A Guide to National Hunt Racing

National Hunt racing has been popular for centuries

Whether you already know a little about horse racing or if it’s a completely new world to you, anyone with an interest in horses can enjoy the beauty of the sport. 

National Hunt racing is hugely popular in the United Kingdom and sees horses run over distances of two miles upwards, encountering obstacles along the way. It’s a display of athleticism, endurance and trust in the jockey as these majestic creatures give their all on the racecourse. 

So, if you’d like to find out more about the history of this sport, its place in the world today and some of the courses where you can go and enjoy it, read on. 

The Beginnings of National Hunt Racing 

Although the absolute origins of national hunt racing are a little cloudy, the first-ever recorded race in which horses raced over a considerable distance and jumped obstacles took place in Cork, in 1752. The horses raced from the church steeple of Buttevant to the church steeple of Doneraile, a distance of around four and a half miles. 

Since the race took place from steeple to steeple, the term steeplechase was coined. The obstacles in this race included everything from hedges to streams, stone walls and dugout ditches in farmer’s fields. Today, these sorts of obstacles aren’t used in official racing but they can often be used when training young horses.  

Point to point racing is the term used for a more loosely organised race, run in much the same way as steeplechases were back in the 19th century. These races still feature a series of obstacles and are sometimes run on farmland. 

Generally speaking, the horses competing in point to points are perhaps a lower calibre of racehorse, coming from a smaller yard that might be run as more of a hobby than a profession. 

Professional yards send their horses to compete in National Hunt racing, which we’ll discuss the modern version of below. 

Racing in the Modern Day 

National Hunt racing is divided, pretty much, into two categories: jumps and hurdles. Jumps racing requires the horse to negotiate fixed obstacles such as brush fences. In races including The Grand National, larger jumps are constructed from sturdy branches. 

Hurdle racing requires the horses to jump over smaller fences that are smaller and flimsier. Horses often graduate from hurdle racing to jump racing as they get older, as they improve their technique and develop more stamina. 

The horses that become long-distance chasers are usually taller and leggier than their hurdling counterparts. You could think about them as the equine equivalent of long-distance runners in the human world, whereas hurdlers are akin to sprinters. 

Betting on National Hunt events is commonplace, as are at-course bookmakers for those who are watching the action in person. Nowadays, people can also enjoy free horse racing bets thanks to the advent of online bookmakers. 

Although betting at the racecourse can still be fun, the deals that can be found online are unmatched. During large events, online bookmakers will often pay out prize money on all the horses that place (those that finish anywhere from second place to as far back as seventh place on occasion). 

Notable Races 

The National Hunt season features a whole host of notable events. Coming up soon is the Cheltenham Festival, where races such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup – a jumps race – and the Supreme Novices Hurdle are renowned for drawing in crowds. 

You’ll have also noted the mention of the Grand National in this article, which is a race run at Aintree every year over huge fences. This race has several precursors to it, which are run in Wales, Scotland and Ireland over similarly challenging obstacles. 

The Grand National has been run since the 1800s, making it not only the oldest race in the National Hunt calendar but also the one with the most generous prize money.

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