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From the visceral thrill of a headlong gallop to the heart-in-mouth suspense of the jumps, horse racing offers year-round excitement and entertainment for the punter.
The traditional flat racing season on turf in England is from March to November. There is a great deal of money and international reputation involved, and many English meetings feature prominently on the global equestrian calendar. There are 61 racecourses in the UK and a further 27 in Ireland, and the most glamorous race meetings - such as Ascot and the Derby - will regularly attract crowds in excess of 60,000 people.
The highlights of the flat racing season are Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood and the Epsom Derby. These are prestigious races in their own right, but also landmarks of the social season. Attended by royalty, the racing aristocracy and celebrities, they are opportunities to see and be seen. The emphasis is on smart clothes, flamboyant hats, champagne and picnic hampers.
The two jewels in the crown of the National Hunt (or Jumps) season - which runs from mid-October to the end of April - are the Cheltenham Festival, Grand National and King George VI chase.
Jump races can be broadly divided into steeplechases and hurdle races. In steeplechases, run over distances from 2-4½ miles, horses have to jump fixed fences, which are at least 4½ft high. In hurdle races, run over distances from 2-3½ miles, horses jump smaller, less rigid obstacles, at least 3½ft high, which often collapse when hit by a jumping horse.
With a winter season, the emphasis is on warm clothes rather than high fashion, so National Hunt racing does not have the high season glamour of flat racing. Nor does the prize money awarded for National Hunt racing rival the high sums involved in flat racing. Yet there can be few more breathtaking spectacles than a horse and rider hurtling, at full speed, over a succession of daunting and dangerous fences.