The English country pursuit of hunting with horses and hounds may be increasingly archaic, but its spirit springs to life every winter in the form of the equine steeplechase. Part of the British National Hunt racing season, steeplechases have a passionate following, with punters wagering on the breathtaking spectacle of jockeys and their steads scaling, en masse, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Fences stand at 1.4 metres or more over gruelling courses ranging from two to 4.5 miles (3.2 to 7.2 kilometres).
The National Hunt, or jumps as it is informally known to distinguish it from the flat racing season, also comprises hurdles races, where the obstacles are smaller, and “bumper” races held on flat tracks. Hunters chases – amateur jockeys on horses that have hunted for a least four days prior to the racing season – may open major meetings.
The United Kingdom’s most popular steeplechase is the Grand National, held at Aintree racecourse every April, but the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, part of the four-day Cheltenham Festival that features 11 Group One races, comes close in terms of thrills if not perhaps spills. Since 1839, five Grand National champions have romped home at odds of 100-to-one because the favourites fell at such daunting obstacles as The Chair, measuring 1.6 metres and preceded by a 1.83-metre ditch.
A steeplechase was recorded in County Cork, Ireland as early as 1752, with the first race on a prepared track held in Bedford, England in 1810. The name derives from two-horse village races that would begin and end at the church steeple. Irish horses, such as three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup-winner Best Mate, are some of the sport’s best, alongside French-bred champions like Kauto Star, whose British owner took home two Gold Cups.
Dressed for the Downs
In the United States, jumps season falls in spring under the auspices of the National Steeplechase Association. The “Town & Country” set don their finest at turf courses laid out with brush hurdles or timber (solid wooden-rail) fences; the famed Kentucky Downs racecourse was originally built as a steeplechase venue. Spectators enjoy smart tailgate picnics beside their cars before entering the grandstand to cheer on the horses.
It’s a little different in France, where at racetracks like Auteuil jumpers are required to go over small brush fences and through huge hedges called bullfinches. One of Europe’s largest steeplechases is the Velká Pardubická in the Czech Republic, held annually since 1874. Japan claims ownership of one of the richest chases, the rather more youthful Nakayama Grand Jump, where Australian star Karasi won three times on the trot (2005-2007).
Another Australian champion, Crisp, came second to Grand National legend Red Rum at Aintree in 1973, but had his revenge later who the pair tussled at Doncaster. Despite its popularity with the crowds, steeplechase is now barred in all but two Australian states over safety concerns for the fearless horses who jump so high, so fast, for the sake of sport.
Craftsmanship is right up there with horsemanship for lovers of equine sports. The tack room at the stables or polo club, with its neat arrays of gleaming leatherware and metalwork, provides a fascinating glimpse into riding’s extensive accoutrements, and the care that goes into their making.
Each well-groomed, well-dressed horse requires quality tack fitted to the discipline in which it is competing. Apart from the seat itself, master saddlers will craft leather bridles, halters and reins, and often the saddle pads that protect the horse’s back. The bit and stirrups combine leather and stainless steel, though lighter, high-tech materials are also commonly used nowadays.
Lap of luxury
French luxury brand Hermès began as a leather harness maker in 1837, and once employed 80 master saddlers to supply the Russian tsar. It still makes saddles for jumping, dressage and polo, and an equestrian accessory range. Acclaimed French saddler Frédéric Butet once made one of gold, though he is best known for custom-made saddles of supreme vegetable tanned leather, each requiring 27 hours of handcrafting. The most expensive saddle ever sold (US$653,234 for charity) belonged to Sheikh Dubai Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, scion of the Godolphin racing family.
The first saddles, said to be used by the Assyrian cavalry in 700 BC, were cloth pads held in place by makeshift girths. They became more structured with bases (called trees) of wood covered by leather. There are two styles, English and stock, with the latter including the American western saddle in which the seat is fronted by a horn-topped pommel (useful when roping steer). In England, saddlery is one of few medieval craft guilds surviving in the present day, with the majority of craftsmen located in the West Midlands town of Walsall.
