What is National Hunt Racing?

National Hunt racing (known as jumps racing) is horse racing over two miles or further where the horses are required to jump hurdles or fences.

The sport’s roots are in hunting and point-to-point racing and many of the horses are geldings, often racing for several seasons.

Here is our guide to National Hunt racing, explaining the Graded race system, the different types of races, highlighting the biggest races, the leading National Hunt festivals and the stars of the sport, both human and equine.

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Jumps racing

Graded Races

Rather like the Group or Pattern race system with flat racing, National Hunt racing has a graded system to classify its races.

The most prestigious races are Grade 1 events followed by Grade 2, Grade 3 and Listed races.

Although the sport is not as closely entwined with the breeding industry as flat racing, Graded races offer higher prize money and therefore attract the best horses.

Steeplechase Races

Steeplechase or chase races involve jumping fences that must be a minimum height of 4ft 6 inches. They are typically made of birch or spruce and are either plain fences or open ditches. The latter has a ditch at the take-off side, encouraging the horse to take a longer leap.

The water jump used to be a feature at most British National Hunt courses but there were question marks over its safety and it is now less common.

There should be six fences to a mile in steeplechase races, although this can vary depending on other factors such as safe ground and low sun.

Hurdle Races

Hurdles are not as substantial as fences, being light frames made of brushwood.

They must be a minimum height of 3ft 6 inches and can often be knocked flat by horses.

There are 8 hurdles to a mile and while it is the schooling ground for future chasers it also has its own championship races.

Jump Racing Handicaps

The handicap system is intended to give every horse an equal chance of winning.

The official handicapper rates each horse according to its form and these ratings are then converted to weights allocated for each handicap race. There are separate ratings issued for hurdles and chases.

The weights system works slightly differently from the flat because horses are usually older and travelling over much longer distances. When a horse wins a race between the publication of the weights and the running of a handicap, they incur an automatic weights penalty as stated in the race conditions.

National Hunt Novice Races

Horses who are yet to win a hurdle prior to the start of the season are eligible to run in novice hurdles and the same for novice chasers. Almost every meeting includes one or two novice races.

A winner of a novice event can continue to race in these events for the rest of the season, although it will have to carry a penalty.

There are graded and championship races for novices over hurdles and fences.

National Hunt Flat or Bumper races

National Hunt flat or bumper races were originally introduced as a way for late-maturing unraced horses to gain experience on the racecourse.

As the name suggests, there are no obstacles.

Horses that have raced on the flat are not allowed to enter. This has become quite a competitive division in recent years with championship races at the big Festival meetings.

The Biggest National Hunt Races and Jumps Races

The two most highly prized races in steeplechasing are the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Aintree Grand National.

The Gold Cup is regarded as the blue riband event for chasers with the best horses from Britain and Ireland racing off level weights over three and a quarter miles.

The Grand National is a handicap over four and a quarter miles over the unique Aintree fences and is one of the most famous races in the world.

The King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day is another prestigious prize for chasers over three miles.

The Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February is another valuable event with the winner expected to tackle the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following month.

Besides Aintree, there are also Irish, Scottish and Welsh Grand Nationals for staying chasers.

Top chasers competing over two miles are aimed at the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Other valuable two-mile chases include The Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown and the Punchestown Champion Chase.

The top prize for Novice chasers over this distance is the Arkle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham with the winner often earmarked for the Champion Chase the following season.

The Ryanair Chase is the top prize for two and a half mile chasers.

The ultimate prize for two-mile hurdlers is the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Other significant hurdles over this trip include the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown and the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse.

The top two-mile novice hurdle is the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival with other championship races over two and a half and three miles.

The Grade 1 Stayers’ Hurdle at the same meeting is the most coveted prize for hurdlers over three miles.

National Hunt Festivals

The Cheltenham Festival in March has become so dominant in the National Hunt season that some leading trainers have expressed concerns that it detracts from other meetings. All roads lead to Cheltenham from November onwards, four days of top-class racing with championship events in all divisions.

There has even been speculation that the meeting could be extended to five days at some point in the future. The Cheltenham Festival races almost have a monopoly of the top ten races in terms of betting turnover over the entire racing year.

The Aintree Grand National is the climax of a three-day festival in early April. Many of the top horses from Cheltenham are in action, although the Punchestown Festival three weeks later has increasingly become a more tempting alternative.

Punchestown stages championship events including the Punchestown Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle.

The 7-day Galway Festival in July does not have the quality or prize money of the major festivals but is unique in its mixture of flat and jumps racing.

