Steeplechase horse racing is believed to have originated in Ireland in the 18th century. Huntsmen would race their horses between church steeples, jumping any obstacles in their path.
Over time steeplechases were incorporated into the organized sport of National Hunt racing, with rules and standard formats applied to these races.
Today steeplechases are referred to as chases, and are the most demanding format of National Hunt racing, with the largest obstacles and longest race distances.
Steeplechase racing is most popular in Ireland, England and France. It has a smaller following in other countries, such as the United States.
The modern chase
A number of standards must be met for a modern jumps race to be classified as a steeplechase.
In the United Kingdom a race must feature at least 12 fences to be classified as a steeplechase, and there must be an additional six fences per mile for any race run further than 2 miles.
A chase can feature three types of fences:
- Plain fences are formed from wooden or steel frames stuffed with real or artificial birch. These must stand at least 4’6” high.
- Open ditches feature a plain fence with a ditch on the take-off side, requiring the horse to jump further. There must be one open ditch per mile on a chase track.
- Water jumps feature a fence at least 3 feet high and must include a water-filled ditch at least 9 feet across. Even the most gruelling race may feature only one water jump.
Steeplechases range in distance from 2 miles to the 4 miles 2.5 furlongs run in the Grand National at Aintree.
Typically steeplechase racehorses are older than the horses used in other race formats, due to the stamina required to compete in one of these races.
In fact, it is not unusual for chase racehorses to compete in races past the age of 10.
While many of the horses competing in chases in the UK and Ireland are thoroughbred horses, it is not unusual for half-breed horses to compete in these races (i.e. horses that are born to a thoroughbred paired with another breed of horse).
Unlike flat racing where the majority of male competitors are colts or stallions, male chase racehorses are typically gelded (castrated).
As is the case with flat racing, chase racehorses are bred and trained to race over specific distances. These include horses aimed at races around the 2 mile mark, horses trained for middle distance races of around 3 miles, and those trained for long distance races of 3.5 miles or more.
Because of the endurance and skill required to compete in steeplechases, horses will usually spend a couple of seasons competing in the less demanding hurdles format of National Hunt racing before moving onto chases.
Steeplechases are subject to the same grading system that is used to organize and classify races in the United Kingdom and Europe.
- Pattern races constitute the pinnacle of the sport and include Grade 1, 2 and 3 races as well as Listed events. Grade 1 and 2 races do not typically make use of handicaps, with these races used to identify the highest quality horses in the sport.
- Ranked below the pattern races are handicaps. These require horses to carry weights in their races as handicappers attempt to make the racehorses as evenly matched as possible in any given races. These make up the majority of steeplechase races contested daily.
Aside from the grading system, steeplechases are also run in formats designed to give racehorses an entry into the sport. These include novice chases and maiden chases.
Chases can be also run as selling handicaps in order to facilitate the sale of active racehorses who are auctioned or sold after the race.
Steeplechase races are amongst some of the most popular races in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and a small selection are major global sporting events.
The Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree, for instance, is the world’s most watched race by viewership and attracts massive crowds to Aintree Racecourse every year.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup and Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival are also major sporting events, attracting interest from the general public.
In the UK and Ireland steeplechase races are run during the winter when the ground is softer, and as such are one of the two racing formats (alongside hurdles) dominant during this period.
Generally speaking steeplechase racing is more popular among the working class in the United Kingdom and Ireland, with flat racing attracting a more upper-class audience.
This is reflected in the prize funds allocated to steeplechases. While these are bigger than those allocated to other jumps racing formats, they fall short of the prize funds awarded in major flat races.