The 2017/18 National Hunt season is in its formative stages and racing fans can look forward to months of thrilling action ahead of them. The likes of the Grand National, the Cheltenham Festival and the King George VI Chase are among the highlights of the entire sporting calendar, let alone horseracing. But it is a long and gruelling season for runners, jockeys and trainers and it takes in some extremely challenging courses along the way. Here we rank the five most challenging jumps courses, in descending order:
It is difficult to whittle it down to just five courses out of the 42 on the National Hunt circuit, and the battle for fifth place was extremely tight. Newcastle, Doncaster, Bangor, Newbury and Wetherby are all difficult courses and had a strong chance of making this list, but Chepstow just about edges them. It is an extremely undulating course and very testing for runners. The long back and stiff home straight make it a real test of a horse’s stamina and going can be highly testing.
Ascot is more famed for flat racing, particularly the pomp and glamour of the Royal Ascot festival, but its jumps racing is more for the purists. It is a difficult course due to the 73ft uphill climb, and it becomes a lot harder when fences are added. Ascot has large, sweeping turns and is a galloping course. If you get stuck at the back of a big field is it very difficult to break through on the sharp home straight on this triangular track.
The home of the King George VI Chase is faces a grave threat at the moment after its owner, Jockey Club Racecourses, announced plans in January 2017 to close the track and sell it to housing developers. However, that sparked a ferocious outcry from the racing community, a petition to stop the bulldozers was launched and it seems as though Kempton has been given a stay of execution as no further news about the closure has emerged. Racing is still taking place on this historic and much-loved track, which stands as one of the most challenging National Hunt courses around. It is a quick course and horses need serious pace to claim victory on it, but it is also provides a stern jumping test, with the tight right hand turn providing a particularly difficult feature.
Cheltenham is probably the most famous jumps racecourse in the world and its Festival each March is undoubtedly the highlight of the global racing calendar. It brings sporting pedigree, drama, excitement and glamour to the west of England and attracts the best and bravest horses in the world. There are two courses – the Old Course and the New Course – and both are very difficult. The New Course is slightly longer, with a difficult downhill fence, while the Old Course has a shorter run-in, but both are a real stamina test. Securing victory at Cheltenham is a magnificent achievement due to its undulations, difficult fences and steep finish.
Aintree on Merseyside hosts the world’s most famous National Hunt race each April: the Grand National. It also has two courses – the Mildmay course and the Grand National course – and both are intriguing. Mildmay is used more frequently and it is a difficult course with sharp turns, but the Grand National course really steps it up several notches as it is far more resplendent and a lot more challenging. It is certainly the most difficult track in National Hunt racing. Check all today’s racing markets and you will find plenty of exciting races taking place on demanding courses, but none will come close to the Grand National. The fences are far bigger than those at Cheltenham and feature momentous drops. The most famous of the lot is Becher’s Brook, which is 5ft high and incorporates a 7ft drop, making it the toughest hurdle in the Grand National. Canal Turn is another notable fence due to the sharp 90-degree turn it imposes upon runners as they land, while The Chair and Water Jump are also notorious. In total contestants are forced to endure 30 jumps over a distance of more than four miles, making it the longest race in the National Hunt season, and many fail to complete it. This is not a race for the faint of heart, but winning it is a tremendous achievement on this hellacious course.
Martin Green is an experienced horse racing correspondent and tipster.