In Britain, a Pattern race is a thoroughbred horse race in the upper echelons of the sport, in terms of prestige and value, although the Pattern is different for Flat and National Hunt racing. For Flat racing, the European Pattern Race system – which, as the name suggests, covers not only Britain and Ireland, but France, Germany and Italy – was introduced in 1971. For the first time, Pattern races were arranged, by importance, as Group One, Group Two and Group Three races. In Britain, Group One includes the five ‘Classic’ races and other major international races, such as the Eclipse Stakes and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Group Two includes international races of lesser importance, such as the Great Voltigeur Stakes, and Group Three includes races mainly of domestic importance, such as the Craven Stakes.
By contrast, the National Hunt Pattern, which was introduced in 1969, covers Britain alone. In 1989, under the auspices of the Jockey Club, the National Hunt Pattern was completely overhauled to create the series of Grade 1, Grade 2 and Grade 3 races that form the basis of the current Pattern. Unlike the European Pattern Race system, which creates a seasonal structure for non-handicap races, the National Hunt Pattern includes several important handicap races, not least the Grand National, itself, at Grade 3 level.
Both Pattern systems are under constant review and both Group and Graded races can be upgraded, or downgraded, from one season to the next, as necessary.
Of the five ‘Classic’ races run in Britain – namely, the 2,000 Guineas, 1,000 Guineas, Derby, Oaks and St. Leger – the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks are restricted to three-year-old thoroughbred fillies, but the other three are open to three-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies. Nowadays, the Derby is rarely contested by fillies; the last filly to run in the race was Cape Verdi, trained by Saeed bin Suroor, who started favourite after winning the 1,000 Guineas in 1998, but could finish only ninth of the 15 runners. Nevertheless, since the Derby was inaugurated in 1780, a total of six fillies have won; the most recent of them was Fifinella who, in 1916, won a ‘substitute’ Derby run at Newmarket and, just for good measure, won the so-called ‘New Oaks’, over the same course and distance, two days later.
In Britain, a steeplechase, or ‘chase’ for short, is a horse race run, under the Rules of Racing, on a turf racecourse equipped with fixed, or portable, steeplechase fences, which runners must negotiate. Steeplechase races are run over advertised distances between two miles and four miles and two-and-a-half furlongs. According to the Rules of Racing, steeplechase races over two miles must have at least twelve fences and longer races must have at least six fences in each subsequent mile.
Steeplechase fences come in three varieties, namely, plain fence, open ditch and water jump. A plain fence, which must be a minimum of 4’6” high, consists of a rigid wooden or steel frame stuffed with compacted birch cuttings, real or artificial, the density of which defines the stiffness of the fence. An open ditch, of which there must be one in every mile of a steeplechase race, is a plain fence with a ditch on the take-off side, thereby creating an obstacle with a wider spread – 11’ as opposed to 8’ – than a plain fence alone. A water jump is optional on a steeplechase course but, if included, there can be only one such obstacle, at least 3’ high, with an expanse of water at least 9’ across and at least 3” deep throughout.
Originally, steeplechasing was a form of point-to-point racing, in which horses raced across a stretch of open countryside and were required to negotiate natural obstacles they encountered along the way. The first steeplechase on record was the result of an impromptu wager between two huntsmen in County Cork, in southwestern Ireland, 1752. They raced their horses over a distance of four miles between the steeples of two churches – in other words, they were, quite literally, ‘steeple chasing’ – and the idea soon caught on with other huntsmen and women.
In horse racing, a flag start is employed when it is impossible, for whatever reason, to use starting stalls or a starting tape. In emergency circumstances, including, but not limited to, starting equipment failure, less than the requisite number of stalls handlers being available or the ground being sufficiently soft to prevent the manoeuvre of starting stalls, any race may be started by flag, subject to approval by the starter or stewards. During a flag start, the starter mounts the starting rostrum and, when he wants the horses to walk forward, he signals to the jockeys by raising his flag. Horses in the front rank must only walk, or jig jog, until the starter lowers his flag, thereby effecting the start of the race.