There are two distinctive codes of racing – namely National Hunt racing and Flat racing. The latter is self-explanatory, while the former is, in essence, ‘jumps racing’.
As a broad rule, Flat racing tends to dominate in summer months, with much of the action taking place on fast turf, while jumps racing lends itself to being a winter pursuit, with optimal conditions being slower. This is mainly down to the fact that horses are jumping obstacles and landing on turf with some ‘give’ in it.
The National Hunt season in Britain runs all year round, ending in late April with a Jumps Finale Meeting at Sandown Park, after which the Champion Trainer and Champion Jockey titles are decided.
The leading trainer award is decided on prize money earned, while the top jockey is quite simply the one that rides the most winners in the season.
Jumps racing continues through the summer months but the meat of the season runs from October through until April.
Key Dates & Festivals
Cheltenham is the ‘home of jumps racing’ and the season tends to revolve around their main Festival in March, the biggest four days in the season.
The Cotswolds circuit also signals a ramping up of the season in October when they host The Showcase Meeting, their first of a new season. There are further Cheltenham Meetings in November, December and January (two) leading to The Festival itself, headlined by the Cheltenham Gold Cup – jumps racing’s Blue Riband and most sought after prize.
Aintree’s Grand National Festival is the other major spring festival in Britain. The Merseyside venue hosts a three-day meeting in April, culminating in that most recognisable of events, the Grand National itself, on the Saturday.
In midwinter, the likes of Haydock (Betfair Chase, November), Sandown Park (Tingle Creek, December) and Kempton (King George VI Chase, Boxing Day) host some of Britain’s historic races.
British and Irish racing are intrinsically linked and the Emerald Isle hosts two major spring festivals itself – the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown in February (two days) and the Punchestown Festival (five days) in late April/early May.
Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown are long-established as the three leading end-of-season major jumps festivals.
Type of racing
National Hunt racing falls under three categories – bumpers, hurdles races and chases.
Bumpers – these are flat races for young/inexperienced horses beginning their careers. Horses typically debut in bumpers before going onto jumps.
Hurdles – the smaller of the two types of obstacles horses jump are called hurdles and this typically is where horses first go jumping. The hurdles are forgiving – they often get kicked over by errant jumps – ensuring mistakes can be overcome quite readily.
Chasing – the larger obstacles come up in chases and are known as fences. These require more skill and mistakes are much more routinely punished by falls. Going chasing is the long-term plan for the National Hunt horse, from birth to eventually competing for the sport’s elite prizes.
There’s no jumps race in the world more recognisable than the Grand National at Aintree. The spruce-topped fences are unique and can be picked out even by an untrained eye. The great race attracts a worldwide audience unmatched in National Hunt racing and is renowned as one of Britain’s great sporting institutions.
At Cheltenham, the Gold Cup is joined by the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Stayers’ Hurdle – the four Championship races at the great extravaganza in the Cotswolds.
The history of jumps racing is laced with fantastic stories and careers. As it is more of a test of stamina and jumping ability, the horses tend to be older, bigger and more developed than their counterparts on the Flat. As breeding is not such a prevalent factor, careers tend to be much more elongated too. Jumps horses tend to debut at age four/five and their careers routinely go on at or close to the top level until they are 11-years-old and more.
This is a massive part of the appeal of jumps racing, as fans get to see their favourites returning year in, year out for a prolonged career – something that is not so common on the Flat.
We are living through a period of sustained excellence in terms of human involvement. The likes of Ruby Walsh (most successful Cheltenham Festival jockey of all-time) and Sir Anthony McCoy (20-times champion jockey in Britain) have lit up the National Hunt scene this century. The 2021 Cheltenham Festival also witnessed Rachael Blackmore emerging as a supreme talent when she became the first female to be crowned leading rider at the sport’s most prestigious meeting.
In the training ranks, Willie Mullins has established himself as the top performer in recent years, dominating at home in Ireland but also at Cheltenham, where he squares off against great doyens of the British training ranks like Nicky Henderson, a record-breaking trainer with over four decades of top level experience.
Perhaps the most famous jumps horse in the modern era has been Tiger Roll, five-times a winner at the Cheltenham Festival and winner of back-to-back Grand Nationals at Aintree. His 2019 victory ensured he was the first horse since the great Red Rum in the 1970s to win more than one Aintree National.
This century has been littered with star performers over jumps – names like Best Mate, Istabraq, Kauto Star, Denman, Big Buck’s, Hurricane Fly, Sprinter Sacre, Cue Card, Altior and more joining the pantheon of jumping royalty.