American steeplechasing traces its lineage to Ireland, but owes its life to nine men from New York. August Belmont, H. DeCourcy Forbes, Samuel S. Howland, James O. Green, Frederick Gebhard, A.J. Cassatt, Foxhall P. Keene, John G. Follansbee and Frederick H. Prince founded the National Steeplechase Association. The purposes of the organization, according to the original charter dated February 15, 1895, have changed little.
Those men created an association to keep records; govern, promote and hold races; advance steeplechasing throughout the United States; license individuals and race meetings.
Spawned from the foxhunting field, jump racing had occurred earlier, but never under such sanction. Meets took place on Long Island and in northern New Jersey before spreading south to the Carolinas and Tennessee.
In Europe, racing started much earlier. The first recorded steeplechase occurred in 1752 in County Cork, Ireland. Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake engaged in a match race, covering about 4 1/2 miles from St. John’s Church at Buttevant to St. Mary’s Church in Doneraile. Church steeples were the most prominent, and tallest, landmarks on the landscape. Though history did not record the winner of the O’Callaghan-Blake race, the sport took its name from this simple “chase to the steeple.”
Cross-country match races spread to England, where the first reported race involving more than two horses occurred in 1792. Steeplechasing then migrated to established racecourses. Though pointing out the first U.S. steeplechase is a difficult assignment (reports point to an 1834 event in Washington, D.C.), several of the oldest and most prestigious races are still run.
The Maryland Hunt Cup, raced over tall post-and- rail fences, was first run in 1894. The American Grand National began in 1899. The National Hunt Cup in Radnor, Pennsylvania dates to 1909. The above-mentioned men could never have guessed at the future of their sport. Steeplechasing occurs in 12 states as far south as Florida and as far north as upstate New York, offers more than $5 million in total purses, is seen by millions of people, includes the best horses and horsemen Thoroughbred racing has to offer, and each year raises millions of dollars for charity while being linked with some of the country’s most influential corporate sponsors.
Steeplechasing’s backbone from the start was a group of one-day meetings in rural communities. Gradually, the focus shifted to major tracks like New York’s Belmont and Aqueduct, and New Jersey’s Monmouth Park. That trend reversed itself in the 1970s and 1980s as race meetings run for charity expanded throughout the country.
The racing season begins in early March and continues through November, hosting an estimated one million spectators. Participants in American steeplechasing travel the circuit from pockets of steeplechase interest in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas.