There are two major categories in British National Hunt Racing, also referred to as Jump Racing; Hurdles and the Steeple Chase. Aside from these two classic varieties of jump racing exist so-called Bumper races, which are National Hunt Flat Races.
In this type of race the horse is required to jump obstacles, the so-called hurdles, which are over three and a half feet high, while it runs a set distance. A hurdle race features a minimum of eight hurdles over a minimum distance of two miles. Horses competing in hurdling races are often former flat race contenders; and the hurdling horse, once it has gained experience on the obstacle course, often moves on to the compete in the Steeple Chase.
Hurdles races are divided - according to age or experience of the contender and distance of the race - into the following categories:
The 'Juvenile' category is only open to three-year-olds if the race takes place in October-December; or to four-year-olds for races between January and April. A 'Novice' event may only be entered by a horse who has not yet won a race at the beginning of the jump race season. After the first race of the season the horse may compete in the novice races even after winning, so long as it was without a first place at the beginning of the season. 'Open' races, as the name suggests, are open to all horses of all ages.
This is a race for the more experienced jumper, as the obstacles on the course are not limited to hurdles. In a Steeple Chase Race the obstacles can also include a 'plain fence', the 'water jump', and an 'open ditch'.
The plain fence measures at least 4 foot and six inches in height on the take-off side, the side from which the horse approaches and takes its leap. As an imposing and fairly inflexible obstacle it holds the danger of spooking the horse as well as seriously injuring both horse and rider if the jump goes wrong.
In the water jump, the horse must clear a fence of a minimum height of three feet only to land in three inches of water. This makes the landing more difficult and requires great confidence in a horse and excellent discipline and control in the jockey.
The open ditch obstacle consists of a fence, hurdle or hedge of at least four feet six inches in height, which has a ditch on the take-off side, forcing the horse to perform a longer jump. This adds difficulty to the already challenging obstacle, making it one of the most daunting on the course.
Steeple Chase races are divided into the same categories as the hurdle races above.
The bumper races are usually conducted at the end of a jump meeting. They are designed to give young horses, which are not yet experienced enough to enter into hurdling, let along steeple chase races, the opportunity to gain some experience on the track. It is a flat race, meaning that the horses are not required to clear any obstacles.
Bumper races are not particularly riveting events, as the pace is slow and the horses not yet skilled enough. However, it is nigh impossible to correctly determine the winner of a bumper race, making it a well-loved challenge for punters. The classical bumper is run over a sprint distance of 13 - 20 furlongs.
The term 'bumpers' was coined in referrence to the equally inexperienced riders competing in the National Hunt flat races; their riding style, as opposed to that of a seasoned jump racing jockey, saw them bumping up and down on horseback, thus giving this little bonus event its name.
In addition to the big categories in jump racing, there are a number of sub-categories which may apply to any style of race:
The Handicap Race requires the horse to carry extra weight according to its rating in the competition. If a horse rates highly, with a good chance of taking the win, it will be weighed down in order to give the less talented horses a shot at first place. Handicapping, as this practise is referred to, also serves to make the betting more interesting by evening out the odds.
A Claiming Race is mainly an effort to keep the trading of race horses fluid and constant. A horse entered into a claiming race can be purchased for a relatively small price until just before the race begins. Should a 'claimed' horse win the race, its winnings are paid out to the previous owner. There are a number of conflicting factors to be considered before entering a horse into a claiming race, as an offer from a buyer may not be refused. While a high quality horse may be able to take the win easily, the owner runs the risk of losing the horse for much less than its rightful selling price when entering it into a claiming race.
In a Selling Race the winner of the race will be put up for auction after the event. Other than in the claiming race there is no set price and the horse's winning performance will mostly ensure a large price to be fetched at the auction. In a selling race the owner of the winning horse stands to walk away with a fair win, made up not only of the purse but also of the profit from the auction.
The Maiden Race is reserved for horses who have never won a race - and for who are referred to in the race course lingo as 'maidens'. While they may not be the fastest of races, the maiden races - like the bumpers - offer the excitement of virtually any horse being the potential winner.
Finally, the Apprentice Race is an event open only to apprentice jockeys, who get the chance to gain experience on a professional track in a fair competition with their apprentice colleagues.