Steeplechasing runs a tightrope between managing safety and a daredevil adrenalin rush of jumping big fences at speed; two opposite ends of a spectrum forever in conflict one with another.
In the UK, standardisation of fences, with the almost wholesale adoption of uniform fences, seems to be the norm. Other racing jurisdictions, perhaps under less threat from the likes of Animal Rising, still illustrate considerable variation in the composition and scale of the obstacles.
In France for example, the variety of obstacles in a cross country chase cover orthodox steeplechase fences, bullfinches, railed ditches, rails, and banks. Some even have water obstacles. For the best example of this, visit Craon in the Mayenne region of Western France. Craon’s Grand Cross in early September is the highlight of a three day festival of flat, trotting and Jump racing that attracts around 15,000 spectators.
France is of course a country where jump racing is thriving, underwritten by a breeder class seeking to grow a market for top class chasers. And as we know very well, exporting them to compete under British ownership has been a trait of the past 20 years here in the British market.
Reverting to the style of obstacle, the town of Bad Harzburg in Germany enjoys a reputation for the deepest water crossing in international racing. the 20m wide river laps the riders’ calves as the horses slow to a trot and wade across. yet in contrast to France, Bad Harzburg relies on a domestic population of just 15 chasers to populate its races. Without competitors from abroad, the race has a limited shelf life.
Timber plays a leading role in the US steeplechasing scene, where alongside portable hurdles, chasers compete over the sort of fencing you might find adorning Sussex; timber rails up to 4ft 8 in height. The mother of all timber races is the Maryland Hunt Cup, held at the end of April, serving as a copycat Point-to-Point of yesteryear, over 4 miles and 22 fences. Unique among the world’s top flight races, it is solely open to amateur riders.
The race has a typically quaint Victorian heritage. Created as a contest between the Elkridge and Green Spring Hunts in 1894, the race set out to mark out the best hunter from the two packs, but was subsequently opened to other hunts in North America, and eventually any restriction was removed. And whereas only around 100 attended the first running, now many thousand enjoy the Spring scenery of the Worthington Valley, the race’s modern permanent home. This is a race with a niche following that breeds an intense loyalty. With a $100,000 purse, it’s no small prize either.
This is a race meeting like no other, insofar as the obstacles are uniquely Maryland, but also there are no supporting races! If you’re in the loo for 8 minutes, you could miss the whole purpose of the afternoon.
Like much about steeplechasing, it’s also gloriously politically incorrect. Even by US standards, the race was slow to admit women riders, only allowing them in the 70s’. The list of winning owners and riders reads like an old western from first winner John McHenry through Jervis Spencer Jnr, the billionaire Paul Mellon, five time winners D Michael Smethwick and Charles Fenwick Jnr, whose Ben Nevis used the Hunt Cup as a platform to win the Grand National at Aintree in 1980.
This is a race which lends itself to course & distance winners. Several have won it three times, notable among them Jay Trump (1963, ’64, ’66), another who used the success as a platform to Aintree glory in 1965. Since 2016, allowing for a pandemic-induced break in 2020, there have been just 4 winners, including three time winner Senior Senator, ridden by Eric Poretz, and Irish-bred Vintage Vinnie, winner in 2021 and the following year.
the 2023 winner, Withoutmoreado is a nine year old with virtually no previous steeplechase form, and certainly not under Rules. The 12l winner of an open maiden at Charm Park back in 2019, he didn’t win again until breaking his timber maiden in the US at the Genesee Valley meet in autumn ’21, since when the penny dropped, and he’s rarely been out of the frame. In the specialist world of long distance timber racing, he’s a firm favourite to hold on to the race in 2024.
Quirky races like these may be an anomaly, but you only have to see the crowd that flocks out to watch cheltenham’s cross country races close up to a fence to know they touch a part of the soul other races cannot reach. Their unique nature defines the sport more than any orthodox race – however valuable – can. They need to be nurtured and protected to salve the sport’s heritage.
Put these three venues on your racing bucket list. You won’t regret it.