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What’s a Stakes Race In Horse Racing? How Horses Qualify.

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A friend’s horse qualified for a stakes race at Evangeline Downs, so we decided to go to the track to watch the race. Since many people may not understand the stakes race, I decided to write a helpful article.

Stakes races are the highest classification in horse racing. For a horse to be eligible to run in a stake race, the horse’s owner must pay either a nomination fee, entry fee, or a starting fee. The fees paid by the owners are added to the purse money.

Stakes races showcase the top horses in a particular group; the groups might be three-year-olds, three-year-old fillies, or the winners of select races. There are many variables used to determine the entries in a stakes race.

Picture of horses racing in a stakes race,

Why Are Stakes Races Special?

When my friend was discussing his upcoming stakes race, you could hear the excitement in his voice. His enthusiasm prompted my son to ask why is he so excited.

Stakes races are reserved for premium horses and typically pay the most significant purses. Most tracks will host at least two stake races per season. However, some of the more prestigious tracks have a featured stakes race each week.

Each stakes race has its particular requirements and is commonly restricted to the state the horse was bred and the age or sex of the horse. The amounts and time limits on payments may vary, but to be eligible for a stakes race, the owner has to pay a fee.

Some stakes races require a nomination fee.

Often the fees are paid before the foal is born. These fees are nomination fees. Nomination fees increase with the age of the horse. For example, an owner may only have to pay a 100-dollar nomination fee before the birth of his horse but spend 5,000 or more if he waits until the horse is a yearling.

The Kentucky Derby is a stakes race. Eligibility requirements mandate all horses must be nominated for the race and the fees paid before they turn two years old. Just like in other stakes races, you can pay the nomination fee later, but it will increase substantially.

Many horses that are nominated for Kentucky Derby, as well as other stake races, never run in the race. Stakes races have criteria the horse must meet to be nominated and accepted in a stakes race.

Paying the fee is just one factor. Some stakes races require eligible horses to run in stake qualifying races, often referred to as trials. If, for example, 100 horses are paid and qualified for a stakes race, the governing body may hold ten races of 10 horses to determine the best horse to run in the stakes race.

Picture of our horse Ashton, going to the gates for a stakes race.

What is a Graded Stakes Race?

Our friend mentioned that his horse was running in a non-graded stakes race. I wondered what the difference was between graded stakes and non-grade stake races, so I did some research to find out.

A graded stakes race is a horse race with a designated grade that is assigned by the horse racing governing body. The grade of the race determines the purse, or prize money, that is awarded to the winning horse and its owners.

Grade I races are the most prestigious and offer the largest purses, while Grade III races are the least prestigious and offer smaller purses. The races are ranked based on the quality of the field of runners and the amount of the purse. Other countries have a similar system. In the UK, these types of races are referred to as Group races.

Graded stakes races have a minimum purse amount of $75,000.

Grading stakes races first began in the early 1970s. It was a system designed to identify the best races and help to determine the best bloodlines. Grading stake races brings excitement to racing and promotes the best horses in the industry.

The following factors are used to determine if a horse race is eligible to be a graded stakes race:

  • Minimum purse requirement of $75,000.00. For a grade III, $100,000; for a grade II, $200,000; and for a grade I, $300,000.
  • Consistency of the race. The race has been run for two years under similar conditions.
  • Restriction to age and sex only.
  • Strict rules to regulate drug testing after the race, including examination by a government authority
  • Drug use limitations. The model rules are adhered to, which govern steroids and non-steroid drug use. This is the minimum that allows only Boldenone, Nandrolone, Stanozolol, and Testosterone.

In the United States, a stakes race can be dormant for one year without losing its grade.

Because a race meets some factors of a Graded race doesn’t mean it will be classified in that group. For example, a competition with a purse of $350,000 is not automatically a Grade I race.

Offering purses higher than the graded stakes requirements are not a rare occurrence. The reason for offering higher payouts, better horses are more likely to compete, and track officials want to bring in high-quality horses so the race will move up in classification in the future.

There are four levels of graded stakes races.

Graded stakes are broken down into four categories, Listed, Grade III, Grade II, and Grade I. Listed races are the lowest level stakes race, and Grade I stakes are the most prestigious.

It follows logically that the purses are highest in Grade I races. Grade I races are usually weighted for age and sex, but there are also races with set weights. If it is a set-weight race, all the horses in the competition will carry the same weight regardless of sex or age.

Picture of racehorses.

Stakes races can be handicap races.

Stake races could also be either conditioned races or handicapped races. In a conditioned race, a horse’s weight in the competition is based on its winning record or earnings.

In a handicap race, the burden a horse carries is decided by a track official. He sets the amount of weight intending to equalize the field of horses. Seabiscuit, for example, was assigned an uncharacteristically high weight during his race.

A stakes race can be run on turf or dirt.

There is a special downgrade rule that kicks in during specific situations. The rule applies to graded turf races. The general rule is if a graded turf race moves to the main track for any reason, then the competition is automatically downgraded one level.

The grading committee has five days after the race to review the film of the competition. If the committee determines the horses’ match is worthy of its original classification, they can upgrade the race.

The most common example is lousy weather causing the turf to become too wet to run the horse on safely. Therefore the race would be moved to the main track, and the downgrade rule would kick in.

The most famous stakes race is the Kentucky Derby.

Kentucky DerbyGrade I Stakes

To qualify, horses run in a set of designated races around the world. Points are allotted to the top four in each race. Twenty horses with the most points are allowed to run for the roses. The owner could pay the penalty to enter the race if a qualifying horse was not nominated. Total Purse 3 million.

The Preakness Stakes- Grade I Stakes

Fourteen horses qualify each year for the Preakness. The stakes committee uses a three-tier system to determine the field of horses. If a horse has not been nominated, an owner can pay a penalty of 100,000 dollars to enter a qualifying horse.

The first seven horses are chosen from top-graded stakes earnings. The next four spots are given to the top overall earners minus winnings from restricted races.

The final three slots are given to the top overall earners. (If a horse earned money in the Kentucky Derby, then it is eligible for the Preakness) Total Purse 1.5 million.

The Belmont StakesGrade I Stakes

Nomination fees have to be paid; the standard is two payments of $15,000.00. However, a penalty payment of $75,000 can be paid for otherwise qualified horses.

Set weights for the runners are 126 lbs for colts and geldings and 121 for fillies. The top three of either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness are granted a spot in the race. Total Purse 1.5 million.

The Breeder Cup ClassicGrade I Stakes

A horse can qualify in a few different ways, first by winning a Breeders’ Cup Challenge race. The second is by earning points running in Graded Stakes races.

The grade of race weights the point system. A horse receives 10 points for winning a Grade 1 race, 6 for a Grade 2 race, and 4 for a Grade 3 race. They are also awarded points for 2nd and 3rd place finishes.

The final way a horse can gain entry into the Breeders’ Cup Classic is by a selection of a panel of experts. Seven horses are chosen from the Challenge races and points, and seven are picked by the experts. Total purse 6 million.

Stakes races pay out enormous amounts of money. For example, The Breeders Cup will pay $30 million in purses over two days. To read about the fastest horse racing times, click on the link.

Below is a YouTube video of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, a Grade 1 Stakes race.

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