The term ‘steeplechase’ was coined in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century to describe an early form of point-to-point racing, in which the ‘course’ – which was, in fact, open countryside – started and finished at a church steeple. In fact, the first recorded race of this type was held in County Cork, Ireland in 1752. More recently, on enclosed racecourses, the original, natural obstacles were replaced with artificial fences and ditches, but the name endured. Nowadays, steeplechases are run over advertised distances between two miles and four miles and two-and-a-half furlongs.
With the exception of specialist, bank courses, such as the Cross Country Course at Cheltenham, steeplechasers jump three types of obstacle, namely the plain fence, the open ditch and, optionally, the water jump. The plain fence consists of a rigid frame filled with real or artificial birch and must stand at least 4’6″ high. The open ditch is simply a plain fence preceded by a shallow ditch, to create a wider, more challenging obstacle. The water jump, where present, must stand at least 3′ high, with an area of water at least 9′ wide and 3″ deep beyond the fence. Steeplechases must have at least twelve fences in the first two miles and at least six fences in each subsequent mile. One fence in each mile must be an open ditch.
Racing commentaries often refer to the fact that a front-running horse was allowed an uncontested lead, which can sometimes, but not always, prove to be an advantage. Lack of competition for the lead allows a front-runner to dictate its own fractions, without setting too frenetic a pace and, thereby, expending too much energy.
Obviously, every racehorse has limitations to its speed and stamina. Most can maintain top speed for two furlongs or so, but no further, which is why front-runners who set off ‘lickety split’ at the start of a race – either by their own volition, or because they are ‘harried’ for the lead – often fade out of contention when the race begins in earnest.
Conversely, if a front-runner is allowed to take the field along at moderate, or even slow, pace, it will be able to maintain its effort for longer. If a front-runner can maintain, or quicken, its speed, such that it covers the last two furlongs of a race in, say, 24 seconds, it stands to reason that a horse that is a few lengths off the pace must cover the distance in, say, half a second faster in order to win.
Timeform, the company, is nowadays a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Paddy Power Betfair (PPB) Group which is, in turn, part of Flutter Entertainment plc. Based in Halifax, West Yorkshire, Timeform was founded as a publishing company by the late Phil Bull – once billed ‘racing’s most celebrated and successful punter’ – in 1948. Until December, 2020, when it closed the remaining elements of its mail order service, Timeform publications included the ‘Racehorses’ and ‘Chasers & Hurdlers’ annuals and the weekly ‘Black Book’. However, in recent years, Timeform has focussed on its digital customer base, so much so that those celebrated publications are now a thing of the past.
Part of Timeform, right from the start, was an innovative technique for analysing form by awarding performance figures, which translate into Timeform ratings, by means of which the calibre of one racehorse can easily be compared with another. Indeed, the company has evolved over the years to become an acclaimed provider of data, form and ratings to a broad range of customers, including print, broadcasting and Internet media. Printed Timeform race cards are no longer available to the racing public by mail order, but can be downloaded, in Portable Document Format (PDF), from the Timeform website or, under normal circumstances, purchased on the racecourse at major meetings.
In many racing jurisdictions, including Britain and Ireland, the vast majority of Flat races are started from electromechanically-operated starting stalls. The purpose of starting stalls is to allow an even break, where participants start on level terms, in as straight a line as possible. Starting stalls are numbered, from left to right if viewed from behind, and stall numbers are drawn, at random, by Weatherbys, which provides administrative services to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) on the day on which declarations are made.
An even break is one thing, but various other factors may introduce draw bias, such that horses drawn on one part of a racecourse hold an advantage over those drawn elsewhere. These factors include the design and characteristics of the racecourse, including the racing surface, its level of usage and, of course, the weather.
Some parts of a racecourse may drain quicker than others after rainfall, creating a disparity in going across the width of the track. Similarly, the use of movable running rails has become increasing commonplace in recent years. This can have the effect of creating a ‘golden highway’ of fresh ground next to the rail, such that horses drawn on that side hold an advantage. The location of the start and the position of the starting stalls may also create draw bias, one way or another. If the start is located close to a bend, the horses drawn on the outside need to travel further than those on the inside and are naturally disadvantged.