Steeplechasing grew out of the hunting field, where riders depended on the athleticism, strength, speed and sure-footedness of their horses to carry them safely over fence, field and stream. Its roots can be traced to Ireland in the mid-18th century. In recent decades, its beauty and excitement have attracted leaders in commerce and industry worldwide. Queen Elizabeth II is an avid fan, and Prince Charles has ridden in steeplechase races. In the United States, the du Ponts, Mellons, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Wideners, Clarks and Phippses have all participated in one way or another.
While flat racing is largely conducted at big-city tracks, steeplechasing is a country sport typically conducted over natural terrain. “Steeplechasing has about it rather more glamour and excitement than the flat, a trace of chivalry, a spice of danger, and a refreshing vigor that the smooth urbanity of flat racing lacks,” wrote English horseman John Hislop in his definitive book about steeplechasing. “The atmosphere is less restrained, friendlier, more intimate and more sympathetic. It gives the impression of being a sport and not primarily a business.”
In the United States, steeplechasing has reached new heights of material awards—with purses exceeding $5 million. But it remains a sport with a heart. Most steeplechase meets are conducted by nonprofit organizations, and proceeds from the races go to charitable causes. Each year, steeplechasing gives millions of dollars to its charitable beneficiaries.
By most accounts, the first steeplechase was held in 1752 in County Cork, Ireland, where a horseman named O’Callaghan engaged Edmund Blake in a match race over 4.5 miles from Buttevant Church to St. Mary’s Doneraile, whose tower was known as St. Leger Steeple. The sport took its name from the chase to the steeple.
This unique form of “my horse against yours” racing soon spread to England. The first race over an established course occurred in Bedfordshire in 1810. The sport quickly grew in popularity, and the first Grand National was staged in 1839 at Aintree, a small town outside Liverpool on England’s western coast.
The sport found its way to the United States through foxhunting, then established itself quickly after Lottery won the first Grand National. The sport’s first footholds were in Long Island, N.Y., Maryland, Virginia and eastern Pennsylvania. It soon spread to the Carolinas, Georgia, Massachusetts and other states.
The Rose Tree Hunt, a few miles west of Philadelphia, had its inaugural meet in 1860. The Meadow Brook Cup began on Long Island in 1883. In the 1930s, the race was run, in part, over the estate of F. Ambrose Clark, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune and a leading steeplechase horseman.
The Meadow Brook, which later moved to Belmont Park, is no longer run. But the Maryland Hunt Cup had its first running in 1894, and two other popular Maryland timber-racing fixtures, the Grand National Point-to-Point and My Lady’s Manor, were inaugurated as sanctioned races in 1901 and 1909. To establish rules for the fast-growing sport, the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association was founded in 1895.
One of the most prominent figures in steeplechasing’s early years was Thomas Hitchcock Sr., who was born in 1861. A founder of Belmont Park, Hitchcock never raced on the flat but instead turned his energies toward steeplechasing. He owned and trained Good and Plenty, the sport’s leading earner from 1904 to 1906 and winner of the 1906 American Grand National at Belmont. Good and Plenty was inducted into thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame in 1955.
Hitchcock also trained Annibal, the 1938 Grand National winner, and Cottesmore, winner of the Grand National in 1940 and 1942. During the latter years of his career, many of Hitchcock’s horses were ridden by Rigan McKinney, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968. When Hitchcock died in 1941, one of the horses in his dispersal was Elkridge, who became one of the most durable and accomplished performers in the sport.
An American horse achieved a first-ever victory in Aintree’s Grand National in 1908, when Rubio—bred in California by James Ben Ali Haggin—conquered the tall fences. Haggin sold him at Newmarket in 1899 for 15 guineas, which was very little money even in those days.
Soon after Belmont Park opened in 1905, gambling cast a shadow over the sport. In 1908, the Hart-Agnew Act barred wagering at racetracks, and the Director’s Criminal Liability Act shut down the sport in New York in 1911. Coming to racing’s rescue was steeplechasing. “When the governor put the ban on racing in 1911, the jump racing is what kept it going,” recalls Hall of Fame trainer W. Burling “Burley” Cocks, who rode for Brose Clark during the early 1930s. “They had all the jumping courses at Belmont, across Hempstead Avenue at what they called the Terminal, where the train used to come in. They had a timber course and every kind of fence imaginable. And there was jump racing every day.”
