Steeplechase 101

Steeplechasing includes the thrills and speed of Thoroughbred racing at flat tracks. It mixes in the precision of jumping to create a hybrid like hurdle events in track and field where the premium is on speed, but the concern is focused squarely on the jumps. The races are two to four miles in length. The fences are man-made 52-inch hurdles or timber jumps constructed of posts and rails at varying heights. Thoroughbred horses, almost all of them converted flat racers, compete in 12 states at 32 National Steeplechase Association stops and at some of the nation¹s finest racetracks. More than 200 sanctioned steeplechase races worth a combined $5 million occur in the U.S. every year.
A Day at the Race

Most steeplechase days include five to seven races. Attendance varies from tailgaters to horsemen, college students to children to senior citizens. Spectators arrive a few hours before the first race (usually 1 p.m.) to start their outing with lunch or conversations with friends. The racing brings excitement, in approximately half-hour increments. As a whole, steeplechasing allows fans to get closer to the sport than flat racing. You can stand right next to a fence, or watch the start of a race, or catch the thrills at the finish line.

Steeplechase Facts

  • The sport traces its roots to a two-horse ³race² between Irish foxhunters Mr. Blake and Mr. O¹Callaghan in 1752 from Buttevant Church to St. Mary¹s (hence the sport¹s name) in Doneraile, County Cork.
  • The Washington Jockey Club hosted the first steeplechase race in the United States in Washington, D.C. in 1834.
  • NSA hurdle fences, completely portable, travel by truck from one race track or meet to the other. The fences, uniform and safe to jump, are made of steel, plastic and foam rubber covered in canvas. Each eight-foot section (there are four or five sections in a typical fence) weighs 400 pounds. Before 1974, when the National Fence was established, hurdle and brush races were conducted over natural hedges made of packed pine or cedar. The majority of U.S. races including the Breeders¹ Cup Steeplechase are hurdle races.
  • Timber fences are made of wood, and are constructed of boards or posts and rails. The height and stiffness varies depending on the course, with the famed Maryland Hunt Cup (which features some fences nearly five feet tall) heading the list.
  • Steeplechase jockeys are relatively normal-sized people. The minimum weight in a steeplechase race is typically in the 140-pound range as compared to the roughly 110-pound level for flat jockeys. Jockeys wear padded vests under their silks and also wear approved safety helmets.

The Horses

  • All steeplechasers are Thoroughbreds whose lineage must be proven with official Jockey Club registration papers. Horses can begin steeplechase careers at age 3.
  • Most steeplechasers competed or still compete on the flat. The ideal steeplechaser has speed, stamina, smarts and enough athletic ability to run and jump at the same time.
  • Steeplechase trainers are based throughout the Eastern half of the United States, with most concentrated in the Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia area.. Almost all trainers are based on private farms, where horses enjoy the outdoors while also exercising and working toward their next racing date. €Steeplechase horses last. It is not unusual to see steeplechase horses compete until age 10 and beyond. Ninepins won the 1999 Grand National at age 12.
  • Steeplechase horses typically run six to 10 times in a year. The season features no racing in January and February, plus a light summer schedule assuring horses of lengthy vacations. Most ³down time² is spent outdoors in fields. A steeplechase horse in the off-season is often dirty, hairy and happy.
  • After their steeplechase careers end, horses often become foxhunters, show horses or simply pleasure rides for their owners or trainers. Five-time U.S.. champion and career earnings leader Lonesome Glory retired at the end of the 1999 season at age 11, and began a career as a full-time foxhunter.

Read about Steeplechasing’s History

Contributed By
: The National Steeplechase Association