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What Are the Different Horse Racing Classes?

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We invited a friend to join us at the races; he had never been before. During much of the afternoon, my time was spent explaining the different horse racing classes. So I decided to write this article to help my next guest and others unfamiliar with horse racing classes.

MaidenNon-winnersFor horses that have never won a race.
ClaimingLowestAll horses are for sale.
AllowanceStep up from claiming racesHorses are assigned a weight to carry or allowed to carry less weight.
StakesHighestTop horses and biggest purses.

If you’re new to horse racing, you may find the terms hard to follow. However, to fully enjoy racing and get a better grip on betting strategies, it’s essential to understand horse racing classes.

Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.


What are horse racing classes?

There are four primary horse racing classes: claiming races, maiden races, allowance races, and stakes races. Under the umbrella of stakes, races are restricted and graded stakes races.

Graded stakes races are further broken down into Grade I, Grade II, and Grade III. A maiden claiming race is the lowest class of horse racing, and Grade I is the highest.

Horse racing classes are used to categorize horses based on their experience and skill levels. This system pits horses at similar stages of their careers against each other to make the races competitive.

Breeders, owners, and trainers all hope to one day have a horse in a Grade I stakes race, like the Kentucky Derby, but only a few ever reach this pinnacle.

Horses have to earn the right run in upper-class races. Most begin their careers running in maiden special weight or maiden claiming races, and if they are successful, climb the ranks until they reach the highest level of racing, the Grade I stakes race.

However, the horse pictured above is a maiden two-year-old I nominated for a stakes race scheduled for later this month. We may be putting him in over his head, but our trainer has a lot of confidence in him; I’ll let you know how he performs.

Picture of a two year old horse

Maiden races

Maiden has a unique meaning in horse racing. The word’s etymology is traced to c.1300 and was first used to describe a virgin or unmarried girl. By c.1500, it was used to describe something new or untried, for example, a maiden voyage of a ship.

The word continued evolving and, in the 1600s, began to refer to a woman’s family name before she was married, and finally, in 1760, it was applied to racehorses.

Maiden horses are ones that have never won a race. To qualify to enter a maiden race, each horse must still be a maiden. When the term “maiden” was first used in horse racing, it referred to horses that had never run a race before.

There are different types of maiden races, maiden claiming and maiden special weight races. Horses in maiden claiming races are typically inferior to horses running in maiden special weight races.

If I have a maiden horse that can’t win in a maiden special weight, I’ll drop it into a maiden claiming race to pick up a win, hopefully. However, some owners may want to start their horses in a maiden claiming.

The decision is strategic; they either know their animal can’t compete against maiden special weights, want to get an early win, and build their horse’s confidence.

Choosing the right race to run your horse is critical, especially early in your animal’s racing career.

Picture of our racehorse Mindy with her jockey

Claiming races

Claiming races is a horse racing class in which all horses in the race are for sale. They are for sale to make the races competitive by matching horses based on the value of the race’s sales price. Claiming races are the most common horse racing class.

Before a horse is entered in a race, the trainer looks over a condition book. The condition book includes the races written for an upcoming date. Claiming races are listed by the price horse that can be bought.

So, if you enter a horse in a $5000 claiming race, a person can purchase your horse for $5,000. They have to follow the rules established by the track commissioner where the horse is running. There are procedures you have to follow, but they are not too challenging.

The horse pictured above is named Mindy, and she competes in claiming races. She hasn’t performed too well, and so we intend to drop her down in class, and if she isn’t successful, we’ll bring her home.

Claiming races is an excellent way to get into the horse racing business; not only can you get a horse already running, but it’s also an excellent way to get a broodmare. Note: Seabiscuit ran in claiming races.

horse racing classes,horse racing,claiming,

If you decide to explore claiming a horse, get with an experienced trainer. Some horses are dropped into claiming races because they’re injured, and the owner is trying to unload the horse.

Allowance races

Of all the horse racing classes, allowance races have the most variety. These horses are not for sale and are subject to carry weight. The weight is designated to even the field. A horse’s speed is affected by the weight it carries.

These horses are typically considered better than claiming horses but not good enough to run in stakes races. There are different classifications of allowance races based on the records of the horses.

For example, they may include races for only non-winners of a certain number other than maiden, claiming, or starter can run. Also, an allowance is given to horses that haven’t won since a specific date or a set amount of money.

The allowance is typically five pounds less than the assigned weight to the other horses. There are also starter allowance races; these are restricted to horses that have run for a maximum claiming price.

Picture of racehorses.

Stakes races

Stakes races are at the top of the horse racing classes and come in two categories, restricted and graded. Restricted stakes races, like the name states, these have restrictions and are the lower level of the stakes races.

Stakes races are for the best horses and typically pay the largest purses. Most tracks host two stake races per racing season. However, some of the eminent tracks feature stakes races each week.

Stakes races have requirements and are commonly restricted to where the horse was bred, the animal’s age, or the sex of the horse. Stakes races often require a fee for a horse to be eligible to enter the race.

For example, in the stakes race we entered, our horse is restricted to Louisiana-bred two-year-old geldings and colts. The pinnacle of the horse racing classes is the graded stakes. A graded stakes race must meet standards outlined by the American Graded Stakes Committee. Once a horse race meets the initial requirements, it is given a ranking, I, II, III, or listed.

horse racing classes,stakes races,

The basis used to grade stakes races is the quality of runners in the field, and the purse’s amount—the minimum purse of a graded race is 75,000 dollars.

In the United Kingdom, they use a similar system to rate races, and their highest horse racing classes are Group races. Graded stakes races can be run on either grass or dirt.

However, the racing commission has a unique rule when graded races are moved from turf to dirt. The commission automatically downgrades the race one level.

Within five days, they can upgrade the race to its original designation after reviewing the race video to determine it warrants the higher classification.

The most prestigious stakes races are Grade I, and they also have the largest purses. Popular Grade I stakes races include the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Breeders Cup Classic, and Belmont Stakes.

The Kentucky Derby has a three million dollar purse and is open to three-year-olds that earn qualifying points in select races. The Preakness stakes accept fourteen horses each year based on an earnings tier system. Currently, the purse is 1.5 million dollars.

The Belmont also has an earning threshold to enter, and all three of the triple crown races, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, require a nomination fee. The Belmont purse is 1.5 million.

The Breeders Cup combines a point and earnings system for horses to qualify. During the Breeder Cup weekend, over 30 million dollars in purse money is paid out. The Breeders Cup Classic has a purse of six million.

Below is a helpful YouTube video that further explains horse racing classes.

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