Quality German saddlers, such as Kieffer and Passier, arose to challenge the British might in the late 19th century. Passier now crafts equine leather lines with Olympic equestrians Marcus Ehning and Ingrid Klimke, and has teamed up with crystal-maker Swarovski for those who seek a little extra sparkle in the saddle.
Dressage saddles feature straight flaps and a seat designed to maintain the rider’s upright stance. Jumping saddles have a slightly forward seat position, bigger flaps for leg support and contain more padding. The short-stirrup design of racing saddles allows the jockey to maintain a high squat, seemingly floating above his or her mount. Synthetics replace leather and trees are unbreakable nylon or carbon-fibre in the lightest saddles that weigh in at about two pounds (900 grams).
Polo players need to ride in the half seat (or polo seat) position in order to pivot, turn and strike the ball. Outside of Europe, top choices include Navarro of Argentina’s latex rubber-seated saddles, and the top-of-the-line craftsmanship of New Zealander Ross Ainsley.
When the finest leather is on the other foot, the best-shod equestrians visit Casa Fagliano, the Italian bootmakers resident in Hurlingham, Buenos Aires, since 1892. Whether sleek Spanish-cut riding boots, or English-style with lace-up front, the family crafts just one supple pair by hand at a time.
Cheering your horse to victory at a storied racecourse is a thrill that no amount of money can guarantee – though if you invest in the best bloodstock, hire a top trainer and jockey, and pay the often hefty race entry fee, then the odds are in your favour. Connections who do raise the silverware after a famous race can smile all the way to the bank. The winner’s purse may be millions of US dollars.
The world’s richest race is the Dubai World Cup, held on the dirt track at Meydan in the United Arab Emirates in March. The 2019 champion, Thunder Snow, earned US$7.2 million for owner – and Dubai ruler – Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Godolphin. The race’s world-beating total purse of US$12 million is soon to be surpassed, however. Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal will stage the inaugural Saudi Cup in Riyadh in February 2020 and promises prize money of US$20 million.
America can boast of once having the highest-earning race. The Pegasus Cup, held in January in Florida, paid out US$12 million in prize money in its first year (2017) and US$16 million in 2018. However, the 2019 addition of a second showpiece, the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, now divides the spoils – US$9 million for the dirt-track race, and US$7 million for the race on grass.
Another newcomer to the racing calendar, The Everest, peaks as the world’s richest race on turf. In a bout of Australian gamesmanship, it is held at Sydney’s Royal Randwick track in October, a month before the Melbourne Cup, and trumps the latter’s purse (in 2019, A$14 million to A$8 million). Local hero Redzel has won both Everest starts, with Chinese billionaire Zhang Yuesheng footing the A$600,000 entry fee (in return for part of the winnings) in 2018 so the champion could defend his title.
For more than 150 years, Europe’s best three-year-olds have vied for top honours at the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe, and a share of the purse, currently valued at US$5.6 million. Enable, owned by Saudi Prince Khalid bin Abdullah of Juddmonte Farms, triumphed in 2017 and 2018, and also earned US$2.2 million by winning the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf in the US. The Breeders' Cup Classic, open to international dirt-track champions, pays out a total of US$6 million, compared to the Kentucky Derby’s US$3 million purse.
Down in the jumps
Britain’s most lucrative flat race is the Epsom Derby, where the triumphant connections pocket about £920,000 (US$1 million). The Grand National steeplechase reserves just over half of its £1 million (US$1.28 million) total purse to the winner. Jumps generally pay less than flat races; the purse for Japan’s Nakayama Grand Jump is about US$1.2 million, while the Japan Cup sprint on dirt is worth US$5.8 million.
Among today’s top equine money-makers, Thunder Snow has bagged US$16.5 million, and recently retired Australian champion Winx amassed over US$17.5 million. Yet, even the most successful owners can let a millionaire stead slip through their fingers. Godolphin acquired two-time Grand National winner Tiger Roll as a foal but sold him for a paltry £10,000 before he ran a single race.
