One of the most thrilling spectacles of racing is the sight of an evenly matched field of jumpers clearing hedges and water hazards in an obstacle-filled chase to the finish line. For the lover of running horses, such events bring some of racing's finest technique and greatest drama. So appealing are the jumpers, in fact, that one track (Laurel) once decided to forbid the training of steeplechase horses between flat races on its program. The track found its customers were watching the jumpers practice instead of lining up at the tote windows to get their betting done.
Unfortunately, however, in spite of their obvious attractions, there are all too few events for horses over jumps. While the sport of steeplechasing and hurdling—along with the timber races of the spring and fall hunt meetings—has not completely disappeared, its existence has been severely threatened by the influential forces that persist in thinking of racing more and more in terms of business and less and less in terms of a combination of business and sport.
Of the 96 tracks in this country, only six have a regular schedule of steeplechasing and hurdling. They are Delaware Park, Monmouth, Laurel and the trio that makes up the New York Racing Association: Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga. Beyond these, there are 21 hunt race meetings scheduled between mid-March and November.
The total gross purses from all jump races, in which 457 horses participated in 1960, was only $809,405, as compared to flat racing's 30,000 starters and $93 million in purse money. There was only one $50,000 steeplechase, as against 45 flat races worth $100,000 or more. The leading money-winning 'chaser of 1960, Mrs. Marion duPont Scott's Benguala, won $70,139, while flat racing's Bally Ache took down $455,045. Mrs. Scott was also the most successful owner of jumpers, collecting winnings of $101,419. This is one-tenth of what the C. V. Whitney stable earned with a string of 34 flat racers.
The interest in jump racing has declined to the point where its very existence is threatened. There are several explanations for what has happened. Yet after reviewing them it is plain that the sport faces no insurmountable difficulty.
First, race-track managements contend that jumpers attract less betting. One reason is that fields are small. Another is that there is a fear among patrons that form does not prevail when horses start leaping hedges, though the fact is that more favorites win jumping races than flat races (40% to 34% in 1960). If there were more jump racing the bettors would soon learn this statistic for themselves.
Tracks also balk at the cost of constructing suitable and safe jumping courses. Their reluctance is understandable, but racing commissions could rightfully claim that a jumping course is as much a part of a race track as a starting gate, and require more large tracks to build and maintain one.
So firm is the discrimination against jumpers in some areas that flat-race trainers contend these horses should not be given stable space at a major track. "Send the jumpers back to the countryside, where they belong," they say.
These horsemen, like the track managements, fail to realize that steeplechasing and hurdling are an integral part of racing and should neither be permitted to expire nor relegated to the private courses of the Carolinas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey.
Too few owners