 1830. Organised by Thomas Coleman of St Albans, the race covered a distance of 4 miles (6.4 km), starting from Bury Orchard in Harlington, Bedfordshire, and finishing at the Obelisk in Wrest Park, Bedfordshire. The winner of this race was Captain Macdowall, riding "The Wonder," which was owned by Lord Ranelagh. Captain Macdowall completed the race in 16 minutes and 25 seconds. A report detailing the event was published in the May and July editions of the Sporting Magazine in 1830.

Today, Steeple Chase races are held on various courses throughout the country, following rules and regulations aimed at preventing injuries.

Steeple Chase racing. Source: KRQE
Steeple Chase racing. Source: KRQE

Components of a Steeple Chase 

Steeple Chase courses maintain elements such as fences and water obstacles that must be jumped, but they are artificially constructed and strictly regulated. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) establishes the rules, which are outlined in a comprehensive regulations book. Within this rule book, the obstacles are larger compared to those in regular jump races, with specific measurements for fence sizes (4ft 3 in) and obstacle configurations detailed in the BHA guide. To be classified as a Steeple Chase course, it must feature a minimum of twelve obstacles within the first two miles, followed by six obstacles per mile thereafter.

Typically spanning two to four miles, a steeple chase course encompasses a wide array of obstacles, including fences, ditches, and water jumps. The riders participating in steeple chase races are professional jockeys, while the horses are meticulously trained and selectively bred for racing purposes.

The primary distinctions between point-to-point and steeple chase racing lie in the level of competition, the expertise of the jockeys and horses involved, and the formality of the races. Point-to-point races are generally regarded as more informal and amateurish. They involve novice jockeys and owners. In contrast, steeple chase is a professional and highly competitive sport that involves substantial financial investments in the performance of both the rider and the horse. Novice races still exist within the realm of steeple chase. One example is the Cheltenham Novice Steeple Chase, which offers a first prize of £125,000.

Famous Steeple Chase races

The Grand National, an esteemed race in Britain, takes place annually at the Aintree racecourse near Liverpool in early April. In comparison to point-to-point racing, the prize money for this event is significantly larger. In the previous year, the total amount of prize money exceeded £1,000,000, with half of it awarded to the winner who crosses the finish line first. The Grand National holds great significance within the UK racing scene, particularly due to the considerable number and value of bets placed on the event.

Together, Great Britain and Ireland contribute to more than half of all jump races held globally, with a staggering count of 4,800 races over fences recorded in 2008. This form of racing is officially referred to as National Hunt racing in both countries.

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