Belmont Park reopened in 1913, and steeplechasing remained a major part of New York racing into the ’70s. Today, steeplechasing is one of the most popular features of the Saratoga Race Course meet in July and August, and at least one race is staged at Belmont each fall.
Steeplechasing had its first Hall of Fame rivalry in the 1920s, when Jolly Roger and Fairmount dueled on the racecourse. Fairmount was the leading steeplechase earner in 1926, but he ran into a formidable opponent the following year. Jolly Roger—who was bred by Harry Payne Whitney and raced in the historic colors of Greentree Stable—won six of his eight starts in 1927, earning $63,075. That was a record at the time.
Jolly Roger defeated Fairmount in the 1927 Grand National, but Fairmount turned the tables in the Temple Gwathmey. Jolly Roger was the leading earner again in 1928, when he again won the Grand National. He was retired in 1930 with record career earnings of $143,240. Jolly Roger was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1965. Fairmount followed him two decades later.
In his two American Grand National victories, Jolly Roger was ridden by Robert H. Crawford, known as “Specs” because of his freckled face. Earlier in his career, Crawford had also ridden The Brook, the leading earner in 1918. The jockey was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.
On several occasions, Fairmount was ridden by J. Dallet “Dolly” Byers, the sport’s leading jockey in 1918, 1921 and 1928. He was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 1967 for his accomplishments as a trainer. Byers trained Tea-Maker, the 1952 national sprint champion, for Mrs. F. Ambrose “Meg” Clark, becoming one of a long succession of leading steeplechase jockeys who’ve successfully made the transition to training.
For the first time, an American-owned horse—Sergeant Murphy—won the Grand National at Aintree in 1923. It happened again three years later with a horse named Jack Horner.
In many ways, the Depression years of the 1930s constituted a Golden Age of American steeplechasing. Many of the sport’s top horsemen—including Hall of Fame members Burley Cocks, George H. “Pete” Bostwick and Carroll K. Bassett— emerged then. Other prominent horsemen of the time were Morris H. Dixon, Noel Laing, Jim Murphy and Sidney Watters, the latter a Hall of Fame inductee in 2005.
Both Cocks and Bostwick trained under Brose Clark on Long Island, while Bassett handled the horses of Marion du Pont, who would later marry actor Randolph Scott. Cocks fondly recalled those times: “Laing was a good rider, and Bassett was, too. Pete Bostwick was tremendous. Laing and Bassett were bigger guys, but Pete was built more like a jockey.”
Cocks also recalled the hunt meets on Clark’s estate on Long Island. Following mid-morning races at his Broadhollow in Old Westbury, Clark would host more than 100 guests for a luncheon of fine food and champagne.
Meg Clark’s racing colors were carried to victory by Kellsboro Jack in the 1933 Grand National. Brose Clark had bought him as a yearling in 1927 and sold him to his wife for one pound on the suggestion—made in jest by trainer Ivor Anthony—that a new owner might change their luck.
The Clarks were steeplechase people—and no less so were the members of Wilmington, Del.’s du Pont family. When Marion du Pont’s brother, William du Pont Jr., built Delaware Park, a steeplechase course designed by Morris Dixon was one of its distinctive features. Du Pont also built northern Maryland’s Fair Hill steeplechase course in the mid-1930s, to duplicate the look and feel of an English country steeplechase course.
Marion du Pont won many important races with a small son of Man o’ War named Battleship. The list included the American Grand National in 1934 and Aintree’s Grand National in 1938. In the latter, Battleship, a 40-to-1 long shot, caught the favorite in the last stride, becoming the first American-bred, American-owned horse to win at Aintree. At stud in Virginia, Battleship sired two steeplechase champions—War Battle (1947) and Shipboard (1956).
