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The History of Steeplechase Racing

Historians seldom agree with one another about much of anything and horsemen are renowned for their wildly differing opinions, but amazingly, there is a consensus about the origins of steeplechasing. It came about as a combination of field hunting, which later became fox hunting, and flat racing, which is the age-old response to ‘my horse is faster than your horse.’ In about 1621, during the reign of James I in England, two horses used primarily as hunters were reportedly match raced, and a steeple was the most convenient finishing post. The most distinguishable landmarks in the 17th century British Isles were the tall church steeples; races were from one steeple to another, usually between two and four miles apart and with various obstacles in between. Horses jumped whatever was in their path -- stone walls, fences, hedgerows or streams. Most accounts trace the first recorded race to County Cork in Ireland in 1752. Messrs. Blake and O’Calloghan rode a match race over about 4 ½ miles; church steeples served at both ends as the start and the finish. Denis Blake was thought to be the winner.

English horsemen loved the idea of that game and soon set about establishing specific courses so that several horses could compete at the same time, instead of only the two involved in match races. Reportedly the first proper steeplechases took place in 1790 in Leicestershire, England. Bedfordshire, another county in England, was the site of an official race meeting, with actual purse money, shortly after the turn of the century. Thousands upon thousands of people attended, there was great excitement in the air –- and professional steeplechasing was born. The first Cheltenham Gold Cup took place in 1835, and the towering fences of the Grand National came into being just four years later. Conquering, or at least surviving, the daunting course at Aintree has remained the goal of world class ‘chasers ever since.

[1930 Inaugural Carolina Cup] Fox hunting and steeplechasing came to America with the Irish and English who settled in the eastern part of the United States. Even before the Civil War there were recognized race meetings in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, and racing soon spread to the Carolinas and Georgia. As always, there is some disagreement about who did what first, but there is a record of a jumping race being held in Washington, D.C. as early as 1834. At about the same time, under the English influence, steeplechasing was gaining a foothold in eastern Canada.

Records show that race meetings were held in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania following the end of the American Civil War. Jerome Park in the Bronx and Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore became the first major venues to card jump races. And a Racing Programme from beautiful Saratoga Springs in upstate New York shows the entries for a hurdle race in 1868. As more and more jump courses began cropping up, The National Steeplechase and Hunt Association was founded in Maryland in 1895 in order to establish proper rules and codes of conduct for the fast growing sport.

[Brookline - Paul Brown] An interesting chapter in the evolution of racing in America began shortly before the turn of the century. New Jersey enacted a law in 1898 that banned all horse racing and gambling. In New York the Hart-Agnew Act of 1908 barred gambling on horseracing in that state. Worse was to come, as that piece of legislation was the forerunner of the Hughes Law, which effectively shut down racing in New York for the next few years. Governor Hughes sent instructions to the police to arrest men who congregated in groups of more than three or who were even suspected of gambling. The economic ramifications were substantial, as the cities which had race courses were very hard hit indeed; many businesses went bankrupt. The Thoroughbred Times reported that between 1908 and 1913 more than 1500 American horses were sent to Europe, many never to return. The same can be said for jockeys and trainers.

Steeplechasing came to the rescue, as it had its roots in a more congenial atmosphere and had never been dependent solely on the betting public for its survival. Hall of Fame trainer Burley Cocks summed it up nicely by stating that “…jumping saved racing in the United States.”

Stately and spacious Belmont Park replaced the old Jerome Park on Long Island; when Belmont opened for business in 1913, jump races were always included on the card until the mid-1970’s when they became less popular with the regular punters. There are not too many ‘chases today at Belmont Park or Saratoga, but the races that do remain have become a most popular tradition, and are absolutely top class, often Grade I’s.

English horseman John Hislop, who has written extensively about steeplechasing, makes the distinction between that sport and flat racing. He wrote: “…steeplechasing has about it rather more glamour and excitement than the flat, a trace of chivalry, a spice of danger and a refreshing vigor that….flat racing lacks. The atmosphere is less restrained, more friendly, sympathetic and intimate. It gives the impression of being a sport and not primarily a business…”

Jumping races have essentially gone back to their roots, in the smaller race meetings in more rural environments. The renamed National Steeplechase Association has sanctioned meetings up and down the East coast and has its own circuit and schedule, running from March through November. Today there are important steeplechase meetings in nine different states, with purse money totally approximately $5 million. Happily, the sport is once again thriving in America.