Having been around for centuries now, horse racing is one of the oldest and most widely enjoyed sports on the planet. It has, of course, changed a little since the chariot racing of ancient Rome, and these days it is divided up into several organised racing disciplines – all of which fall under the “horse racing” umbrella. And, whilst the likes of trotting and endurance style events have their fans, the highest-profile of these disciplines are “Flat Racing” and “Jumps Racing”.
It is the flat racing branch of the sport which has become the most popular on a global scale, but here in the UK and Ireland, things are a lot more even, with jumps racing (or jump racing, the terms are interchangeable) just about neck and neck with its flat counterpart. That fact puts jumps racing in this part of the world in a pretty unique position – for whilst UK flat racing has fairly stiff competition from overseas, jumps racing on these shores really has no equal.
That’s not to say such contests don’t take place elsewhere – France, Australia, Canada and the USA all have jumps racing scenes – but every year the UK accounts for over 50% of worldwide jumps races, including the very best contests that the sport has to offer.
But, what exactly do we mean when we refer to jumps racing – or National Hunt Racing – as it is also known? Common sense, of course, dictates that this arm of equine entertainment involves the runners’ tackling obstacles of some description, but there is a little more to it than that. Here we take a closer look at what many people view as being the most spectacular of racing disciplines. We’ll provide information on the horses and courses, the types of obstacles encountered and more. But first things first, how did it all begin?
Origins of Jump Racing
The Irish are, of course, famous for their love of horse racing, boasting more racecourses per head of the population than any other nation. With that stat in mind, it perhaps shouldn’t come as the biggest surprise that it was upon the Emerald Isle that the jumps version of the sport is said to have begun, way back in the 18th century. A distinctly rural affair in those early days, events usually involved only two runners racing across the countryside and tackling whatever obstacles stood in their way, including streams, hedges and stone walls.
Despite this relatively open-plan nature, start and endpoints were still necessary to determine a winner. The landmarks most commonly chosen to signify both the beginning and end of these races were those easily identifiable features of church steeples. So, the term “steeplechasing” was born – quite literal in its origins, and still used to refer to one of the most common types of jumps race to this day. The word “chase”, seen in so many race titles, merely being a shortened version of the original “steeplechase”.
First Recorded Event in 1752
Whilst the likelihood is that they may have taken place even earlier, it was in 1752 that the first of these events was officially recorded, coming when Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake placed a bet on two horses racing between the County Cork churches of St John’s and St Mary’s. It was then 40 years before the UK joined the steeplechasing party, with the first-ever UK contest seeing three horses race from Barky Holt to Billesdon Coplow and back again – over the stamina-sapping trip of eight miles.
Over time the sport began to become more organised, with the first event over a track prepared specifically for the purpose coming at Bedford in 1810, and the first hurdle race 11 years later in 1821. And so the seeds were sown, with increasing levels of popularity and organisation coming together to create the version of the sport we know and love today.
But what exactly does this modern version of jumps racing look like? Let’s take a closer look, beginning with the types of races and obstacles encountered, moving on to the racing season and the equine and human protagonists who make it all possible.
Here we’ll delve into some of the main features of the races themselves to help readers gain an understanding of what they are all about and how they differ from flat races.
Modern jumps races take place over distances ranging between a minimum trip of around two miles, all the way up to the 4m2½f of the Grand National, which represents the longest race to be held in the UK and Ireland. For purposes of comparison, flat race distances range from five furlongs to 2m5f, with the vast majority taking place at distances of 1m6f or below. Whilst in flat races the focus is on speed, in jumps racing, it is stamina which is the name of the game. And, of course, jumping ability.
Distance is not the only element that defines a jump racing contest. Those tackling a National Hunt event will – in the vast majority of races – be faced with one of two types of obstacles: either hurdles or fences. The type of barrier encountered in any given race is easily identifiable from the race title; the word “hurdle” of course denoting hurdles, with “chase” specifying that fences will be tackled. So what are the differences between the two most common obstacles found in the jumping game?
The smaller and flimsier of the two, hurdles are close to 3ft in height and generally constructed of relatively thin panels of brush – either natural or synthetic. Given this lightweight nature, hurdles will tend to easily give way if hit and as such represent a jumping challenge that is fairly forgiving of mistakes.
