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The Winter Blues: Taking A Look At National Hunt Racing

The Winter Blues: Taking A Look At National Hunt Racing by Kirby C. Grimes– This time of year, racing lies dormant in America. Save for early Kentucky Derby prep races and the occasionally handicap, racing fans are left feeling blue and without much excitement. One might turn to Australia or South Africa for higher class racing. However, the summer season in those countries are beginning to wind down. Instead, take a look at Great Britain and Ireland where the National Hunt seasons are just beginning to peak. The next two months will see the elite Cheltenham Festival and the prestigious Grand National at Aintree Racecourse.

National Hunt racing consists of three types of racing: Steeplechase, Hurdles, and flat races called bumpers. More money is wagered annually in the United Kingdom on National Hunt racing than on flat racing. The Grand National attracts crowds larger than most Breeders’ Cup events, and more people attended the Cheltenham Festival last year than the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes combined.

If one spends a day (morning on the east coast of America) watching National Hunt racing, they will love it for life. The style and grace of the jumpers are awe-inspiring. The rustic beauty of the racecourses simply draws in the eyes. To appreciate National Hunt racing, one should learn the basics of the sport.

Steeplechases are the most famous and challenging style of National Hunt racing. They are conducted over distances ranging from two miles to four-and-a-half miles and require runners to jump fences that are a minimum of four-and-a-half feet tall. Several chase courses also include ditches and canals just before fences. At these fences, the runner jumps both the obstacle and fence at the same time.

Steeplechase racing developed from fox hunting and the fences, hedges, and streams that horses encounter on the hunt. One class of chases, the Hunter Chase, requires horses to have taken part in fox hunting four times the previous hunt season. All jockeys in Hunt Chases must be amateur jockeys with a valid certificate from a hunt secretary.

The Cross Country Chase at the Cheltenham Festival hearkens back to the roots of Steeplechase. Runners compete over a unique course that includes open water with fences immediately before and after the water. This is, perhaps, the most challenging race outside of the Grand National.

Chases are classified starting with Novice Chases usually run over the minimum allowed trip. Horses cannot have won more than three chases in order to be eligible. The next condition is the handicap with a further classification of Classes One through Five. In handicaps, the runners carry additional weight depending on their performances and other factors. In addition, penalties of additional weight are imposed based on winning a race within a certain time frame. Class Two events are usually listed races with Class Ones being Grade III events.

Steeplechase stakes races are Graded I, II, and III. Grade III are handicaps while Grade I and Grade II are considered weight-for-age and imposts are assigned based on age, not performance. The most famous Steeplechase, the Grand National, is a Grade III as it is a handicap, much to the chagrin of most fans.

The Cheltenham Festival will be held March 15-18 this year and feature 21 Graded Stakes consisting of both Chases, Hurdles, and Bumpers. The Gold Cup, which often produces higher rates winners than the Grand National, will be held on Friday, March 18. Run over three miles and two-and-a-half furlongs, the most strenuous portion of the race is the run into the finish which is entirely uphill. This tests even the sternest horse and jockey and makes for thrilling finishes.

The Crabbie’s Grand National is April 9 this year. Conducted over four-and-a half-miles, it is considered the most challenging race in the world (Mongolia doesn’t count). Fences such as The Chair and Beecher’s Brook along with the Canal Turn challenge the best horses and riders. Often these fences winnow down the field and create surprising winners, like Foinavon in 1967.

The 1973 Grand National won by Red Rum is considered the greatest Grand National of all time. Behind by 30 lengths, Red Rum closed in the final straight to catch Australian invader Crisp just before the finish. Each Grand National is special and not to be missed.

Hurdle races are conducted over distances ranging from two miles to three-and-a-half miles. The obstacles are known as flights and are a minimum of three-and-a-half feet tall. Made of brush, they are flexible and require less skill to jump than fences. Hurdle races are run under the same conditions as Chases and are often used to introduce horses to National Hunt races before moving on the Chases. These races are run at a faster pace than Chases but are still challenging and interesting to watch. Hurdlers are taught to jump through flights as opposed to over as is done by Chasers. This allows horses to keep their momentum upon landing.

Several major hurdle races will be conducted during the Cheltenham Festival. These include the Novice’s Hurdle, Champion Hurdle, and World Hurdle. Often future star Chasers can be seen in these races, and they are not to be missed.

