The "Levels" of Horse Racing

Updated: Sep 4, 2019



Horse racing, like all sports, has different levels in which its participants compete. This ensures that horses are not racing against unfair competition. It also makes the sport better for gambling. Wagering handles on races would be much lower if each race had only one clear winner. But, these racing levels can be confusing for people who are new to the sport. What is the difference between each type of race and the horses that compete within them? I aim to help answer those questions in this article.


Maiden Races


Maiden races are like the beginner level for racehorses. These races are filled with horses who have never won a race before. Some of the horses in these races may be first time starters and others may be on their third or fourth attempt at winning a race. A horse who has won a race for the first time is said to have “broken their maiden”.


There are two types of Maiden races. The first is a Maiden Claiming race. This is a combination of the beginner level and the claiming level of racing. Each horse in the race will have never won a race and will also be for sale for a set price. The other type of Maiden race is a Maiden Special Weight. Horses are not for sale in this category, ensuring that owners do not have to put their horses at risk of being claimed away from them.

Claiming Races


As mentioned above, a claiming race is a race in which the horses participating are for sale for a set price. Any licensed owner can purchase a horse in a claiming race so long as that owner has enough money in their account and has a licensed trainer there to pick the horse up. If more than one person places a claim on a horse, the claims clerk will draw the new owner at random.


The claiming race a horse is entered in should match the horse’s perceived value by its connections. A horse worth $35,000 would not be running in a $10,000 claimer and vice versa. This allows for fields that are more equally matched for both the horses and the bettors.


Allowance Races


Allowance races are the next step up in horse racing. The purses in these races are typically higher than those offered in claiming races. However, there are certain conditions that must be met in order for a horse to enter the race.


These conditions help to keep the playing field level. They can be based on earnings or races won. For example, this race at Indiana Grand was restricted to Indiana breds 3-years old and up who have not won more than two races. It seems like a lot of conditions to meet, but it really helps connections find the perfect race for their horse to run in.

Allowance race conditions can be based around the number of races won, the amount of money earned, state the horse was bred, and more. It seems complicated, but as I said before, it allows more horses to find the perfect race for them.


Allowance Optional Claiming


This type of race is a hybrid between the previous two that helps the track draw larger fields. These races will have restrictions just as allowance races do. However, a horse outside of the restrictions can enter the race so long as the owner will put it up to be claimed.


For example, this race at Gulfstream Park is an Allowance Optional Claimer. The conditions state that this race is for three-year olds and up who have never won $10,000 twice except in Maiden, Claiming, Starters, or State Bred races or horses who have never won three races. If your horse does not meet these rules, you can still enter them into the race with a $62,500 price tag.

Stakes Races


Stakes racing is the highest level of the sport. However, there are still levels within this level!

Overnight Stakes races are typically written up with three days of advance notice. This doesn’t allow for much time for promotion, but it does give trainers a place to run their horses at a level slightly higher than the allowance ranks.


The next step up the stakes ladder is the Restricted Stakes. Many racetracks will have races restricted to locally bred horses, enabling tracks to showcase the best local horses.


Another step up takes you to non-graded stakes level. As its name suggests, it’s the highest level of stakes racing before a grade is attached. The horses running here are often talented enough to be running at a graded level and the stakes race will serve as their stepping stone up in class. It can also where trainers will find that their horses simply aren’t stakes level horses and will drop them back down in class.