On the spacious open fields and rolling hills of Chester County, PA, a different kind of horse racing exists. Unionville, Malvern, and Kennett Square are locations of yearly steeplechase races in Pennsylvania, and the countryside surrounding them is home to some of the country’s legendary and iconic steeplechase and flat trainers. The late Jonathan Sheppard trained champion flat and steeplechase horses at his Ashwell Farm in West Grove, PA, and trainers Ricky Hendricks, Leslie Young, and Katherine Nielson operate farms nearby.


Steeplechase racing is long distance racing, and horses are required to jump a variety of obstacles, jump ditches, and jump over water. The obstacles are brush and timber fences between 31/2 and 5 feet high. Steeplechase jockeys carry more weight than flat jockeys, and weigh in at between 140-158 pounds. The races are between 2 and 4.5 miles long on the grass, and the majority of races traverse the countryside over cross-country courses, but some races are held at Colonial Downs Racetrack in New Kent County, Virginia, Saratoga Race Track in Saratoga Springs, NY, and Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, NY. Another difference between flat and steeplechase racing is that steeplechases start from a tape instead of from a starting gate


Steeplechasing originated in Ireland in the 18th century when horse and rider raced from church steeple to church steeple, but the first documented steeplechase in the U.S. was held in Washington D.C. in 1834. The National Steeplechase Association, the official sanctioning body of steeplechase racing, was founded in 1895 and is headquartered in Fair Hill, MD.


Steeplechase horses are registered thoroughbreds, and many had early careers in flat racing. Training a steeplechase horse differs from training a horse for flat racing, and top trainers including Keri Brion, trainer of 2021 steeplechase champion, The Mean Queen, and top-rated PA trainer, Ricky Hendricks, gallop their horses cross country to develop their stamina, school them over fences, and turn them out daily. Horses learn to jump by first trotting over logs, then progressing to higher obstacles. Fitness is paramount to steeplechase horses, and the open spaces of Chester County offer perfect training terrain. The racing season starts in March in Aiken, SC, and ends in November in Aiken. During the winter, most steeplechase horses enjoy several months off, therefore extending their racing careers and allowing them to race until age 12.


The late Hall of Fame trainer and recipient of the PHBA’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, Jonathan Sheppard trained brilliant flat and steeplechase runners from his Pennsylvania farm including 2 year old Storm Cat in 1985 who became a leading sire, and the champion steeplechaser, Flatterer, who won 4 consecutive Eclipse awards. Sheppard partnered with George Strawbridge Jr. and his Augustin Stables to share many wins and awards in flat racing and steeplechasing during their long association and friendship. Sheppard also mentored many successful trainers including top trainer Graham Motion, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, Hall of Fame Trainer Janet Elliot, and champion steeplechase trainer Leslie Young.


Spring brings steeplechase racing to Pennsylvania, and the annual Willowdale Steeplechase held in Kennett Square offers top-notch steeplechase competition along with the popular Jack Russell Races, and Pony Races. The non-profit organization raises funds for clean water and for The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine at New Bolton Center. Held in May, top Pennsylvania trainers Ricky Hendricks and Leslie Young won several races at this year’s event.


The next week, steeplechasing returned to Pennsylvania for the Radnor Hunt Races held in Malvern, PA, and which benefits The Brandywine Conservancy. The Radnor Hunt was founded in 1883, and is the oldest recognized fox hunt in the United States. In 1980, the Radnor Hunt partnered with the Brandywine Conservancy, and the non-profit group’s goal is to preserve and protect Pennsylvania’s open spaces, and the tradition of fox hunting and steeplechase racing fulfills those goals. Pennsylvania trainers prevailed this year, and Katherine Nielson and Leslie Young won several races over the challenging brush and timber fences.


Starting Thursday, July 11th, horse racing begins at Colonial Downs Race Track in New Kent County, Virginia, and every Thursday, the race card begins with 3 steeplechase races which include wagering. Saratoga racing begins on July 11th, and the first steeplechase is July 17th. Steeplechase racing continues at Colonial Downs and Saratoga until the end of their meets.


The last steeplechase of the year in PA is the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup, and is scheduled for November 3, 2024 in Unionville, PA. The main race is a four mile timber steeplechase with 18 jumps. The race draws top horses from across the country and offers family fun, fashion, great food, and exciting racing. The non-profit event benefits the Chester County Food Bank.


The tradition and heritage of steeplechasing is part of Pennsylvania history, and today’s steeplechase races help preserve our open spaces and promote charitable causes while providing family fun and entertainment.

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