What is a steeplechase?

In Great Britain and Ireland, nowadays, the term ‘steeplechase’ is used to describe a horse race run on a prepared turf course over a series of large, fixed obstacles, known as fences. The term was first coined in the latter years of the eighteenth century to describe impromptu races between hunting horses over open country, in which the most prominent featues in the landscape, that is, church steeples, were used to demarcate the course.

Of course, this type of ‘grassroots’ point-to-point racing still exists, albeit nowadays on courses constructed, temporarily, on working farmland. Steeplechases, though, are a mainstay of National Hunt racing and, as such, are run on a total of 40 permanent racecourses, covering the length and breadth of Britain, throughout the year. The first purpose-built, enclosed racecourse of this kind was, in fact, Sandown Park, which opened in 1875 and is, nowadays, home to the season-ending Bet365 Gold Cup, formerly the Whitbread Gold Cup.

Under National Hunt Rules, steeplechases are run over distances between two and four-and-a-quarter miles, with the longest all, of course, being the world famous Grand National. So-called ‘regulation’ fences – that is, the type found on racecourses governed by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) – consist of plain fences, open ditches and water jumps. Fences are constructed from birch, spruce and other approved materials, to a minimum height of 4’6″, with the exception of water jumps, which, because of the expanse of water on the landing side, need only be a mimum of 3′ high.