A patron of Camden, S.C.’s Springdale Course, Marion du Pont Scott was a major supporter of the Colonial Cup, a championship race in the fall that was renamed in her honor. She also held steeplechase races at her Virginia home, Montpelier, and was honored in 1965 as the first recipient of the F. Ambrose Clark Award for her many contributions to the sport.
Members of Philadelphia’s Widener family became deeply involved in
racing during this era. Joseph E. Widener bred and raced Bushranger, one of the best steeplechase horses of the 1930s.
By the end of the 1930s, professional jockeys had eclipsed their amateur counterparts, but many of the pros also went on to successful careers as trainers. As with much of flat racing, steeplechasing was curtailed during World War II. When the war ended, Sid Watters resumed his training career, and riders like D. Michael Smithwick, A.P. “Paddy” Smithwick, Willard “Mike” Freeman and Charles Cushman found their way to Burley Cocks’ Hermitage Farm in Unionville, Pa. In later decades, trainers Billy Turner and Tom Skiffington would study under Cocks at Hermitage.
Morris Dixon, in the meantime, broadened his operation to include 1948 Preakness Stakes winner Polynesian (sire of Native Dancer), and Pittsburgh’s Mellon family also became deeply involved in steeplechasing. Richard King Mellon developed a steeplechase string at Rolling Rock near Ligonier, Pa., with Sidney Watters as his trainer. Also entering the sport was Paul Mellon, a Virginia resident best known for his art collections, philanthropy and flat horses. His first champion was American Way, a steeplechase horse who won the title in 1948.
The success of a horse named Elkridge spanned the decade. Sold in Hitchcock’s 1941 dispersal for $7,000 to owner-trainer Kent Miller, he was a flop at first—but he soon figured out the game. By his retirement at 13 in 1951, he’d raced over fences an amazing 119 times. In all of those starts, he fell only once, when some brush lodged under his girth and brought him down at Laurel Race Course in the 1945 Butler Steeplechase.
The 1940s also saw Pete Bostwick emerge as a successful trainer. A decade later, he had even greater success with Oedipus. Bred by Col. E. R. Bradley’s Idle Hour Stock Farm in Lexington, Ky., Oedipus was owned by Lillian Phipps, Bostwick’s sister. Her husband, Ogden Phipps, had participated in the purchase of the Idle Hour horses after Bradley’s death, and with them launched a highly successful private breeding operation for flat racing.
A son of Blue Larkspur, Oedipus had his best season in 1951, when he won the Grand National as well as the Brook, Broad Hollow, Beverwyck and Corinthian Steeplechase Handicaps. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978.
Bostwick and his sister would enjoy their greatest success with Neji, one of the sport’s all-time greats. The son of Hunter’s Moon IV was bred by Marion du Pont Scott, but he was sold as a three-year-old to Mrs. Phipps. Under Bostwick’s care, Neji raced well at four, winning the Brook for the first time, then blossomed at five to win his first national title in 1955. Racing exclusively at Belmont Park, he won the first of his three Grand Nationals and two runnings of the Temple Gwathmey.
Neji would win both races again in 1957 when, under the care of D. Michael Smithwick, he again became steeplechasing’s champion. As his record grew, so did the weights he was asked to carry. In his final championship season, 1958, Neji won the Grand National. By the end of his career in 1960, Neji was the sport’s all-time leading earner, with $271,956. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967, a year before Bostwick was elected. Joseph L. Aitcheson Jr. launched a jump-racing career in 1956 that would extend for 22 years and land him in the Hall of Fame in 1978. He was the sport’s leading rider for a record seven years, and his 440 victories over fences is an American record that may never be eclipsed. In 1975, Aitcheson Jr. was honored with the F. Ambrose Clark Award.
In 1950, Flint S. “Scotty” Schulhofer began a riding career that would keep him near the top of the rankings into the 1960s. But Schulhofer would have his greatest success as a trainer of flat horses, including national champions Smile, the leading sprinter of 1986, and Fly So Free, 1990’s top two-year-old.