If horse racing is the sport of kings, then polo appeals to the world’s princes, whether actual royalty or the moneyed, athletic titans of industry. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Persia (purportedly to the sixth century BC) and it is now making great strides at elite schools, colleges and clubs from the UK and the US to Argentina, India and China. Liao dynasty Emperor Abaoji (872-926) was a devotee, reportedly beheading surviving players of a ferocious match that caused the death of his relative.
Patrons, players, ponies
While polo has long been called a rich man’s pastime, Corinne Ricard has smashed her mallet through the glass ceiling, as a team owner and the only woman with a top-ranked 10 handicap. Patrons assemble and support professional teams of four players and a stable of thoroughbred ponies (players often use six or more mounts per match).
The most famous modern-day foursome, La Dolfina, was founded by heavy-hitting Argentinian Adolfo Cambiaso in 2000; other top teams include the late Thai tycoon Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha’s King Power Foxes, and Ali Albwardy’s Dubai. Most feature one or more high-scoring Argentinian, or “hired assassin” in polo lingo since that nationality dominates the 10-handicap player list. The best ponies are bred in Argentina too, and are not, as the name might suggest, smaller than the standard horse, just supremely agile.
Passport to the world
Sir Winston Churchill opined that a polo handicap is a passport to the world, and today this is truer than ever. The season stretches from May to September on the green fields of Cowdray Park, Sussex, and Windsor in England, where celebrity spectators sip Champagne in marquees emblazoned with the names of luxury sponsors such as Cartier and Jaeger LeCoultre, and tread the divots at half time. When Meghan Markle publicly supported Prince Harry’s polo prowess from the Royal Box at Coworth Park, Ascot, in 2017, the media speculated correctly that the couple would soon be hearing bells other than those that signal the end of each seven-minute chukka.
Gentility on the sidelines in the English summer gives way to the noisy stadiums of Buenos Aires in the ‘ber’ months, where crowds swell to 30,000-plus for the high-goal encounters. Then, after Christmas, the action moves to Palm Beach, Florida, and even snowy St Moritz, where special shoes allow horses to navigate the icy conditions. Uniquely, the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in northern China hosts the Snow Polo World Cup in winter, and grass tournaments in summer. UK and US university teams face off at the Metropolitan Intervarsity Polo Challenge every year, aiming to shoot straight to the pinnacle of a sport where social standing and position, on and off the field, have always mattered.
The most thorough demonstration of equine sporting excellence occurs in eventing, when dressage, cross-country and jumping competitions test the skill and mettle of horse and rider over three days. Horse racing may grab the sports-page headlines with its thrilling speed and rich purses, but for displays of strength, suppleness, fearlessness and poise equestrianism reigns supreme. And 2018 world champions Isabell Werth on Weihegold (dressage), Simone Blum on DPS Alice (jumping), and Rosalind Canter on Allstar B (eventing), while not household names, clearly signal that it is one of few sports in which men and women compete on equal terms.
Equestrianism encompasses other disciples – governing body Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has world rankings for driving, reining and vaulting as well as dressage, endurance and jumping. It is the latter that enjoys the most public recognition. Famous pairings over the decades, including David Broome on Beethoven, John Whitaker on Milton, and Eric Lamaze on Hickstead – the 2008 Olympic champion when Hong Kong hosted the equestrian sports – give show jumping a dignified air. Brand sponsorship helps to secure television coverage, though the excitement of sinewy steeds chasing the clock for a clear round in a tight ring packed with up to 20 daunting fences should not be underestimated.
Longines has put its name to the FEI Jumping World Cup since 2013, as well as its qualifying leagues in Western Europe, North America and China. The north field at Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club has doubled as a show jumping venue for the three-city Longines FEI Jumping World Cup China League since 2018.
