What is a ‘Steeplechase’?
Steeplechase, or Steeplechasing is a form of horse racing in which the entrants are required, during the race, to jump over a diverse variety of ditch and fence obstacles.
Steeplechasing first appeared in Ireland in the 1700s, where it often involved racing between nearby church steeples; thus giving rise to the event’s distinctive name. These early races were contested across the country rather than on purpose-built tracks and bore a greater similarity to British cross-country racing than what we would today recognise as steeplechasing.
Modern steeplechasing takes place on purpose built tracks, mainly in the UK, Ireland, Australia, France and the USA. Of all jump races worldwide, more than half take place in the UK, where steeplechasing is more usually known as national hunt racing. Notable national hunt races held in the UK include the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Steeplechasing in the USA differs from the rest of the world in having two distinct forms: hurdle and timber. Hurdle racing takes place over standardised, 52-inch high, plastic and steel fences and traditional barriers constructed of packed pine fronds. In contrast, the obstacles in timber racing are assembled from solid, immovable rails up to five feet high, and have more in common with fences seen in show-jumping in other parts of the world.
Significant races on the steeplechase calendar in the USA include:
- The Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville, Tennessee; held every year since 1941 with the exception of a single year break during World War 2.
- The Virginia Gold Cup; amongst the oldest horse races in the USA, first having been run in 1922.
- The Breeder’s Cup Grand National Steeplechase. Until recent years known as the American Grand National, this event held in Far Hills, New Jersey has the largest prize fund of any steeplechase in the USA at $500,000 and an attendance of approximately 50,000 for the single day experience.