“Steeplechase horse racing is based on the concept of the countryside’s natural and man-made features providing an obstacle course. Horses and their riders must negotiate an unpredictable terrain, jumping over fences and ditches, rather than racing on a flat, controlled course,” states the National Steeplechase Association’s (NSA) website.
It’s one of Saratoga Race Course’s great traditions.
Or, at least, it was.
It was here my introduction to steeplechase racing originated, and naturally the two are forever linked.
But things have changed.
Today it brings joy and frustration.
As a kid I remember a couple of jump races on a single card, up to two cards a week.
NYRA made the financial decision to knock ’em down to one a week. Financially, I get it. I do. They don’t handle as well at the windows. But is it really going to make them go broke by running a second or third event a week?
How many horseplayers – or fans on-track – will miss a six or seven horse field of cheap maidens running for a $20k tag in order to watch something that they haven’t seen – or seen very much of.
But one is all they run.
With all the NYRA does to make Saratoga special it is the only place they fall short.
But that’s just me.
Thank goodness for the Clancy brothers, but more on them later.
Steeplechase racing was made popular in the United Kingdom and Ireland, where it is referred to as National Hunt racing. Its lineage is traced back to Ireland in the mid-18th century and steeplechasing got its name simply because the race began at one church steeple and ended at another.
Take the Grand National for example. Run at Aintree, in the UK since 1836 – 37 years before Saratoga began – the race spans greater than four miles and 40 hurdles. It is the most well known jump race on earth and there were an estimated 600 million plus viewers who watch it every year.
Its largest field had 66 entrants in 1929 … 66 for crying out loud!!! Talk about betting value! The winner went off at 100-1. Then again, with 66 horses, he still might have been a bit of an underlay.
Take a few minutes and do a search for the John Smith’s Grand National Chase 2010. You’ll be amazed, especially if this is new to you.
At the Spa they race and jump over National Fences. Standing 52″ in height with plastic brush over a steel frame, there’s a foam-rubber roll on the side from which they take off. Not unlike people who run hurdles, horses make their leaps in stride. At Saratoga you’ll see white fences on either side of the jump called “wings” which are intended to guide a horse to the fence.
Distances will vary but rarely are races less than two miles.
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But now, on to the saving graces of steeplechase racing – and journalism – the brothers Clancy.
Joe and Sean Clancy are publishers, writers, editors, multiple-pizza-ordering-while-fighting-deadline racing fans that created The Steeplechase Times and The Saratoga Special. They’ve authored books, create yearly thoroughbred racing calendars and partner with a design company in bringing a website to life.
You’ll find The Saratoga Special all over town and it doesn’t cost a cent. Varying from 24-40+ pages an issue, it’s all the Saratoga racing information you need each race day and it comes at no cost to the reader. Feature stories, handicapping angles, entries and results, recaps of the prior day’s races, funny lines from horsemen overheard on the backstretch and more.
For years I have relied on them to bottle Saratoga for me so I can pour myself a glass whenever I please.
For years, they’ve never let me down.
In their July 29th edition of The Saratoga Special, they combined it with their latest issue of The Steeplechase Times. Or as Sean put it, a “Dual-purpose. One purpose. Horse racing.”
In it, Sean’s daily “Cup of Coffee” article was a plea to the flat and steeplechase brethren to band together and bring to life the joys of jump racing as it once was. As it should be again, I would agree.
He’s left flabbergasted at the resistance each group share with one another.
In reading it, so was I. More so, however, because I wouldn’t have thought either contingent would not support the livelihoods of their common bread and butter – the thoroughbred.
For those who do not follow racing closely or at all, there isn’t a special breed that makes for the jump horse. They are thoroughbreds.
They are the same remarkable athlete, except they’re asked to jump better than four feet at a time, nine times, over a couple miles.
They are fast. They are nimble. They are athletes in the words’ finest definition.
The Clancy’s Steeplechase Times prints a dozen times a year and they are recognized as the foremost authority and voices of the steeplechase game, with numerous awards to back them up.
It is the only publication I know of where I’ll find all the steeplechase news and they’re as reliable and thorough as you would expect them to be.
They know the game and know it well. Their Dad trained for years. Sean was a successful jump jock. Today, they pour themselves into a paper devoted to the love of the sport, exposing their vulnerabilities for criticism and seemingly have the greatest time of their lives doing it.
The industry ought to be grateful to have them.
I wonder where steeplechase racing would be without their tireless efforts to promote, publicize and hustle to garner new fans and keep the old ones interested.
I may be just a fan, but I’m one that’s ruddy grateful for them.
And even though there is only one jump race a week at the Spa, I remain grateful to have – at least – that one.
But it’s a crying shame there aren’t more.