National Hunt Racing
The Cheltenham Festival is the premier annual meeting in the national hunt Calendar and sees tens of thousands of racing fans and punters visiting Gloucestershire to witness the spectacle of fine racehorses taking on challenging jumps that is the essence of national hunt racing.
National hunt racing is derived from the ancient sport of the hunt. In the distant past horses were an indispensable part of the hunt, and were trained to develop a wide range of skills that would help hunters including speed, obedience and the ability to jump obstacles they encountered in the hunt.
The hunt was thought to have evolved into a sport some time in the 1700s when races were organised between towns in Ireland. The races involved jumping hedges and ditches, much as modern hunt racing does, and the steeples of the town churches were frequently used to mark the start and finish posts. Over time these races became known as steeplechases, and the name has been retained for the modern format of national hunt racing.
National Hunt Racing Today
The modern sport of national hunt racing dates back to the mid 1800s when hunt races on racetracks in Punchestown, London, Liverpool and Cheltenham were first organised. The sport grew particularly strong in Ireland where it is now more popular than flat racing, and today many of the finest horses, jockeys and trainers hail from the Emerald Isle.
Today the premier events on the national hunt racing calendar include the Irish Grand National, the Grand National at Aintree, the Cheltenham Festival and the Welsh and Scottish Nationals. Typically these meetings feature three formats of national hunt racing.
National Hunt Formats
Steeplechases or chases are the most demanding national hunt races. Horses run long distances and are required to jump fences that are a minimum of 4½ feet high. The distance run can range between 2 to 4½ miles.
Hurdling national hunt races require horses to jump obstacles called hurdles that are a minimum of 3½ feet high. Hurdling races are also shorter than chases and are run between 2 to 3½ miles.
National hunt flat races or bumper races are used to introduce horses to the longer national hunt racing format. Obstacles are not jumped during these races. Races are run between 1½ and 2½ miles.
National hunt racing events usually take place during winter when turfs are soft to heavy and ideal for jumping.