Famous National Hunt Horses

Although Arkle registered his third and final Cheltenham Gold Cup win in 1966, his name is still at the top of the list for National Hunt fans. Tom Dreaper trained the gelding to win 27 of his 35 starts, achieving legendary status. His other victories include the King George VI Chase, two Hennessy Gold Cups, the Irish Grand National and the Whitbread Gold Cup.

Another name synonymous with jump racing is three-time Grand National winner Red Rum. His first victory came at the agonising expense of long-time leader Crisp in 1973. The following year he carried 12 stone to victory. After finishing second in 1975 and 1976, he finally achieved his record-breaking third success in 1977. Tiger Roll threatened to match his achievement after success in 2018 and 2019 but the 2020 renewal was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Desert Orchid became a household name in the 1980’s, a bold jumping grey who liked to race from the front. He had the heart of a lion and famously battled back to win the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup in treacherous conditions. His other career victories include four King George VI Chases, the Tingle Creek Chase and the Irish Grand National.

Kauto Star surpassed Desert Orchid’s King George record by winning it a remarkable five times between 2006 and 2011. He also became the first horse to reclaim the Cheltenham Gold Cup when winning it for a second time in 2009.

Istabraq won the Champion Hurdle for three successive seasons from 1998 to 2000 and was arguably denied a record-breaking fourth victory when the meeting was cancelled due to the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001. He is one of numerous multiple Champion Hurdle winners including Sea Pigeon, See You Then and Hurricane Fly.

Famous National Hunt Trainers

Vincent O’Brien was champion trainer in Britain twice over jumps before going on to repeat the achievement on the flat. His National Hunt successes included three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups with Cottage Rake (1948-50) and three successive Grand National victories (1953-55). He also won three Champion Hurdles with Hatton’s Grace (1949-51).

Tom Dreaper trained Arkle to win three Gold Cups among his list of great achievements. He won the race five times in all and trained Flyingbolt, the second-highest steeplechaser of all-time behind his more illustrious stable companion. Perhaps his most remarkable achievement is ten victories in the Irish Grand National between 1946 and 1966, the last by Flyingbolt carrying 12st 7lbs.

Other famous trainers over jumps include Fulke Walwyn, Fred Winter and Fred Rimell. Walwyn won the Gold Cup four times and his record of 40 Cheltenham Festival winners stood until passed by Nicky Henderson in 2012. Winter was an outstanding horseman, riding 17 festival winners and training a further 28 whereas Rimell won four Aintree Grand Nationals and two Cheltenham Gold Cups.

In more recent years, Martin Pipe is often credited with changing the way horses are trained forever. He won the Trainers’ Championship for fifteen successive seasons, training over 200 winners in a season on eight occasions and over 4000 winners in Europe during his career. The modern era has been dominated by eleven-times champion Paul Nicholls, Lambourn trainer Nicky Henderson and leading Irish trainer Willie Mullins.

Famous National Hunt Jockeys

Tony McCoy is firmly established as the greatest National Hunt jockey of all time. He was champion jockey for twenty successive seasons and rode 4,348 winners under rules. He won most of the major races in the sport, although he had to wait until 2010 and his fifteenth Grand National ride before scoring on Don’t Push It.

For much of his career, twelve times Irish Champion Jockey Ruby Walsh was McCoy’s main adversary. Walsh was top jockey at the Cheltenham Festival eleven times and formed formidable partnerships with trainers Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins.

Peter Scudamore was Champion on eight occasions and stable jockey to the powerful Martin Pipe stable.

Charlie Swan was Irish Champion Jockey nine times and rode a record 147 winners in 1995-96.

Richard Johnson lived in McCoy’s shadow for much of his career but finally claimed the jockeys’ title when his great rival retired in 2015. Johnson went on to win it four times before announcing his own retirement in 2021.

Other famous National Hunt jockeys include John Francome, Richard Dunwoody and Jonjo O’Neill.

Summary of What is National Hunt Racing

National Hunt racing, more commonly known as jumps racing, is a hugely popular form of horse racing.

It is traditionally run in the winter months (the National Hunt season typically running from October to April), although summer jumping fixtures have gotten more popular over the last few years.

As National Hunt horses tend to have longer careers than their flat counterparts, they often capture the public imagination such as Desert Orchid, Kauto Star and Red Rum – to name just three.

We hope you have enjoyed the guide, for more racing new and views be sure to check out our blog.

Betting on National Hunt Racing

If you are looking to bet on national hunt racing or jumps racing, then check out the top online betting websites below:

Many from the list above made our list of the best horse racing betting sites.

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