Grounded in the middle of modern eventing is the cross-country day, a stern endurance test of the horse’s physique. At Badminton Horse Trials in England, considered the most prestigious on the world eventing calendar, the four-mile course presents 45 ‘jumping efforts’, from solid manmade obstacles to streams. Penalty points are accrued for straying beyond the optimum finishing time, with elimination facing those who exceed the time limit and riders who tumble off their mounts.
In eventing, the same horse who scales fences and leaps ditches must also exhibit an elegant gentility. Dressage is a pursuit for the purists, with both horse and rider immaculately presented and moving as one. Tasked to perform a sequence of prescribed movements, the animal is judged for the likes of rhythm and precision, and the human for seat and balance.
Balletic-sounding names of some movements (piaffe, passage, pirouette) nod to the artistry of a test that, rather ironically, harks back to the military – cavalry training for the battlefield. Images of the Spanish Riding School’s beautiful white Lipizzaner horses prancing in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace capture the appeal of classical dressage, which evolved into one of today’s most exquisite Olympic sports.
Few sports combine thrilling speed, athletic beauty and tradition as perfectly as horse racing. Europe’s premier flat race meeting, Royal Ascot, held every June just six miles from Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England, is a spectacle of style (the hats), sophistication (wining and dining in the Royal Enclosure) and pageantry (Queen Elizabeth’s carriage procession) – and that is all before each graceful paddock parade gives way to swift power on the track.
Sponsored for the past five years by Gigaset, Goldin Group’s telecommunications arm, Ascot racecourse stages more than a third of Britain’s annual Group One races. It dates back to 1711, around the era of the three English-owned stallions to which all modern thoroughbred racehorses can be traced.
One of the trio, the Godolphin Arabian, lives on in spirit at Dubai-headquartered Godolphin Racing, founded in 1992 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai. Today, Godolphin ranks among the world’s best racing stables, with 1,000 horses under its care in six countries where flat racing excels – Australia, France, Ireland, Japan, the UK and the US (horse racing-mad Hong Kong is a notable exception). The Sheikh’s global breeding operation, Darley, which began a decade earlier in Newmarket, England, shelters many prized studs including Dubawi, the only British stallion to sire 100 Group winners.
Also in the race for top breeder: John Magnier’s Coolmore Stud in Ireland, Kentucky and New South Wales; and Zayat Stables in New Jersey, owned by Ahmed Zayat, whose dirt-track star American Pharoah clinched the US Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes) and the prestigious season-ender, Breeders’ Cup Classic, in 2015. An Australian success story, Lindsay Park Stud, the former home of two-time Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Colin Hayes, was acquired by Goldin Group in 2013. It now operates as Goldin Farms, with 2013 Hong Kong Cup and Hong Kong Derby champion Akeed Mofeed – a son of Dubawi – as its founder stallion.
The UK Triple Crown (2,000 Guinea Stakes, The Derby, St Leger Stakes) has proved a tougher nut for three-year-olds to crack than the American triumvirate; the last horse to win all three races, back in 1970, was Lester Piggott astride Nijinsky (1970). Frankie Dettori, who slipped into Piggott’s saddle as flat racing’s top jockey, recently scored double victories with Enable at Paris’ classic 2,400-metre gallop, Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (in 2017 and 2018), and Stradivarius at Royal Ascot’s 4,014-metre Gold Cup (2018 and 2019). The latter also nabbed the Goodwood Cup and Lonsdale Cup in 2018 to complete the Stayers’ Triple Crown for long-distance races; both horses are trained by John Gosden at Newmarket.
Perhaps the UK’s most famous horse race, though, is held not at a picturesque countryside track in summer, but in chilly April over “jumps” at Aintree, Liverpool. The Grand National is the highlight of the National Hunt steeplechase season, and up to 40 horses scale 16 different fences as high as 1.57 metres, plus plenty of ditches, over a distance of almost seven kilometres. Having won two on the trot, 2019 champion Tiger Roll is edging close to the legendary Red Rum’s epic trio (and two second places) in the 1970s.