Paddock Side… National Hunt Racing, by Horse Scout racing specialist Penny!
National Hunt is divided into two sections, hurdles and steeplechases. There are also races called ‘bumpers’ which are flat races for jumpers. However, for the purpose of our paddock observations I am ignoring these.
Quite often horses that have not shown any promise on the flat will be schooled and sent out to try their luck over hurdles. Many also start their career as hurdlers and remain so, or go on to steeplechase. A good example of this was Desert Orchid, a very famous thoroughbred that most of us will have heard of whether we are into racing or not.
Dessie (as he was affectionately known) began his career in 1983 over hurdles and had enough success to warrant being rated top class although he was not setting the world alight. In 1985 he was switched to steeplechasing and it was then that a star emerged. This discipline suited him so well that he became and remains one of the greatest chasers of all time.
He was a natural front runner, it was not in his nature to be a follower, a spectacular jumper, fast, accurate and immensely scopy – and had a will of iron. Giving up or giving in was not in his remit. What did we see as he walked around the paddock?
A big upstanding grey with a beautiful head, kind honest eye, good length of rein, deep chest (heart room) and very powerful quarters (big engine). His gait was active, straight and balanced with well engaged hocks, generating an ease of movement that belied his size.
In short, exactly what we are looking for in a horse that has the potential to outshine the rest.
So is that it then – well no. The good jumper comes in many guises and it is by no means a given that s/he will so obviously fit Dessie’s description. We can’t discount the compact or rangy, workmanlike or flashy, if the overall confirmation and attitude is good. When it comes down to it only one thing is going to make a good national hunt horse; it’s jumping ability. No matter how fast between fences, how balanced on the flat or how good it’s staying power, if the horse makes jumping errors ground will be lost and at worse, mistakes may result in a fall.
A little anecdote:
The Duke of Wellington’s famous horse Copenhagen, who was a grandson of the great racehorse Eclipse (and himself successfully raced), survived countless battles as a war horse. The most well known of which was the battle of Waterloo, where he carried the Duke for 17 hours without respite. After Copenhagen died, the Duke was quoted as saying, “There may have been faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow”.
By bottom, he refers to Copenhagen’s courage – something our top class jumper must possess. Remember Desert Orchid’s ‘will of iron’.