The final branch of National Hunt racing is flat races. Contested over one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half miles, these races are for horses that have never competed under any rules of racing, save for unofficial point-to-point races. These are the introductory races to National Hunt and usually the final races of the day.

TVG has added select National Hunt races to their broadcasts, and your A.D.W. of choice offers full wagering and live video. Brisnet has free past performances, making it even easier to watch and wager on this highly popular form of racing. Stay tuned here for coverage of Cheltenham and the Grand National.

Wagering on National Hunt racing is very different than betting flat racing and to the American bettor can seem challenging. A few simple rules apply, though, and with some practice one can enjoy National Hunt racing the way it is meant to be enjoyed!

The betting pools in the United States are not combined with those in Ireland or the United Kingdom. Some tracks there do not offer betting with the tote, pari-mutuel wagering in American nomenclature. You are betting against other American and Canadian bettors. Wagering is limited to win, place, exacta, and trifecta wagering.

Place betting is different than place betting in the U.S. For National Hunt racing, place betting is generally offered on races with fields of four runners or more. In races with seven or fewer runners, the place pool pays out on the top two finishes. In races with eight or more runners, the pool pays out on the top three finishers. In handicap races with 16 or more entrants, the pool is paid to the top four finishers.

Hurdle races are typically run at faster paces than Chases. This does not always mean closers perform well as often the horse that makes all flights in the lead is simply the best horse in the field. When handicapping a hurdle race, look at the horses’ last three performances. If they seem to always be close to the front throughout, be sure to include them in your wagers. Generally class will prevail, such as a horse dropping from a handicap back to a novice hurdle race.

It is imperative, whether in Hurdles or Chases, to pay attention to weights. For example, a horse that carried 148 pounds in its last race but today is carrying 160 pounds is probably not a good bet to make. Also, always pay attention to penalties. A horse may be listed to carry 166 pounds, but because it has won a race within a specified period of time, it must carry additional weight. The past performances available often do not provide this information. One must pay close attention to the GBI video feed or visit the Racing Post’s website. The Racing Post is the U.K.’s equivalent of the Daily Racing Form. Often, this additional weight will be too much for all but the very best of horses.

The condition of the racecourse is a key factor to use in handicapping. National Hunt courses are more natural than the courses here in the U.S. and are exposed to all types of weather. Typically, the condition of the course is listed as good, soft, or heavy. Often, a horse will prefer one of these surface conditions and will not perform well on other types of tracks. In order to determine the condition of a course, you must either tune in early to the GBI feed or visit the Racing Post’s website.

You will often hear a horse called “a course and distance winner.” Just as there are “horses for courses” here in the U.S., the same applies to National Hunt horses. Pay close attention to whether or not a horse has run at the same course and on the same type of ground. Often handicappers here overlook these angles; however, to successfully wager on jumps racing, you should use these angles.

Always pay attention to the on-course odds that scroll at the bottom of the GBI feed. Often these vary from those available to U.S. bettors, and great value can be found. Those betting in the U.K. are often more sharper handicappers when it comes to jumps racing. So, if you see a horse as the favorite on course but 9/2 in the North American pools, you know what to do.

Lastly, do not be afraid to take chances. You will often see horses coming off years-long layoffs. They often carry the minimum weight allowed, 140 pounds, and make good value plays for exacta and trifecta plays. If the horse was running well before the layoff or ran well at the same course before, do not overlook them!

My suggestion to beginning bettors would be a win/place wager. In Britain and Ireland this is known as an “each way” bet and provides good value while allowing one to become acclimated to National Hunt racing. Then one can move onto the exotics, which in the larger size races, can often produce huge payouts.

In National Hunt racing, like in most international racing, there are no colored saddle cloths. One should learn the jockey silks of their horse and always keep an eye on them throughout the race. The designs of the silks are described in the past performances. My suggestion is to write down on paper the names of the horse(s) you have bet, along with a description of the silks. That way you can easily follow your runners all the way to victory.

National Hunt racing is breathtaking and thrilling. Horses combine athletic ability and grace while the jockeys add skillful, tactical acumen. Unlike flat racing, National Hunt horses have extended careers, and you can follow their progress for as long as a decade. Combine that with the beautiful scenery at many racecourses and you have a sure bet to beat the winter racing blues.

Grand National Festival

The Grand National attracts crowds larger than most Breeders’ Cup events, and more people attended the Cheltenham Festival last year than the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes combined. Photo: