The sport of National Hunt racing is broadly broken down into two spheres: those of hurdling, and chasing. There are, however, also subcategories of contests contained within these two branches, for example novice hurdle, cross country chase and so on. One of the more unique of these divisions being that of the hunter chase.
Hunter chase contests take place throughout the National Hunt season, including at the major spring festivals held at Cheltenham and Aintree, and retain a loyal fan base. But what exactly are these races? And, what kind of horses are permitted to take part in a hunter chase?
As Verified by the Master of the Hounds
In common with standard chase contests, hunter chases take place at registered National Hunt courses, and visually look just like any other chase event, in terms of the course used and the fences that need to be jumped. There are, however, a couple of key differences; the first of which concerns the type of horse eligible to take part.
The clue is really in the race type title here. In order to compete in a hunter chase, a runner must also have taken part in an actual hunt on at least four occasions during the calendar year preceding the year in which the hunter chase is held. That is, four times between January 2019 and December 2019 for a hunter chase taking place in 2020.
The type of hunt we are speaking of here is the type featuring bloodhounds and men and women in red coats, which – like it or loathe it – has featured as part of British culture for centuries now. One of the traditional pastimes of the British aristocracy may not be conducted in quite the same manner since the passing of the Hunting Act in 2004, but it does still attract significant participation, both human and equine.
Connections of horses who take part in a hunt are given a certificate from the Master of Hounds verifying this participation. It is this certificate which is then presented to the British Horseracing Authority, in order to confirm a horse’s eligibility to line-up in a hunter chase.
Point to Point Stars & Old Favourites
The nature of these events does dictate that they don’t attract the real cream of the chasing division. The likes of Grade 1 stars Al Boum Photo, Santini and Bristol De Mai are after all pretty unlikely to be spotted out hunting, and obviously have loftier targets at which to aim. As such, even the very best hunter chase contests of the season are rated at no higher than Class 2 level.
In general, hunter chases tend to attract runners from the point to point sphere (point to point racing being the amateur version of National Hunt racing) or perhaps older established National Hunt performers who are possibly past their peak and so moving back down the class ladder.
Taking the 2020 St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase as an example; that field included a clutch of largely unheard of names, in addition to two runners, in Minella Rocco and Don Poli, who had previously finished placed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.
An Amateur Affair
In addition to the restrictions relating to the type of horse allowed to take part, there are also strict regulations in place concerning the jockeys in hunter chase events: only amateur riders may take part in a hunter chase.
This ruling again attracts many jockeys used to competing in the point to point sphere, adding further to the crossover aspect between the amateur and professional arms of the sport. In addition to the horses, the riders must also have a certificate from the hunt secretary confirming their eligibility to take part.
Levelling the Playing Field
Unlike point to point races, both amateur and professional trainers are permitted to enter their runners in hunter chases. This did, however, lead to initial friction, with amateur trainers feeling unable to compete with runners from the professional ranks who had often only recently been seen competing at graded level.
The first step to appease the misgivings of the amateur ranks came in 2009, when it was determined that any runner who had finished placed in a graded contest over the previous 12 months would be ineligible to compete in a hunter chase.
2017 then saw hunter chases undergo another major rule change, which was also aimed to make it more difficult for the professional trainers to plunder the season’s biggest hunter chase prizes. Prior to this change, it had become relatively common for professional trainers to qualify their runners for a hunter chase, and send them into battle for one of the major events at the Cheltenham or Aintree festivals – often under very favourable conditions
The complaint surrounding this practice was that, having often obtained a fair chunk of the prize money in the major Hunter Chase races, the professional trainers would then often send their “hunter chase” horses down the traditional handicapping route for the remainder of the season.
However the new rule stated that having competed in a hunter chase, any runner from the yard of a professional trainer may compete ONLY in hunter chase events for the remainder of that season – effectively, putting an end to the hit and run approach previously adopted.
Biggest Hunter Chase Races
There are many hunter chase events held over the course of the season, at tracks across just about the length and breadth of the country. All provide amateur trainers and jockeys – often from the point sphere – with a target to aim for at an established racecourse. But the majority are held at a fairly low grade.
Whilst the majority of these events take place at a fairly low level, there are hunter chase contests of a significantly higher standard during the British racing year – with two races in particular standing out.
Cheltenham Foxhunter Chase
Cheltenham racecourse certainly does its bit for the hunter chasing arm of the sport, with the home of the National Hunt game laying on an all hunter chase card in May of each year.
In addition to that always popular event, Prestbury Park also stages one of the biggest hunter chases of the season as part of the Cheltenham Festival. Taking place on the fourth and final day of the March meeting, this race takes place immediately following the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and is held over the same course and distance. As such it is often referred to as the “Amateur Gold Cup” and represents the season’s ultimate target for connections of hunter chase performers.
Being the top rung on the hunter chase ladder, this race does have additional entry requirements. Horses must have either finished in the top two in two hunter chases, won two open point-to-point races, or have won one point-to-point and finished in the top two in a hunter chase in order to be eligible to run.
Aintree Foxhunters Chase
One month after being granted the opportunity to strut their stuff around the Gold Cup course, the hunter chasers are given their chance to shine on the most well-known National Hunt track in the world: Aintree’s Grand National Course.
Taking place on the opening day of the three day Grand National meeting in April, at 2m5f the Aintree Foxhunter Chase is not quite so demanding a test of stamina as the National, but does see the amateur riders tackle The Chair, Becher’s Brook, Valentines and the rest of the famous fences.