National Hunt Racing Explained

In November of each year, thoroughbred horseracing in the United Kingdom and Ireland goes into hibernation for the winter, and an ancient and increasingly popular racing format takes centre stage. Whilst national hunt racing, or jumps racing, has always been popular in the United Kingdom and Ireland, it is only recently that the sport has begun to attract attention in the rest of the world.

National hunt racing offers an attractive alternative to thoroughbred racing, and many regard the former to be both more exciting and challenging than its richer cousin. However, many racing fans around the world may struggle to understand the various formats involved in the sport, and how to make the best use of the excellent betting opportunities offered in national hunt racing.

National hunt racehorses

The majority of national hunt racehorses are geldings, (castrated male horses), and are not required to have thoroughbred bloodlines. As a consequence these racehorses are cheaper for owners to purchase, and also have longer racing careers, as they continue racing past the age of 4 instead of going into stud.

The fact that many national hunt racehorses will compete in the same races several times contributes to the unique character of the sport, and gives racing fans the opportunity to form a sense of relationship with a particular racehorse, whilst also being able to track a long racing career when betting on the sport.


CHELTENHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 14: Celestial Halo ridden by Ruby Walsh clears the last fence to go on and win the Jcb Triumph Hurdle on day four of the Cheltenham festival at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 14, 2008, in Cheltenham, England. Today is the final day of The Annual National Hunt Festival held at the Gloucestershire track. (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)

Hurdles races are regarded as the milder, less challenging national hunt format, and are generally used as an intermediate step on the way to a career in steeplechases. Hurdles races are generally shorter than steeplechases, with a maximum race distance of 3½ miles, and the obstacles jumped during these races standing a minimum height of 3½ feet. Hurdles races are usually faster and safer than steeplechases, and provide some of the most prestigious events in national hunt racing, including the Champion Hurdle and World Hurdle.


CHELTENHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 14: Jockey Davy Russell riding Dix Villez (12) a hurdle to win The Glenfarclas Cross Country Steeple Chase at Cheltenham Racecourse on November 14, 2008 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

Steeplechase racing is the toughest race format in horseracing. Races are run over distances ranging between 2-4½ miles, and racehorses are required to clear fences that can be as high as 6 feet. This race format can be very dangerous to both rider and racehorse, and the severity of the challenges facing horses in steeplechases make these races amongst the most breathtaking spectacles in sport. Steeplechases also form the basis of national hunt racing’s most important races, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National.

Grade 1 Races

Jockey Sam Thomas (C) riding 'Denman' leads the field Kauto Star (2nd R) and Neptune Collonges (R) during the second lap of The Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup steeple chase race during the fourth day of the Cheltenham Festival on March 14, 2008. Denman won the race, favourite Kauto Star took second, and Neptune Collonges took third. AFP PHOTO/ADRIAN DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Many of the most important national hunt races are Grade 1 races. Entries in these races do not carry weights, which means that race favourites are often priced at very short odds, and previous form is a strong indication of how a racehorse will perform in a race. Many national hunt racehorses are run solely in Grade 1 races to protect their confidence and to avoid exposing them to the risks of running while carrying weights. The most prestigious Grade 1 race in the sport is the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the highlight of the Cheltenham Festival.

Grade 3 Races

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 05: Eventual winner Comply Or Die (C) ridden by Timmy Murphy comes over with Becher's Brook during the John Smith's Grand National Steeple Chase during the Grand National Meeting at Aintree on April 5, 2008 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

Grade 3 races, whilst technically rated lower than Group 1 and 2 races, are amongst the most popular events in national hunt racing. All grade 3 races are handicaps, which means that form in previous races is offset with extra weight allocated by the handicapper. The weights carried in these races level the field, which results in only truly exceptional racehorses being able to repeatedly win specific Group 3 events. The prices on offer tend to be high, creating each-way betting opportunities. The most famous Grade 3 steeplechase in the world is the Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree.

If you liked this article you might also enjoy these: