In 2010 six European countries joined forces to host a new cross-country steeplechase challenge. The Crystal Cup, now in its third year, involves a total of 10 races in France, Belgium, Italy, the Czech Republic, Ireland and Great Britain. With combined prize money of more than €700,000 it is one of the most exciting competitions in racing.
Cross Country Steeplechase originated in Ireland in the 18th century with the first recorded race resulting from a wager between Mr. Cornelius O'Callaghan and Mr. Edmund Blake in 1752. This original race was run over four miles cross country from Buttevant Church to St. Leger Church in Doneraile, Ireland – hence the name “Steeplechase”. Racing over obstacles proved to be very popular and flourished in the mid-nineteenth century when circular courses where created so that both the start and finish could be seen by spectators from a single vantage point. The new circuits were often very elaborate, designed to include banks, hedges, ditches and stone walls, emulating those early contests across open fields.
When he announced the Crystal Cup at Auteuil's International Meeting, Jean D'Indy, Vice Chairman of France Galop said, “France is proud to be announcing this exciting, six-nation initiative, that brings together Europe’s leading Cross Country racecourses to celebrate the most successful stable in the 10 chosen races in 2010”.
Points are awarded to the first six horses to finish in each race, with extra bonus points awarded to horses that travel from abroad to take part. All runners must take part in the final race at Cheltenham in December with the winner receiving an additional bonus point. As well as a 10,000 Euro award to the winning stable, there are individual trophies for both the horse and rider who accumulate the most points over the 10 race series.
The point system is simple and weighted to ensure that horses from outside their home country are rewarded with 6 points and 12 bonus points for a first place to a winning horse away from home turf, this system continues logically down to sixth place with a single point for a win along with an away two bonus points. Unplaced horses receive 0.5 points with an away single point bonus.
The going is tough and the stakes high for both owners and trainers alike. No Owner or Trainer can participate in the final standings of the Crystal Cup unless they have taken part in a minimum of three Crystal Cup races, and this must include at least two outside their home country. There’s no limit to the number of horses that an Owner or Trainer can enter in the races, but only the points obtained by the top three ranked horses are counted. The Owner who accumulates the most points in the 10 race series wins the Crystal Cup and €15,000. The Trainer accumulating the most points in the series wins a bonus of €20,000
At the Crystal Cup’s inception Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham Racecourse’s Managing Director who was appointed President, said: “We have been working on this project for many years and to have brought a challenge together that involves six European nations is an enormous achievement for all concerned. Cross Country Steeplechasing is the form of Jump racing that promotes the best opportunities for international competition. We look forward to these 10 races through 2010 and to crowning a worthy winner next December.”
The Crystal Cup, as the name suggests, is perhaps the purest form of horse racing. Each course is different adding to the excitement and variety of the competition, some have been designed by top cross country course designers making each race an event not to be missed.
Each of the 10 races take place in a different European location throughout a single year, starting in early February at Pau and finishing in mid-December at Cheltenham.
It was in Pau that the sport of “Le Steeple” had its French beginnings 130 years ago. So, perhaps it’s fitting that this should be the first race in the series. With a distance of 3miles 7 furlongs and a €65,000 purse, the Prix Gaston De Bataille includes hurdles, steeplechase jumps and cross-country obstacles.
The racecourse Fontainebleau, also called “the racetrack Solle” is located in the ancient forest of Fontainebleau, not far from the Palace that Napoleon loved so much. The Grand Steeple Chase Cross Country De Fontainebleau is over 3miles 6 furlongs and has a purse of €40,000.
The Gaelic name for Punchestown means Valley of the Ash Trees. Horse racing started at Punchestown in 1824 and many Irish people believe the Punchestown is superior in content to Cheltenham, Aintree, and Fairyhouse, calling it Peerless Punchestown. The La Touche Cup at 4 miles and 2 furlongs is the third longest in the cup with a €30,000 purse.
The picturesque racecourse at Le Lion d'Angers sits in idyllic French surroundings with part of the steeplechase course disappearing for a time into the leafy woods. The course caters for a variety of types of horse racing, trotting in harness or under saddle, as well as Thoroughbred racing. The Prix Anjou-Loire Challenge is the longest of all the races at 4 miles 4 furlongs with a massive purse of €112,000.
The West Flanders town of Waregem, “the city of the horse,” whose motto is “stad in gallop” (city in gallop) is home to the shortest race at 2 miles 7 furlongs. The ING Grande Steeple Chase of Flanders includes “the jump over the Gaverbeek”, one of the most formidable and challenging obstacles for any horse or rider in the Crystal Cup making it worth every cent of the €100,000 purse.
With its beautiful 18th century castle and park, Craon is famous for its racecourse. Competitions are well followed by horse lovers and the races at Craon are a must-experience racing event with a unique French atmosphere. The Prix Louis De Guebriant is a 3 miles 6 furlong event with a prize of €75,000.
The spa town of Merano, surrounded by the peaks of the Alps in the beautiful Southern Tyrol in Italy, hosts another of the Crystal Cup’s famous steeplechases. The Crosse delle Nazioni (Grand Cross) is 3 miles 6 furlongs race with a €40,000 prize for the winner.
The Velka Pardubice or simply ‘Velka’ as it is know, is one of the most extraordinary steeplechases in the world. Run in the Czech Republic every second Sunday in October, it’s truly the Grand National of Eastern Europe. The race is the second longest in the Crystal Cup at 4miles 2 ½ furlongs and, with a huge €178,000, has by far the largest prize.
Compiègne, set on the banks of the River Oise in Picardy, is no simple country market town; its race course is both well known and enthusiastically attended. The Grand Steeple Chase Cross Country De Compiegne is 3 miles and 4 furlongs in length and offers €40,000 in prize money.
With its unique feature fences, including the infamous Big Cheese, Cheltenham Racecourse hosts the final race of the Crystal Cup, bringing to an end this unique racing event just before Christmas. The Glenfarclas Cross Country Steeple Chase is a 3 miles 7 furlongs race with €25,000 on offer.
Today the Crystal Cup brings together Europe's premier racecourses to honour the heritage of the sport and has heralded a new era in international Steeplechasing. These unique cross country courses scattered throughout Europe remain true to the origins of the sport and provide a breathtaking and exciting spectacle whichever race you choose to attend.