A far more formidable obstacle than the hurdle, most fences in a standard chase are around 4½ft in height, and constructed using a solid wooden frame tightly packed with natural or artificial birch. Given this size and conformation, a fence will not give way in the same manner as a hurdle when hit, making them far more punishing to jumping errors. Make a mistake at a hurdle and a runner may well get away with it. Make a significant error at a fence and they most likely won’t.
A fairly tough jumping challenge as it is, certain types of fences have additional characteristics which can serve to ramp up the difficulty level still further – two of the most common of which are the open ditch and the water jump. Featuring an – as you might have guessed – ditch on the take-off side of the fence, open ditches require the runners to begin their leap earlier than at a standard fence, thus necessitating a bigger overall jump to clear the obstacle. Water jumps meanwhile feature a three-inch-deep pool of water on the landing side of the obstacle which, whilst resulting in spectacular splashes, and possibly surprising some runners, doesn’t provide anything like the challenge of the open ditch.
Cross Country Races
The types of hurdles and fences described above cover the jumping challenges encountered in the overwhelming majority of National Hunt races. Not quite all, however, as scattered throughout the racing programme, on both sides of the Irish Sea, we have what are known as Cross Country Chases.
Designed to pay tribute to those steeple to steeple races of yesteryear, these events often do feature a standard fence or two, along with far more interesting barricades – including white timber rails, hedges growing out of the track, imposing banks and more. All of which combine to create one of the most instantly recognisable race types in the sport.
National Hunt Flat Races – Bumpers
Finally, in the Jumps racing category, we have those “jumps” events which in fact don’t feature any obstacles at all: National Hunt Flat races. Also known as “Bumpers”– due to the erratic riding style of the non-professional jockeys who originally contested them – these contests see National Hunt horses compete over a trip of around two miles, with no hurdles, fences, or indeed any other kind of barrier, to be seen. Usually contested by younger horses, these events provide runners with crucial racecourse experience, without the additional pressure of having to negotiate an obstacle.
When embarking upon their National Hunt career, most runners will initially compete in bumper events, before then progressing to hurdles, and finally moving up to the chasing sphere. However, there are no set rules in place regarding this.
Some runners may excel in the hurdling sphere and simply remain over the smaller obstacles throughout their careers. Whilst others, whose main attribute is jumping ability, may spend very little time over hurdles before progressing to fences. Runners are permitted to alternate between the two, taking in both hurdle and chase contests within the same season.
Classes of Race
In addition to the types of race, i.e. hurdles, chases and bumpers, National Hunt racing also features several different categories relating to the conditions under which the events are run, with the following trio being the most common.
Confined to runners who have not won a race in the relevant category prior to the start of the current season. Generally run at level weights, although penalties may apply for previous wins in a novice event earlier in the season.
The majority of jumps races held in the UK and Ireland fall into the handicapping category. Here the weights carried are related to a horse’s ability rating – the higher the rating, the more weight they will carry. Popular betting races, the goal here is to provide all runners with a theoretically equal chance of winning.
Higher up the racing ladder in terms of the quality of horses competing, conditions events are run off level weights, with the exception of age and sex allowances, and occasionally weight penalties for wins in previous races. High-class Graded races lie within the conditions category.
Tale of the Tape: The Jumps Racing Start
For those perhaps most familiar with flat racing, one question which regularly crops up is “what exactly is going on at the start of a jumps race?” Nowhere to be seen are those green starting stalls so prevalent in flat contests around the world. In jumps racing, there is in fact no apparatus of any description into which the runners are loaded before the race begins.
Instead, National Hunt racing uses what is known as a flip start. In this method, the field of runners are asked to approach a length of elastic tape that is stretched across the starting line. Only when the starting official is satisfied that the runners are approaching in an orderly manner will he lower his flag, signalling the tape to be released, and the race begins.
Do note though that the runners get just one chance to start in this manner. Should anything go wrong with the initial attempt, a standing start will be enforced – requiring all runners to line up, side by side, with their noses practically on the line and then begin from that position once the tape is released.
The Jump Racing Season
Traditionally in horse racing, National Hunt has been known as the winter arm of the sport, with the flat dominating the summer months. The reason for this comes down to the prevailing ground conditions at different times of the year. For the speed-favouring flat horse, the firmer, quicker ground provided by the warmer seasons are the natural choice. Whereas over jumps – where speed isn’t anything like so important – the softer conditions provide a far safer environment due to the more forgiving landing surface.
With those ground considerations in mind, the bulk of the National Hunt season operates between autumn and spring, usually kicking off towards the beginning of October and continuing through to the tail end of April. At least that’s when the core or the jumps season takes place anyway. These days the lines are a little blurry thanks to the advent of summer jumping, which keeps the action ticking over – albeit on a much smaller scale – throughout the year.
Whilst the summer jumping programme does count towards the trainers’ and jockeys’ championships, it is not until autumn that the larger events begin to take place. And from October onwards, these bigger races crop up with increasing frequency, as the season builds to the crescendo of the major spring events – headlined by the Cheltenham Festival.
This pattern of racing, i.e. major events beginning in late autumn and building to a spring climax is followed on both sides of the Irish Sea, with the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) acting as the organising body in Britain, and Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) fulfilling that role on the Emerald Isle.
Jumps Racing Risks
The seasonal planning of the jumps racing season has the main aim of providing the safest environment possible for the equine and human participants. However, as with many things in life, it will likely never be possible to make the sport 100% risk-free.
By its very nature, jumps racing will always be the more dangerous branch of the sport, both to the runners themselves and those brave jockeys in the saddles. It is however the duty of the governing body to minimise these risks as much as they can. In this area, there have certainly been great strides in recent years.
Thanks to investment in safety measures – including improved visibility of fences and more forgiving fence cores – the fatality rate at British racecourses has now fallen to 0.18% of all runners. As for the men in the saddle, it can’t be denied that the jumps jockeys are in a riskier profession than their flat counterparts. However, whilst, breaks, sprains and strains do occur, more serious injuries are thankfully extremely rare.
Having looked at the types of races, and when the season takes place, we now turn our attention to the most important aspect of the sport – the horses themselves. Are they the same as those used in flat racing or do they differ?
Older Horses Used
The first thing to note regarding National Hunt horses is that they tend to be older than their flat counterparts. A flat performer will usually begin their racing career at two years of age and continue until around seven or eight – unless retired to stud earlier. Jumps runners in contrast are not permitted to race until they are three years of age, and many do not embark upon their career until their fourth or fifth year.
This slightly later start is however more than made up for by the longevity of a jumps horse, with many racing on until 12 years of age and sometimes older. This element of the sport, which results in many of the same star performers returning year after year, helps to create enduring storylines across the seasons.
Larger & Stronger
In addition to being older on average, jumps horses also tend to be larger and stronger than the more athletic-looking flat runners. Size and strength being two features that enable a runner to excel in what is the more gruelling, stamina-sapping version of the sport. That said, whilst many runners are bred specifically for National Hunt, others do make the switch from flat racing later in their careers, and often to good effect
One final thing to mention is that almost all male National Hunt horses are geldings (castrated), and thus have no future in the breeding sheds. As such, National Hunt runners are the offspring of stallions who enjoyed a racing career on the flat – and specifically those sires who tend to pass on qualities such as size and stamina.
Being just about the global capital of jumps racing, the UK and Ireland possess an unrivalled number and variety of racecourses. From the left-handed to the right-handed, the flat to the undulating and everything in between, the character of the tracks makes a significant contribution to the spectacle of the sport.
All told, there are 59 racecourses in the UK. Of these tracks, 23 are dedicated exclusively to National Hunt racing, which when added to the 17 courses which stage both flat and jump events, creates a total of 40 venues at which National Hunt racing takes place.
UK National Hunt Only Courses
- Fontwell Park
- Market Rasen
- Newton Abbot
UK National Hunt and Flat Courses
- Ffos Las
- Haydock Park
- Kempton Park
- Lingfield Park
- Sandown Park
Over in Ireland meanwhile, there are a total of 23 courses that stage National Hunt contests, but here the split is much more in favour of the dual-purpose venues, with only five tracks focussing solely upon the jumps game.
Irish National Hunt Only Courses
Irish National Hunt & Flat Courses
- Down Royal
- Gowran Park
In common with the horses involved, jumps jockeys also tend to be bigger on average than their flat contemporaries – increased size and strength being required in what is the more demanding of the two disciplines.
In both flat and jumps racing, all runners are assigned a specific weight that they must carry during a race. This weight consists of the weight of the saddle and the jockey, with any shortfall being made up using lead weights added to the saddle cloth.
