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The discipline of Steeplechase originated when country gentlemen raced each other across the fields of England and the sport was a natural outgrowth of fox hunting, having in common a gallop across country and over a number of obstacles. Horse racing between those people living in one locale or village has of course occurred for centuries and it was the practice in England to use very visible landmarks to denote the beginning point of a local race and the finishing point. Steeples of churches were often used, hence the adoption of the word was later applied to one specific type of racing.
The Steeplechase probably owes its existence as a formal racing discipline, to the enclosing of British agricultural land in the 18th century. Prior to the passage of the enclosure law, in hunting your horse you only really had to deal with streams and ditches. After the growth of enclosures, you had to cross hedges, stone walls and banks and post and rail fences.
One early and famous steeplechase was held in County Cork, Ireland in 1752, and was run over a distance of four miles between Buttevant Church to St. Leger Steeple. For years steeplechases were run over natural country, but the first recored race over made-up fences occurred 1810 in Bedford, England.
In the mid-1800’s chases developed for the amateur rider that kept certain aspects of its hunting origins but also offered competition chases for professionals that continued to evolve to the present day Steeplechase.
In 1839 the most famous steeplechase in the world was organized, the Grand National at Aintree, near Liverpool, England. The early four mile course was over grown with 26 obstacles, including blanks, walls and streams. The race paid a sweepstakes of 25 sovereigns and was won by a bay named Lottery, who completed the course in only 5 minutes longer than it takes to run it now!
After the formation of the Grand National racing over a natural country, however formidable, became a thing of the past. Many of the flat race courses also began to stage jump racing and this became an integral part of almost every program. Cheltenham became regarded almost as the home of the steeplechase, with its 4 mile National Hunt Chase for maddens, ridden by amateurs; just as Newmarket became a center for flat racing. In 1866 the National Hunt Committee was founded to control the sport, just as jockey clubs were formed for flat racing governance.
British military officers were hugely responsible for the spread of steeplechasing in Europe, and the sport was well established in many countries by 1840 and it was about this time that the sport was introduced into Canada, after which it soon spread to America.
The first hurdle race in the US took place in New Jersey in 1844, and the first effort at an actual steeplechase in 1865. In 1895 a National American association was formed and shortly thereafter came the introduction of the Maryland Hunt Cup, which was to become one of the most famous amateur steeplechases in the world.
The onset of the 1900’s saw the steeple chasing grow substantially in many parts of the world. France founded its most famous French Steeplechase de Paris in 1901 and Australia was beginning to stage races over obstacles. Soon horses from around the world began sending horses to complete in the Grand National in England and some were outstanding winners.
Not until the 1960’s however, did other steeplechase races begin to compete with the substantial prize money offered by the Grand National. Yet mostly everywhere, steeplechasing is the poor relative of flat racing and nowhere has steeplechasing remained as popular and as well supported and attended as in the Untied Kingdom.
While no one breed totally dominates the successful steeplechasing horses, many are Thoroughbred or Anglo-Irish lineages, known for their jumping abilities.
Chasers usually are older than the horses that are run in flat races, because the effort requires in the steeplechase is better preformed by horses with adult bone structure. The steeplechase requires great power and stamina.
Often jumps are approached from the side and taken at a angles, which require more judgment on the part of the rider and more experience, skill, and courage on the part of the horse. With brush obstacles, for example, the intelligent steeplechase horses can recognize and appraise them precisely, and time can be saved if the horse brushes though, while still clearing the fixed rail of the obstacle.
Today, the Grand National course in England,at Aintree, is four and a half miles and has 30 fences, many of which have worldwide reputation for the effort they require from both rider and horse. The Steeplechase water jump in front of the stands at Auteuil in Paris is also one of the most famous obstacles in the world, demanding a tremendous broad jump. The water hazard is a little over 14 feet wide. This requires talent, strength and strength of heart!
For the steeplechase, stirrups are longer than for other racing (although hardly as long as they once were) as the rider sits with legs well forward and braces his weight against the stirrup irons.
For the rider, a sharp eye and firm grip are required. Because of the racing speed, holding onto the horse more over the fences and riding into the fences harder is a must. The speed of the Steeplechase, the skill and courage of the horses and riders are legendary and the sport is not for the faint of heart, or the untalented.