National Hunt Racing

National Hunt racing is an important sport in the UK, Ireland and France. It originated in Ireland (especially in Southern Ireland) during the 18th century, and nowadays it is much more popular there than flat racing. The first recorded steeplechase took place at Cork in Ireland in 1752 when horses were raced over a distance of 4.5 miles. In the UK, Cheltenham racecourse has become the centre of National Hunt racing.

In National Hunt racing, horses jump over hurdles and fences and races are usually longer than flat races. Races take place between October and April when the ground is not so hard and is therefore better for jumping.

In its early stages, National Hunt racing was called the steeplechase because horses used to race across country going from church steeple to church steeple. They would jump over any obstacles that got in their way. One explanation is that these races began informally to keep hunting horses fit between hunts. Nowadays, National Hunt races are more regulated and take place on a track rather than cross-country, in contrast to more informal point-to-point racing.

Most of the horses competing in National Hunt racing are thoroughbreds. They are usually geldings (castrated male horses) with no breeding value, which is one of the reasons why the sport is so much cheaper than flat horse racing. Many horses start off with the more informal point-to-point racing and then move on to National Hunt racing once they have gained more experience. Ireland produces the most popular and successful horses in National Hunt racing.

Rules, techniques, tips and major features of National Hunt Racing

There are three different types of National Hunt races:

  • The Chase or Steeplechase – This race has larger and more rigid fences than the other types of races. Fences are a minimum of four and a half feet high and the race is between two miles and four and a half miles long. The most prestigious Chase event is the Grand National.
  • The Hurdle – In this race, the jumps are smaller and more flexible than those in the Chase, and they are a minimum of three and a half feet high. Courses are between two miles and three and a half miles long.
  • The National Hunt flat race – These races are flat races held under National Hunt rules so as to give inexperienced jumping horses experience of racing without any jumps. These races are between two and two and a half miles long and are informally known as Bumper races.
  • Hunter Chase – A race for amateur riders and horses involved with hunting.

Details of the various National Hunt events taking place today

There are many important National Hunt Races taking place throughout the UK and Ireland. The following races are the most important ones:

The Grand National

This is the most famous National Hunt race, which takes place each year at Aintree racecourse near Liverpool. The exact date of the first Grand National is debatable, however there is a general agreement on the date of 1836. More people bet on the Grand National than on any other horse race in the UK. The Grand National is also a target for animal rights groups, who argue that it is extremely cruel to the horses due to the high numbers of animals injured or killed during the event.

The Grand National is four and a half miles long, which is the same distance as the first ever recorded steeplechase in 1752. Participating horses are handicapped, and fences along the course are large and have big drops after them. The most famous horse to take part in the Grand National was Red Rum. Red Rum won the Grand National in 1973, 1974 and 1977, and was the runner up two other times. He is the only horse to have won it three times.

For further information on the Grand National visit:

The Cheltenham Gold Cup

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the highlight of the Cheltenham Festival and is referred to as the Olympics of horse racing, while Cheltenham racecourse is considered the centre of National Hunt racing in the UK. The Festival takes place every March in the Cotswolds and is very popular amongst the Irish. The festival is usually dominated by horses that have been bred and trained in Ireland. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is a three mile long, uphill race, and famous horses that have run the race include Arkle and Desert Orchid. For more information visit Cheltenham Racecourse.

Tingle Creek

Tingle Creek race takes place at Sandown Park in Surrey. The race started in 1979 and it is run in December over a 2 mile racecourse. For further information visit Sandown Park Racecourse.

King George VI

This takes place on 27 December at Kempton Park Racecourse in Surrey. It was started in 1937 in honour of George VI, who had recently become King. The racecourse has eighteen fences and is three miles long. It has been won by famous horses like Desert Orchid, Arkle and Best Mate. For more information visit The King George VI Chase Website.

Hennessy Gold Cup

The Hennessy Gold Cup takes place in Newbury, Berkshire at the end of November. It is an important National Hunt race for horses that are over five years old. The race is named after Hennessy Cognac, who are the race’s main sponsors. For more information visit Newbury Racecourse.


The main National Hunt race that takes place in Wales is the Welsh National at Chepstow racecourse. This race started in 1885 at Ely racecourse in Cardiff. It moved to Chepstow in 1949 and takes place in late December each year. For further information visit Chepstow Racecourse.


The main National Hunt event in Scotland is the Scottish Grand National at Ayr racecourse. This race started in 1867 at Bogside Racecourse and moved to its current location in 1966. The Scottish Grand National takes place every April. For further information visit Ayr Racecourse


The Punchestown Festival, at Punchestown racecourse in County Kildare. The Punchestown Festival takes place in April and is the biggest National Hunt event in Ireland. For further information visit Punchestown Racecourse