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.”
Though pointing out the first U.S. steeplechase is a difficult assignment, reports point to an 1834 event in Washington, D.C. The National Steeplechase Association (for many years known as the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association) was founded on February 15, 1895 to oversee the fast-growing sport. 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.
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. Unlike flat racing, steeplechasing has never been dependent upon wagering. Thus, when wagering was barred at the nation’s race-tracks in 1908, steeplechasing came to the devastated sport’s rescue. Even when wagering returned years later, steeplechasing remained a popular fixture for decades.
When racing fell on hard times in the 1970s, many tracks discontinued steeplechasing because they felt they could take in more wagering dollars on flat races. The steeplechase world responded by going back to its roots in the American countryside. There, many new race meets were established in communities small and large where they were operated by nonprofit organizations that donated the proceeds to worthy charitable causes. This process continues today. In 2008, the
National Steeplechase Association sanctioned 35 race meets throughout the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and the Southeast regions of 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.
As the result of continued growth throughout the last decade, steeplechasing now pays out approximately $5 million in prize money per year. An equal amount is paid each year to charity, proving that while steeplechasing has reached new heights of material awards, it remains a sport with a heart.