In 1962, Pete Bostwick became the first steeplechase trainer to amass earnings of $1 million. He was quickly followed by Smithwick. Michael G. “Mickey” Walsh, a native of County Cork, Ireland, who began training steeplechase horses in the 1940s, passed the $1 million mark in 1964. Walsh, based in Southern Pines, N.C., was the sport’s leading trainer from 1953 through 1955. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.
The dominant horse in the 1960s was Bon Nouvel, a son of Spy Song who lifted his owner, Theodora A. Randolph, to the top of the owners list in 1964 and 1968. Trained by Smithwick, Bon Nouvel was the sport’s leading horse in 1964, ’65 and ’68. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976.
By this time, steeplechasing could mean a fresh start for horses who lacked the speed or temperament to succeed on the flat. Crompton “Tommy” Smith Jr. discovered Jay Trump at Charles Town Racetrack in West Virginia after Mary Stephenson of Cincinnati had asked him to find her a horse.
Smith found a horse who excelled over tall fences. Jay Trump won the Maryland Hunt Cup three times and, with Smithwick as his trainer, swept the 1964 Maryland timber classics—My Lady’s Manor, the Grand National Point-to-Point and the Hunt Cup. It was Smith in the saddle when Jay Trump flew over Aintree’s fences to win the 1965 Grand National. With his hard-fought victory over 46 other starters, he became the first American-bred, American-owned and American-ridden horse to win the Grand National. He entered the Hall of Fame in 1971.
The decade’s other Hall of Fame member traveled in the other direction. Bred in Ireland, L’Escargot was owned by Raymond R. Guest, an American sportsman and ambassador to Ireland who raced flat champion Tom Rolfe. One of Europe’s best, L’Escargot won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and had a first, second and third showing in Aintree’s Grand National.
A fervent proponent of international racing, Guest raced L’Escargot three times in the United States during 1969, gaining a championship on the strength of a victory in the Meadow Brook. L’Escargot was retired six years later, after winning the 1975 Grand National.
Late in the 1960s, a partnership was formed that would endure into the 21st century. Jonathan Sheppard was the son of an English racing official who rode professionally for Burley Cocks. He went out on his own as a trainer and soon was working for George Strawbridge Jr., whose horses ran in his green-and-white Augustin Stables colors.
From his base in West Grove, Pa., Sheppard became the sport’s leading trainer in victories in 1970. He repeated in 1972 and won the title for 23 of the next 31 years. In all, he’s been the sport’s leading trainer a record 25 times. His record of earnings is also remarkable. Sheppard has led in purses won in 28 seasons, with total purses of more than $21 million.
Augustin Stables jumped to the top of the rankings in 1974 and accumulated a total of 22 championships. Augustin raced many good horses on the flat and over fences. One of the best was Cafe Prince, a champion in 1977 and ’78 who was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 1985.
Sheppard’s first champion was William L. Pape’s Athenian Idol in 1973, and he’d close out the decade with another Pape-owned champion, Martie’s Anger. In the ensuing decades, Sheppard would add another seven championships—four with Flatterer. Sheppard was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990, a few months before his 50th birthday. Flatterer followed in 1994.
With its exile from the major tracks, steeplechasing endured several years of diminished purses in the 1970s. So the sport went back to its roots—the country—and emerged from the 1980s with purses at record highs. Totals slipped below $700,000 in 1973. By 1990, they’d soared above $4 million. In 2008, purses totaled $5.4 million.
Steeplechasing’s growth was fostered by the efforts of its leaders and supporters, both nationally and at individual meets—and was bolstered by two champions who blazed through the first years of the decade. Mrs. Lewis C. “Bunny” Murdock’s Zaccio raced to three consecutive championships from 1980 to 1982, then Flatterer won a record four consecutive titles from 1983 to 1986.
Burley Cocks had purchased Zaccio for longtime clients Miles and Joy Valentine, but Murdock bought him at the dispersal after Miles Valentine’s death. The leading juvenile in 1979, the Lorenzaccio gelding blossomed at four, when he won two Saratoga stakes races, the Lovely Night Handicap and the New York Turf Writers Cup.
