What is point-to-point horse racing?
- Credit: David Simpson / Aga Rangemaster
I love racing for all sorts of reasons, but mostly it’s the rush I get from standing right by the rails when the horses and jockeys surge past. The power, endeavour, bravery and sheer beauty of the spectacle makes my heart thump and tears spring to my eyes.
One of the best ways to get that kick is to go point-to-pointing – a series of amateur race meetings that take place around the UK from autumn to spring. We’re in the midst of the season right now so, every weekend, racing fans, horse lovers and assorted country types will be making their way to their local venues to meet friends, eat a hearty picnic, browse the shops, sample the beer tent’s local brew and watch the action – and there’s plenty of it!
Point-to-pointing is not for the faint- hearted. It’s believed to have started around 250 years ago in Ireland when hunters used to race from one parish steeple to another to test their steeds’ bravery, fitness and speed, jumping hedges, walls and ditches on their way. Gradually, courses were built, often in the grounds of grand country houses, and the sport of point-to-pointing developed into what it is today. Together with its ‘big brother’, National Hunt racing, and in a nod to its roots, it’s also known as steeplechasing.
The key points
Point-to-point races take place over distances of about three miles (twice round a course) with around 20 formidable fences of at least 4ft 3ins high and at least ten yards wide. There will be about seven races in a day and the courses are often in spectacular rural settings not normally accessible to the public. The jockeys are amateur riders who qualify their horses in the hunting field. Some have one or two treasured horses they look after and train themselves, others take the ride on horses trained by professionals. Although the riders are amateurs, point-to-pointing is fiercely competitive – just watch the jockeys jostling for space on a turn or urging their horses on in a break-neck gallop – and the sport attracts plenty of keen spectators.
Surrey horse owner and racing fan Kate Atkins says: “I love point-to-pointing because it’s like going racing but without being so formal, and you can spot stars of the future and of the past. You might see horses being freshened up for National Hunt racing, or retired steeplechasers still enjoying their jumping. The riders – well, they’re either incredibly brave or nuts!” Just think of the point-to-point jockey’s task of piloting 500kg of fighting fit thoroughbred over huge fences at 30mph, with fellow competitors travelling equally speedily alongside, and you might agree.
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Another fan of the sport is Albury-based farrier Jerry Hazeltine who recently hung up his spurs after 15 years of point-to-pointing, training and riding his own horses. “It’s an amazing feeling, riding a good horse in a point-to-point,” he says. “I haven’t found anything yet I get the same buzz from.”
As with any race meeting, you can also have a flutter at point-to-points. You can buy race cards with the horses’ form, there will be bookies and a tote to take your bets, and a parade ring where you can inspect the horses. Jerry says: “It’s great watching them in the paddock before the jockeys are up, and picking out the ones who look the fittest and stand the best chance of winning.” Jockeys he mentions to look out for this season include Phil Hall, one of the more senior riders still going strong, and local jockey and trainer Phil York who together with his father has a big string of horses and lots of young riders he’s helping get established in the sport.
All in all, point-to-pointing is a fantastic day out, grass roots sport at its finest and a great way to support countryside businesses and organisations involved. What is more, here in Surrey, we’re lucky to have two wonderful point-to-point venues and several fixtures to attend. At Godstone, just a mile from Junction 6 on the M25, there’s racing on February 8, March 8 and March 29 on fabulous, undulating parkland where you can see all the action from the centre of the course. And at my local venue, Peper Harrow, just off the A3 near Godalming, there’s the Surrey Union Hunt Point-to-Point on May 2, which attracts big crowds and great sport. I’ll be on the rails cheering the horses on – see you there!
• For more information, visit pointtopoint.co.uk