There are quite a few differences between National Hunt racing and Flat racing (besides the obvious that one involves jumping obstacles and the other does not). Jumps racing is split into different grades and classes; the same as flat however, a completely different meaning to each one. Grade 1 (Class 1) are the championship races with the biggest prizes and best horses. There are only 30 of these all season. There are also Grade 2, Grade 3, and listed races. Class 2 - 5 are classified by different handicaps and Class 6 are National Hunt Flat races and Hunter's Steeplechases.
Races are run over a set of obstacles or jumps; hurdles and fences. Different obstacles are used in different races such as Bumpers, Hurdles, Steeplechases, and Handicaps. Jump racing takes place all year round however traditionally begins in Autumn and runs through to the Spring. National Hunt racing references to its origin and is a true test of stamina and ability to jump and therefore horses are a bit older than flat horses. Speed does play a part however, this is only really tested in the last few furlongs of a race.
Horses may run on the flat in their early days in training and then move into jumps later in their career. Horses are entered into races depending on the going, jumps and distance. Jumps races are run over a variety of distances from 2 to 4 ½ miles and under certain conditions with the eligibility based on the sex, age or ability of the horse.
Jockeys must hold a British Horseracing Authority licence for races under rules and applies to both professionals and amateurs. Less experienced jockeys are known as conditionals and claim weight which is ‘ridden out’ with a certain number of wins. Conditional jockeys are given a weight allowance which is designed to provide an advantage to the horse in return for the potential disadvantage of having a relatively inexperienced jockey on board.
Amateur jumps races are known as Point-to-Points which are held all around the country at small rural racecourses and are usually sponsored by a hunt. This is how many jockeys get into race riding as they progress through to riding as an amateur to under-rules and eventually professional.
The pinnacle of the jumps season is the Cheltenham Festival which takes place over four days every March. Another big race meeting and one of the most popular races to watch in the world, is the Aintree Grand National in April. Most courses around the UK are either Flat or National Hunt however, there are a number that host both throughout the year.
Handicapping is something that occurs in many sports today and horse racing is not exception to this. A handicap race is where each horse is allocated a weight to carry, according to its form and ability. This is in an attempt to equalise every horse’s chance of winning. Handicapping is based on the fact that a horse carrying less weight, will gallop faster. An example of this is the better horse will carry more weight than a less able horse. One of the most famous handicap races in the UK is the Aintree Grand National; a true test a lottery of who will cross the line first. The highlight of the National Hunt season is of course the Cheltenham Festival with the feature race being the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
All in all not as simple as one thought and there is a lot of thought and planning that goes into the training of these horses, who will ride them on the day, which race will suit best for distance, fences, competition, ground and weather conditions. A huge lottery some may say but a really thrilling sport with plenty of excitement and uncertainty.