In flat racing, runners are almost always allocated a weight of somewhere between eight and 10 stone whereas in the National Hunt game the burden will usually sit between 10st and 12st. That’s a two-stone difference on average, enabling jumps jockeys to be larger and stronger and still make the weight required of them. Whatever their specific weight, jumps jockeys then fall into one of three main categories.
Of the hundreds of National Hunt jockeys plying their trade in the UK and Ireland, the majority fall into the professional category. Fully qualified and in possession of a professional licence, these experienced riders rely on race riding as their main/only source of income.
The equivalent of an apprentice jockey on the flat, conditional riders are those younger jockeys still learning their trade. In order to compensate for their experience disadvantage, conditional riders are granted a weight allowance – effectively a specified amount they are allowed to remove from the weight a horse is allocated to carry.
Beginning at seven pounds, this allowance decreases to five pounds after the jockey has ridden 20 winners, three pounds following the 40th win, and disappearing entirely after the 75th success, at which point the jockey becomes eligible to join the professional ranks. Conditional jockeys will have a bracketed number following their name on a race card e.g. (7), with the number within the brackets signifying the jockey’s weight allowance.
Then we have those riders who compete solely as an amateur, mainly as a hobby outside of their main career. These riders will be identifiable on a race card as their name will be preceded by Mr, Miss or another title.
Each season professional and conditional riders compete for their own separate Champion Jockey titles, with the prizes going to the jockey with the most wins in each category. In the past, the likes of Richard Johnson and the greatest of all-time, Sir AP McCoy, have followed up a win in the Conditional Jockeys Championship, with multiple Champion Jump Jockey titles.
As of 2021, there are just under 500 National Hunt trainers in the UK, with a similar number based in Ireland. In the UK, the Gloucestershire region of Lambourn is considered to be the training hub, whilst in Ireland the province of Leinster enjoys the highest concentration of facilities.
Many of these trainers – both in the UK and in Ireland – focus solely upon the jumps game, but there are a fair percentage who divide their attention and send out runners in both National Hunt and flat contests.
Every year trainers on each side of the Irish Sea compete for their respective Champion Trainer titles, with the award going to the trainers who have amassed the most prize money over the course of the season. In the 21st century, the names of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson have been the dominant forces in the UK, with Willie Mullins usually ruling the roost over in Ireland.
Jumps Racings Biggest Meetings
In common with racing of all descriptions elsewhere in the world, jumps racing in the UK and Ireland has its share of run-of-the-mill fixtures which keep the season kicking over. Both jurisdictions do however also have their major seasonal highlights – those events which not only whet the appetites of racing aficionados but also attract the attention of the wider sporting world.
The Cheltenham Festival
- When: March
- Where: Cheltenham (UK)
The undoubted jewel in the crown of the National Hunt season and the biggest jumps festival to be held anywhere in the world. Taking place over four days in early March – running from Tuesday to Friday – this feast of racing excellence features many of the championship events of the season; including the Stayers’ Hurdle, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, and of course the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.
An annual battle between the very best of the British and Irish performers, for many racing fans this is the meeting around which the whole season revolves.
The Grand National
- When: April
- Where: Aintree (UK)
- Prize Money: £375,000
The Cheltenham Festival may be the biggest meeting in jump racing, but none of the contests on offer at Prestbury Park can lay claim to being the biggest individual race. And in truth, not one of them even comes close. For when it comes to National Hunt racing there is one event that stands tall above them all. We are of course talking about the Merseyside marvel of the Grand National.
Taking place at Aintree each year in April, this 4m2½f contest over the biggest and most challenging fences in the sport grips the nation unlike any other, dwarfing all others in terms of viewing figures, column inches and betting turnover. The highlight of a Thursday to Saturday three-day meeting, this is the race that really puts Aintree on the map.
- When: April
- Where: Punchestown (Ireland)
Huge racing festivals are by no means confined to the UK. The Irish also know a thing or two about laying on a jumping jamboree. Topping the table in terms of longevity is the seven-day Galway Festival – the punters need as much stamina as the horses to get through that one – but if it is quality you are looking for then it is the magnificent Punchestown Festival that tops the bill.
Taking place over five days in April, and cramming in a round dozen of Grade 1 events, this is effectively Ireland’s version of the Cheltenham Festival, featuring the Punchestown Champion Chase, Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Punchestown Gold Cup.