From a soft 3ft 6in hurdle to the 5ft 2in monster The Chair, it’s fair to say that there’s quite a difference in the various obstacles that a horse may encounter during their racing career.
Success, or otherwise, will be dictated by their ability to take said obstacles cleanly and at speed, and of course not all racehorses are born equal.
While some suggest that jumps racing is cruel, others marvel at the athletic abilities of the horses on show – and revel in the drama and mystery that the great racecourses and the most devilish of fences can deliver.
What is a Hurdle in Horse Racing?
When a horse shows promise running on the flat, they may be on the path towards becoming a top-class chaser – but first, they must prove themselves over the smaller obstacles.
Hurdling is essentially the gateway to the big chase races, with a horse given the opportunity to show how well they take flights of around 3ft 6in or slightly higher.
Hurdles are typically made from ash and small branches known as ‘brush’, and there can only be eight flights of hurdles in the first two miles of a race – with an additional hurdle allowed for every subsequent quarter of a mile.
These obstacles are smaller than fences, and they are also considered to be ‘softer’ as well and more forgiving – hence why you might see a horse crash through a hurdle and remain upright.
The best horses seem to fly over hurdles as if they aren’t there – a sure sign that a career in chasing awaits.
While horse racing’s richest prizes tend to be on the flat or over fences, there are still some notable hurdling renewals to watch out for – the Fighting Fifth, the Christmas Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle is known as the ‘triple crown’ of the discipline.
What is a Fence in Horse Racing?
If hurdling is the training school of horse racing, fences are where you’ll find the big boys and girls.
Only the best jumpers progress to National Hunt races over fences, and due to the inherent danger of them you will only find such renewals in late autumn through to the spring – ensuring the ground is soft upon landing.
For the bog-standard National Hunt meeting, fences must be a minimum of 4ft 6in as per BHA stipulations, but as we’ll learn later in this guide some racecourses up the ante far higher than that.
Fences tend to be ‘stiffer’ in build than hurdles, with either birch or spruce – or a mix of both – used. There are different types too, from plain fences to open ditches and water jumps, where the minimum height is reduced to 3ft.
More than 40 UK and Irish racecourses offer action over fences, with BHA rules meaning that only 12 fences can be deployed in the first two miles of a circuit – with six per mile allowed thereafter.
Many of the leading races on the National Hunt calendar, from the Cheltenham Gold Cup to the Grand National, are run over a mixture of the different fence types, and it’s here where legends from Desert Orchid to Kauto Star have made their name.
Which are the Tallest Fences in Horse Racing?
While other tracks have tried to match them for the dimensions of their fences, it’s Aintree Racecourse – and specifically their Grand National course – that takes the candle as the proprietor of the tallest fences in the sport.
Leading the way is the fearsome fence, The Chair, which acts as the fifteenth jump on the circuit. This stands at a staggering 5ft 2in tall, which is shoulder height for many of the jockeys that take to the course for the National.
There are seven other fences on the Grand National course that stand five feet tall, including Valentine’s, the Canal Turn and Westhead, and yet it’s another obstacle that takes the crown as the most notoriously difficult on the Aintree circuit.
Becher’s Brook, the sixth fence on the track that stands 4ft 10in tall, has seen more horses fall than any other on the National rotation. While it might not be the tallest of the obstacles, it features a ditch in the landing zone that is around 10 inches lower than the ground on the racing side, resulting in many horses losing their way.
There are many reasons as to why the Grand National is one of racing’s great spectacles, and the fences deployed at Aintree are one of the most significant.