Steeplechase racing continues to provide thrills at Saratoga
With their series of jumps, steeplechase races can be one of the more thrilling events at Saratoga Race Course, but some believe they're also the most dangerous. YNN's Matt Hunter takes a closer look at the exciting centuries-old sport.
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SARATOGA RACE COURSE -- Whether from a distance or right up close, a steeplechase race can be one of the most exhilarating things you'll see at a race track.
"People talk about the 'thrills and spills' I suppose, we try to play down the spills side of it," said trainer Jonathan Sheppard, who started out as an amateur jump jockey before beginning his training career in the 1960s.
Of the several hundred races run every summer at Saratoga, only a small portion are steeplechases, where horse and rider must clear a series of hurdles before dueling to the finish.
No one has been more successful at it than the Hall of Fame trainer, Sheppard, who's won more American races in his 47-year career -- including one Thursday -- than anyone else in the history of the sport.
"I don't know how it happened, really, I think I got a bit lucky. I came in at the right place at the right time. "
In most cases, steeplechase horses are bred and first trained to be flat runners.
In both disciplines, Saratoga provides an opportunity to compete against the world's best.
"Even when I was a boy growing up in Ireland, I knew what Saratoga was,” said Brian Crowley, an Irish-born jockey who’s been riding in the U.S. for the past two-and-a-half years. “Everyone knows Saratoga."
If there's a knock on steeplechase racing it's that some feel it's far more dangerous than flat racing.
According to a 2003 study of European steeplechase racing conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association, serious skeletal injuries to horses are about three times more likely in jump races.
However, many in the sport believe great strides have been made to make sure it's as safe as possible for both horse and rider.
"I think we take as many precautions as possible,” said Sheppard, who had a horse fall in a stakes race earlier this month. “As in a flat race, there's still, a horse can break down or fall coming out of the gate, it's the same thing with us but fortunately it doesn't happen very often."
"Everyone is trying to do their best for the sport and I think from a jockey's point of view they're doing a fantastic job," said Crowley, who teamed up with Sheppard on Thursday on a colt named Cubist.
A sport that remains on the fringe, even within the world of thoroughbred racing, the added danger is one more element that many believe makes the sport so exciting.
"Everybody has a pretty healthy respect for the horses and particularly for the riders,” Sheppard said. “It definitely provides a break in the routine from just the typical day of maiden, six furlong and one-mile races."
According to data posted on the Jockey Club’s website, there was less than one fatality per 1,000 starts at Saratoga Race Course in 2011. The data combines both steeplechase and flat races.