The connection between National Hunt racing, which originated as steeplechasing, and foxhunting stemmed from the early 16th century when changes in the agricultural landscape meant landowners and farmers enclosed more and more land, creating obstacles for the hunters. Hunters tested their skills over the fences to see who had the fastest horse.
Because there was no finish line as such and no specific route to follow, the riders raced from one church to another with the church steeple being the finishing point. The sport of steeplechasing was born.
Sometimes referred to as the amateur Gold Cup, the St James’s Place Foxhunters Chase is a race for amateur jockeys run at the world-renowned Cheltenham Festival over the same course and distance as the Gold Cup. The festival takes place over four days during March, with jockeys taking up the reins in the Foxhunters Chase on the final day of what is, without doubt, the highlight of the National Hunt season. It is a great spectacle hosted at one of the most successful British Racecourses.
The 2020 Foxhunters Chase:
Four days of top-class racing and four feature races to keep racegoers on the edge of their seats, start with the Champion Hurdle, the principal race on day one. This two-mile race for four-year-olds and upwards is the first grade one race of the meeting and a little appetiser before the main course, which culminates with the Cheltenham Gold Cup on day four.
Fitting in nicely between the first and final day of this iconic National Hunt spectacle is the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The race runs over one mile seven furlongs and is open to five-year-olds. It takes place on day two with the winner expected to walk away with more than £250,000. The Ryanair Chase makes up the four feature races. Run on day three, the two-and-a-half-mile race for five-year-olds and above attracts top-class horses with more than £350,000 in prize money up for grabs.
With the climax of the Gold Cup over and jockeys heading to the weighing room, it’s time for the amateurs to take centre stage in the St James’ Place Foxhunters Chase. First established in 1904 and won by Palm Boy, the race is open to horses five years old and above as long as specific criteria are met. Horses must have either finished first or second in hunter chases on two occasions, won two open point-to-point races, or one point-to-point race as long as they finished either first or second in a hunter chase.
It might not be the only race at the festival exclusively for amateur riders. There are two others. Still, it’s undoubtedly the most prestigious, with a prize fund of £45,000 on offer, with the winner taking away more than £26,000. It is the only race that is open to trainers who are don’t hold a license to train their family horses or work as full-time professionals in their field.
Although no woman jockey has yet had the honour of stepping foot in the hallowed winners’ enclosure at Cheltenham after the Gold Cup, it’s certainly not the case in the amateurs’ equivalent. The St James’ Foxhunters Chase has seen eight lady jockeys ride to victory with Caroline Beasley starting the ball rolling with her win on Elliogarty in 1983. The latest running of the race in 2020 saw jockey Maxine O’Sullivan take the number of successful women in the race to eight, when she rode to victory on 66/1 shot It Came to Pass.
Now sponsored by St James’s Place, the race was without a sponsor between 1974 and 1978 before the British auction house Christie’s stepped in. The Country Gentleman’s Association took up the reins from 2013 to 2015 with the current sponsors taking over Cheltenham Festivals’ most prestigious amateur race in 2016.
It might not have the glamour and glitz of the Gold Cup, and it certainly doesn’t grab the headlines in the sporting press like a grade one race does. But for those amateur jockeys riding in the St James’s Place Chase, there is no better opportunity to bag themselves a winner at the home of jump racing, Cheltenham.
And – who knows? – next time it could be a Gold Cup they’re celebrating, as Sam Waley-Cohen did in 2011 when he became the first amateur jockey to win it for 30 years on Long Run. Oh, but to dream.