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
The majority of the owners and trainers of jumping horses have lately been content to put most of the blame for their troubles on what they consider to be bad publicity. Their feelings are bruised when sports editors, looking for action photographs, print pictures of falling horses and cartwheeling jockeys instead of a staid winner's-circle presentation. Pete Bostwick, former amateur champion rider and one of the leading jump trainers of 1961 (he owns one of the season's best steeplechasers, Tuscarora), says, "The top flat jocks get millions of dollars' worth of publicity every day, but the only time you ever hear of a jump rider is when he gets busted up. It's not right."
This, however, is hardly a creditable excuse. Accident pictures haven't reduced interest in the Indianapolis "500." The essential problem, and the one that must be faced up to by racing leaders, is that there are too few jumpers in the hands of too few owners and trainers. There is a chain reaction of sorts involved here. If more owners were attracted to the sport of jump racing there would be more horses to turn over to more trainers. Then races would be easy to fill with individual entries, eliminating today's tiresome sight of double and triple entries in small fields. Consequently, bigger betting would in turn stimulate management into promoting jumping.
Thus the primary responsibility for restoring jump racing belongs to the largest and wealthiest stables, those owned by men and women whose sporting instincts are supposed to outweigh their regard for making money.
Many of the great stables in this country first entered racing by participating in events over hurdles and brush. Among them were those of Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane, F. Ambrose Clark, Paul Mellon, J. H. Whitney, Mrs. Charles S. Payson, George D. Widener, Stephen Sanford and the late Thomas Hitchcock Sr.
Following World War II many owners gave up on the jumps. Some decided that their stables must pay for themselves, and limited their activity to flat racing because more money could be won there. Others, like Ambrose Clark, concentrated on flat racing because, as he put it, "the emphasis in jumping was turning into an emphasis on speed alone. Nobody was teaching horses to jump properly and nobody was bothering to take time to train new jumping riders."
Now, happily, Mr. Clark has reentered the jumping field on a small scale, and the names of a few owners quite new to the sport (three: Alfred Vanderbilt, Louis Wolfson and Travis Kerr) are starting to appear on the entry lists. Furthermore, the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association (which, along with a group known as the United Hunts, governs all U.S. jump racing) has recently begun thinking along promotional lines. A three-man Trainers Committee has been appointed to spread the word among trainers of flat horses who may be considering future races over jumps. The committee, for example, points out to trainers that many flat horses—such as Nala, Rythminhim, Flying Fury and Our Jeep—who never did make it on dirt or turf became money-making jumpers.
But the few leading horsemen who support jumping, along with the small number of wealthy landowners who gladly allow their farmed estates to be used for hunt meetings each year, cannot rebuild the sport by themselves. The other important owners who pretend it is such a shame to see jump racing disappear must get back into this game or it will disappear.