Steeplechase is a form of horse racing (primarily conducted in the United Kingdom, United States, France and Ireland) and derives its name from early races in which orientation of the course was by reference to a church steeple, jumping fences and ditches and generally traversing the many intervening obstacles in the countryside. In the UK and Ireland the term steeplechase is not used, even though the word originated in Ireland: the term (and formal code of racing) is National Hunt racing.
It is a term now used to refer to a distance horse race with diverse fence and ditch obstacles; the most famous of these is the Grand National run annually at Aintree Racecourse, in Liverpool, since its conception in 1837.
The steeplechase originated in Ireland in the 18th century as an analogue to cross-country horse races which went from church steeple to church steeple, hence "steeplechase". The first steeplechase was alleged to have been the result of a wager in 1752, between Mr. Cornelius O'Callaghan and Mr. Edmund Blake, racing four miles (6 km) cross-country from Buttevant Church to St. Leger Church in Doneraile, in Cork, Ireland. An account of the race was believed to have been in the library of the O'Brien's of Dromoland Castle. Most of the earlier steeplechases were contested cross-country rather than on a track and resembled English cross country as it exists today. The first recorded steeplechase over a prepared track with fences was run in Bedlam, England in 1810.
Racing in the United States
Thomas Hitchcock (1860-1941) is known as the father of American steeplechasing. In the late 1800s, he built a steeplechase training center on his 3,000-acre (12 km²) property in Aiken, South Carolina and trained horses imported from England. No less important are the contributions by fellow Aiken seasonal resident F. Ambrose Clark. Clark held many important chases on his Brookville (Long Island) estate, Broad Hollow, in the 1920's and 1930's. Ford Conger Field was built by F. Ambrose Clark and is the site of the annual Aiken Steeplechase, a part of the Triple Crown in March. The first Steeplechase Meet in Aiken was held March 14, 1930 in Hitchcock Woods. In addition to the Aiken Steeplechase, South Carolina is also home to the Colonial Cup and the Carolina Cup, which is the largest event on the circuit. Both of these races are held in Camden, South Carolina.
The Virginia Gold Cup is also among the oldest steeplechase races in the United States, with its first running in 1922. Every first Saturday in May, more than 50,000 spectators gather at Great Meadow near The Plains, Virginia (45 miles west of Washington, DC). The 4-mile (6.4 km) grass course with 4-foot (1.2 m) high timber fences is often referred to as the "crown jewel of steeplechasing."
The Queens Cup Steeplechase is another major annual steeplechase event. It is held the last Saturday of April at Brooklandwood, a farm and estate in Mineral Springs, North Carolina, about 20 miles (32 km) from Charlotte. This day long event of racing and social activities attracts over 10,000 spectators, many of whom travel great distances to attend.
During the 1940s and 50s, the Broad Hollow Steeplechase Handicap, the Brook National Steeplechase Handicap and the American Grand National were regarded as American steeplechasing's Triple Crown.
Kentucky Downs near Franklin, Kentucky (originally Dueling Grounds Race Course) was built in 1990 as a steeplechase track, with a kidney-shaped turf circuit. At its inception, the track offered some of the richest purses in the history of American steeplechase. The track has undergone numerous ownership changes, with steeplechase races playing an on-and-off role (mainly off) in the track's limited live race meets.
Racing in Australia
Australia has a long history of jumps racing which was introduced by British settlers. In the 20th century the northern states of Queensland and New South Wales phased out all jumps racing. Today only Victoria and South Australia hold steeplechases, Tasmania having ceased jumps racing as of April 2007.
The jumping season in Australia normally takes place from March until August (some minor races are held either side of these months). Horses for steeplechasing are primarily former flat racing horses, rather than horses specifically bred for jumping. There is an emphasis on safety in Australia which has led to a reduction in the size of obstacles. As jumps races take place at flat racing meetings there is also a need for portable jumps. Most chasing occurs on steeple lanes but also includes parts of the main flat racing track. From Easter to May the major distance races occur. The Great Eastern Steeplechase at Oakbank is held on Easter Monday in South Australia drawing crowds of over 100,000. The Grand Annual, which has the most fences of any steeplechase in the world, is held in May at Warrnambool. Each state holds its own Grand National, the most prestigious is the VRC Grand National at Flemington run in the winter. The jumping season culminates with the set weights and penalties Hiskens Steeple run at Moonee Valley. The Hiskens is regarded as the Cox Plate of jumps racing. Steeplechasing has been the subject of protests by activists who regard it as cruel and in general has struggled to maintain its place in the Australian racing scene. Despite this Australia and New Zealand continue to produce quality chasers. The most famous is Crisp who was narrowly beaten by the champion Red Rum in the English Grand National. Crisp subsequently beat Red Rum at set weights. More recently Karasi has won the Nakayama Grand Jump, the worlds richest jumps race held in Japan, three times.
The equestrian sport of eventing has a steeplechase phase, which is held in its "classic" or "long format". Unlike the racing form, horses do not race each other over the course, but rather are just meant to come under a pre-set "optimum time." The fences are usually very similar in type, all with brush that is meant to be jumped through rather than over. Ditches, post-and-rail, and other upright fences are not used. Penalty points are added to the horse's score if he exceeds the optimum time, but there is no reward for an especially fast round.