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Stakes Races 101: Qualification and Basics

Last updated: February 15, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Have you ever wondered what sets the prestigious Kentucky Derby apart from other horse races? The answer lies in the thrilling world of stakes races. Stakes races are not just any horse racing events; they represent the pinnacle of equine competition, combining high stakes, top-tier horses, and intense excitement.

In these races, the stakes are more than just a term – they’re a significant investment by the owners and a chance for glory on the racetrack. As an avid equestrian and seasoned racehorse owner, I bring firsthand insights into what makes stakes races the most celebrated events in horse racing and why they capture the imagination of horse lovers worldwide.

Picture of horses racing in a stakes race,
Stakes race on a turf track.

What Are Stakes Races?

Stakes races represent the pinnacle of achievement in horse racing, where history, tradition, and the future of sport converge.

Why They Matter:

  • Symbolize the pinnacle of achievement in horse racing.
  • Blend history, tradition, and the sport’s future.

Defining Features:

  • Elevated Status: Distinguished by significant financial stakes and elite competition.
  • Stringent Entry Criteria: Age, breed, and performance-based qualifications.
  • Financial Investment: Owners’ stakes contribute directly to the purse.
  • Prestige & Rewards: Attract the best in the equine world, offering substantial prize money and prestige.

Historical Significance:

  • A centuries-old tradition, evolving from local contests to international spectacles.
  • They are proving grounds for breeding and training methods.
  • Influential in shaping breeding strategies and enhancing horses’ lineage value.

Stakes Races: Conditioned vs. Handicap

  • Conditioned Races: Weight based on a horse’s record or earnings.
  • Handicap Races: Weight assigned by an official to level the playing field. Example: Seabiscuit’s high weight.

Turf or Dirt

  • Downgrade Rule: Graded turf races moved to the main track are downgraded one level, subject to committee review.

Interesting Facts:

  • A race can pause for a year without losing its grade in the U.S.

Levels of Graded Stakes Races Explained

Picture of our horse Ashton, going to the gates for a stakes race.
My two year old leaving the paddock to compete in a stakes race.

1. Listed Races

  • The entry point into the world of graded stakes races, Listed races are the initial step for horses showing potential for higher competition.
  • Significance: While being the lowest level, these races are crucial for horses to prove themselves and move up the grading scale.

2. Grade III

  • A step above Listed races, Grade III events start to feature a higher caliber of competition, with horses that have shown consistent performance.
  • Significance: Winning or performing well in a Grade III race can significantly enhance a horse’s reputation and value, marking them as contenders for even more prestigious races.

3. Grade II

  • Midway through the grading scale, Grade II races are highly competitive, featuring horses that have demonstrated superior ability in lower-grade races.
  • Significance: Success in Grade II races is often seen as a precursor to top-tier competition, with many horses using these events as a springboard to Grade I races.

4. Grade I

  • The pinnacle of horse racing, Grade I races are the most prestigious events, attracting the elite of the equine world.
  • Significance: Winning a Grade I race is a mark of excellence, contributing to a horse’s legacy and significantly influencing breeding potential and value.
Picture form Churchill Downs of the Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby.

Iconic Stakes Races

  • Kentucky Derby (Grade I): Qualification through global races, run for the roses, purse: $3 million.
  • The Preakness Stakes (Grade I): 14 horses qualify annually, total purse: $1.5 million.
  • The Belmont Stakes (Grade I): Nomination fees required, set weights, purse: $1.5 million.
  • The Breeders Cup Classic (Grade I): Qualify through Challenge races or points; purse: $6 million.

Purse Highlights

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

YouTube video
A video of the Grade I Kentucky Derby. You can feel the excitement.

Stakes Races & Horse Race Betting

Stakes races not only captivate the hearts of horse racing aficionados but also ignite the fervor of bettors seeking the ultimate wagering challenge.

Why Stakes Races Are Betting Highlights:

  • Marquee Events: Draw significant betting interest from all levels of punters.
  • High Caliber Horses: Makes for unpredictable outcomes, adding to the betting thrill.
  • Large Purses & Prestige: Lead to bigger betting pools and diverse wagering options.
  • Betting Promotions: Often featured in accumulators and jackpots for big wins.

Public and Media Magnet:

  • Beyond Sports: Stakes races are cultural spectacles, attracting media and public attention.
  • Media Coverage: Extensive pre- and post-race analyses enrich the narrative around the events.
  • Cultural Phenomena: The glamour and festivities around these races draw widespread interest.

Personal Insight: Grade II Stakes Races Impact

When events like the Louisiana Derby at New Orleans Fairgrounds occur, the track is packed with people from all over, and the economic spike is obvious. The event energizes local businesses and fills the city with excitement. These events create jobs and boost local revenue.

Picture of racehorses in a Grade III stakes race.
Grade III Stakes Race.

FAQs about Stakes Races

What are stakes races in horse racing?

Stakes races are high-level horse racing competitions where the owners of the participating horses contribute to the prize purse through entry fees. These races are known for their prestige, significant prize money, and the participation of top-quality horses.

How are stakes races graded?

Stakes races are graded into four categories: Listed, Grade III, Grade II, and Grade I. The grading is determined by a governing body and is based on factors such as the quality of the participating horses, the race’s history, and the amount of the purse.

What is the difference between a graded stakes race and a non-graded stakes race?

The main difference lies in the level of recognition and prestige. Graded stakes races are officially recognized by racing authorities and carry more prestige, often attracting higher-caliber horses and offering larger purses.

Picture of racehorses nearing the finish line in a stkes race.
Racehorses approaching the finish line.


Stakes races are the crown jewels of horse racing, celebrated for their prestige, intense competition, and storied past. These events are more than mere races; they are grand spectacles that showcase the best in equine and human athleticism, while also honoring the sport’s rich heritage and evolving customs.

The high financial stakes, rigorous entry standards, and worldwide attention highlight their significance in the racing realm. These races weave captivating tales of victory, resilience, and unwavering pursuit of greatness, captivating both long-time fans and newcomers.

Call to Action/Engagement

  • Share Your Experiences: Have you ever attended a stakes race or followed one closely? Share your experiences and what these races mean to you in the comments below.
  • Further Reading and Resources: For those eager to learn more, check out [recommended books, documentaries, websites].
  • Join the Conversation: Engage with us on social media to share your thoughts and connect with other horse racing enthusiasts. Follow us on [social media links], and don’t forget to use the hashtag #StakesRacingSense to join the conversation.
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Poll Question:

Additional Resources

For those keen on diving deeper into the world of horse racing, here are some valuable resources that offer a wealth of information:

  1. The Jockey Club: An essential resource for understanding the intricacies of thoroughbred racing and breeding. Visit The Jockey Club
  2. BloodHorse: Stay updated with the latest news, breeding, race results, and thoroughbred sales. Explore BloodHorse
  3. Racing Post: A comprehensive site for racecards, results, statistics, and betting tips. Check out Racing Post
  4. Equibase: Your official source for horse racing entries, results, statistics, and mobile racing data. Discover Equibase
  5. Daily Racing Form: Offers race entries, results, horse racing analysis, and handicapping. Visit Daily Racing Form
  6. Horse Racing Nation: A dynamic community of horse racing fans featuring news, opinions, race previews, and betting advice. Join Horse Racing Nation
  7. Paulick Report: Provides the latest thoroughbred racing news, analysis, and commentary. Read Paulick Report
  8. National Thoroughbred Racing Association: The official voice of thoroughbred racing. Explore NTRA

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