Sidelined with an injury for the 1979 Temple Gwathmey, he returned in 1981, winning the Grand National at Foxfield, Va., and the Colonial Cup at Camden, S.C. Despite being troubled with quarter cracks, Zaccio gained his third title with victories in the New York Turf Writers, the Temple Gwathmey and the Colonial Cup. In 1990, Zaccio was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The 1980s were also marked by another victory in Aintree’s Grand National. Charles Fenwick Jr., the leading timber rider of his generation, had taken Ben Nevis to Aintree in 1979, but they were taken down by a loose horse at the Chair, the course’s tallest fence. Fenwick returned the next year, and he successfully toured the course with Ben Nevis, jumping to the lead the second time over Becher’s Brook and winning by 20 lengths. For his contributions to the sport, Fenwick was awarded the Ambrose Clark Award that summer. Ben Nevis was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
As ailments forced Zaccio from the top levels of competition, his place was taken by Flatterer, who was bred by Pape and Sheppard and owned by them and Irish bloodstock agent George Harris. In 1983, the four-year-old Mo Bay gelding became the first horse to sweep steeplechasing’s triple crown—the Grand National, the Temple Gwathmey and the Colonial Cup.
Flatterer grew even better by five, concluding his season with three convincing wins. Raced lightly in 1985, he repeated his Temple Gwathmey and Colonial Cup victories to claim his third title. At seven and eight, he established his standing among the best steeplechase horses in the world, finishing second in the championship hurdle races of France in 1986 and England in 1987.
Flatterer was the American champion again in 1986, winning the Radnor Hunt Races’ National Hunt Cup and concluding the season with a 17-length victory in the Colonial Cup. His career ended when he sustained a bowed tendon in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase at Fair Hill, Md. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994.
In 1995, American steeplechasing took a notable step toward assuring its future with the formation of the National Steeplechase Foundation, which promotes safety, education, fairness and amateurism. The ’90s opened with the first woman trainer to head a national sport. Janet Elliot, a native of Ireland who’d worked for Jonathan Sheppard before striking out on her own in 1979, led the sport in both victories and earnings in 1991. Her standard-bearer was William Lickle’s Victorian Hill, who won $232,092 that year. A crowd favorite, Victorian Hill remains the sport’s fourth-leading earner, with $748,370.
The following year, a new star emerged. Bred by Walter M. Jeffords and raced by his widow, Lonesome Glory flunked out as a flat racer and show horse. But in the hands of trainer Bruce Miller, the Transworld gelding emerged as the dominant competitor of the 1990s. His championships spanned from 1992 to his fifth Eclipse Award in 1999.
Ridden principally by Miller’s daughter, Blythe, and occasionally by his son, Chip, Lonesome Glory won nearly every major race in America. He won the Marion du Pont Scott Colonial Cup in 1994, 1995 and 1997. He set a Belmont Park course record, winning the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase by 8.5 lengths under Blythe Miller. Among his five other course records, he set the mark at Saratoga in winning the 1995 New York Turf Writers Cup.
Lonesome Glory concluded his career with a course-record effort in the Royal Chase at Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky. In all, he won 17 National Steeplechase Association-sanctioned races and retired with then-record earnings of $965,809 under NSA rules. In 2005, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The earnings record would fall in the 2000s, when McDynamo took to the steeplechase racecourse. The Dynaformer gelding, owned by Michael J. Moran, managed a maiden victory on the flat. But, beginning in 2001, he would soar when turned over to Sanna Neilson Hendriks. A three-time Eclipse winner, he won the Grand National at Far Hills five times and nabbed the Colonial Cup in each of his championship seasons. He set course records in his first two Grand National victories, then known as the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase, and he established a Colonial Cup mark in 2003.
Retired in 2007, the year in which he won the Grand National by six lengths, McDynamo concluded his career with 15 wins over fences and record purses of $1.3 million. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility in 2013. Inducted with him was Tuscalee, the sport’s all-time leader by races won.
Reprinted with permission from the National Steeplechase Association.