Many casual horse racing fans think of only two types of racing; flat and jumps. While it’s broadly true that the sport splits generally into these two codes, within the jumps genre (or the National Hunt), there are more disparate groups with hurdling and chasing being the main two.
Overall, there are actually three race types within jumps; National Hunt flat races or ‘bumpers’, hurdle races and steeplechases.
Most races are split between the latter two and here we’ll take you through the differences between them.
Within National Hunt racing in Great Britain and Ireland, a hurdle race is an event in which the field is tasked with jumping obstacles called hurdles, or ‘flights of hurdles’. Each flight is made up of panels which include some kind of brush, making them flexible.
Each hurdle race must contain at least eight flights and be run over a distance not less than about two miles, the minimum trip being what the Champion Hurdle consists of among other races.
At just three feet high, hurdles are considered to be fairly easy obstacles for jumps horses which tend to be bigger than most flat types. They often use hurdling as a jumping introductory before moving onto fences, though many specialist hurdlers exist and so stick to this particular form of racing for their entire career.
Given that hurdles can be jumped more easily by National Hunt horses and the flights don’t stop momentum too much, hurdle races are often run at a faster gallop than chases.
Officially known as a steeplechase, this type of race is almost always shorted to ‘chase’ in its title. A chase is a horse race in which the field jumps various fence types and ditches over a number of varying distances.
Along with hurdling, chasing is most prevalent in Great Britain, Ireland and France though various famous races occasionally gain viewers in the Czech Republic, USA and Australia.
Steeplechasing is a title which has also been used for human races and comes from Ireland where such races began. These events were always held in the countryside, the races taking their name from the numerous nearby church steeples.
In chase races, the fences are larger than the flights found in hurdle events. Races can be run from two miles right up to the Grand National’s four-and-a-quarter miles, while the type of fences and their stiffness and difficulty varies heavily from track to track.
Some chasers still possess good racing speed, such as the two-milers who vie to become the Champion Chase winner at Cheltenham, though when you hear the term “staying chaser”, this is a horse who is capable of seeing out at least three miles over fences.
Unique Requirements for Hurdlers and Chasers
Hurdlers can move quicker between flights as their momentum doesn’t have to be halted much at all and so they can keep up their gallop – if they are economical jumpers that is.
Chasers naturally have to be urged into each fence, the jockey being very careful to not let the horse do all the work. Finding the right stride just before the take-off point is really quite an art as well as being dangerous, as getting a fence wrong can lead to a heavy fall and injury to both horse and rider.
Because of the height of the obstacles, a two-mile hurdle race will almost always be run in a faster time than a two-mile chase. That being said, horses tend to have their specialisms and so a three-mile staying hurdler will not be as fast across the ground as a good two-mile chaser, but can go on to be champion in their own division.
Other than the camber and topography of tracks being important, many hurdlers can handle races at various tracks just as long as the race distance and the ground conditions are to their liking.
Over fences however, things are a little more complicated. A horse running on a flat track over relatively easy fences over three miles may make a name for itself, but will not necessarily cope with something like the Gold Cup.
The Gold Cup is run over three-and-a-quarter miles on Cheltenham’s New Course, a notoriously difficult track with undulations and hills, stiff fences and a tough uphill finish.
To give you an idea of the various ways in which horses can make their name within the different divisions of jumps racing, these are the top hurdle and chase races for both novices and experienced jumpers in Britain.
Top Hurdle Races
- Fighting Fifth Hurdle, 2m, Newcastle, December
- Long Walk Hurdle, 3m1f, Ascot, December
- Christmas Hurdle, 2m, Kempton Park, December
- Challow Novices’ Hurdle, 2m4½f, Newbury, December
- Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle, 2m, Sandown, January
- Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, 2m½f, Cheltenham, March
- Champion Hurdle, 2m½f, Cheltenham, March
- Stayers’ Hurdle, 3m, Cheltenham, March
- Triumph Hurdle (Novices), 2m1f, Cheltenham, March
- Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, 3m, Cheltenham, March
- Aintree Hurdle, 2m4f, Aintree, April
- Top Novices’ Hurdle, 2m½f, Aintree, April
- Sefton Novices’ Hurdle, 3m½f, Aintree, April
- Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, 2m4f, Aintree, April
So, various distances are covered and races take place at a number of tracks. While the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle for example are top races in their own right, they make excellent prep runs for the Champion Hurdle over the same distance at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
- Betfair Chase, 3m1½f, Haydock, November
- Henry VIII Novices’ Chase, 2m, Sandown, December
- Tingle Creek Chase, 2m, Sandown, December
- Kauto Star Novices’ Chase, 3m, Kempton Park, December
- King George VI Chase, 3m, Kempton Park, December
- Welsh Grand National, 3m6½f, Chepstow, December
- Clarence House Chase, 2m1f, Ascot, January
- Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, 2m4½f, Sandown, January
- Ascot Chase, 2m5f, Ascot, February
- Arkle Trophy (Novices), 2m, Cheltenham, March
- Queen Mother Champion Chase, 2m, Cheltenham, March
- Marsh Novices’ Chase, 2m4f, Cheltenham, March
- Ryanair Chase, 2m4f, Cheltenham, March
- Cheltenham Gold Cup, 3m2½f, Cheltenham, March
- Mildmay Novices’ Chase, 3m1f, Aintree, April
- Melling Chase, 2m4f, Aintree, April
- Maghull Novices’ Chase, 2m, Aintree, April
- Grand National, 4m2f, Aintree, April
- Scottish Grand National, 4m, Ayr, April
Most of the races on this list are Grade 1 events, however the Grand Nationals at Aintree, Chepstow and Ayr are Grade 3 handicaps but are considered among the most important chases on the calendar.