Peter McNeile reports on the grass roots of steeplechasing

One of the attractions of British horseracing is its sense of heritage compared to other newer jurisdictions. The pomp and splendour around events like Royal Ascot draw envious looks from Americans, Australians and Arab racing nations, who can flash the cash but can’t invent traditions.

But, of course, traditions also have to change with the times. Steeplechasing in this country bears little resemblance to the first steeplechase between the Tipperary villages of Doneraile and Buttevant in the 1760s. For starters, the races are in a circuit rather than linear, for better viewing; jockeys wear colours; and there is a commentary – all 20th-century innovations.

One tradition maintained on the Continent, in Ireland and re-invented at Cheltenham is cross-country racing. A recreation of the race over natural country, the French have been successfully practising this for years. Cheltenham, exemplar of tradition in so many ways, is a newbie to this genre of racing, having created a course only in 1995.

Efforts to internationalise the cross-country races are beginning to bear fruit through an innovative European race series named the Crystal Cup, taking in 11 races from Poland to Britain, including Italy, Czechia, France and Belgium.

The crossover here with the point-to-point scene should be obvious. Horses like Premier Magic, winner of the Foxhunter last March, and Vital Island, winner of the La Touche over Punchestown’s banks course, are natural candidates. The Glenfarclas-sponsored race on the Festival Wednesday is the next staging post in the series that finishes at Lion d’Angers in Mayenne, France on May 9.

If you want to see what racing looked like over 100 years ago, the Crystal Cup is as good a place to start as any. And for anyone who’s attended Cheltenham this past autumn, there’s a shining example of a horse graduating to the topflight from the point-to-point field in exactly this style of race.

In Latenightpass, the amateur division has its ideal ambassador, who first graced the scene at now defunct Cottenham Races in Cambridgeshire back in 2017. A winner of nine races between the flags, and ridden exclusively by top amateur and champion lady rider Gina Andrews, Latenightpass is already a winner of the Aintree Foxhunter, and is being aimed at the Grand National next year through a route that has included the two cross country races at Cheltenham last autumn, in which he won and was second.

Looking ahead to point-to-point meetings coming up in the next few weeks, a Save the Date is necessary around the Duke of Beaufort’s at Didmarton on Saturday, March 2. This popular event has great viewing, an enormous crowd and lots to keep the whole family occupied.

Also, this month after an abortive start in November’s wet weather, is Knightwick Races, west of Worcester, two weeks earlier on Sunday, February 18. This tight rectangular course by the Teme provides a compact view of everything, and an intimate paddock. All parking is on the inside of the track.

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