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The "Levels" of Horse Racing

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.

Graded Stakes Races

Graded stakes races are the highest levels there are in horse racing. The horses running here are the best competing against the best. There are three graded stakes tiers: 1, 2, and 3.

The Grade 3 race is the first tier of graded stakes racing. This is where the best horses from the non-graded stakes level come to compete. Some examples of a Grade 3 race are the Gr.3 Ohio Derby and Gr.3 Indiana Derby.

Grade 2 races are the second tier. These are the horses who are usually teetering in between the Gr.1 and Gr.3 levels.

Grade 1 races are the highest tier of race in the entire sport of horse racing. These are the races in which the nation’s best horses compete. All three Triple Crown races and all

Breeders’ Cup Races are Grade 1 races. Other examples are the Gr.1 Travers and Gr.1 Del Arkansas Derby.

A Horse’s Progression

A horse does not have work their way from the bottom up. Horses who show lots of talent in a maiden race can jump up to the stakes level in their second or third start. American Pharoah won a Gr.1 race in the second start of his entire career. The races in which a horse is run is totally dependent on where their trainer sees them fitting best. Some trainers think their horses need a gradual increase of level, so they’ll enter them in maidens, claimers, and then allowances until they are ready to compete on a stakes level. Other trainers will believe in their horses so much that they’ll through them into a graded stakes race after just one other race.

I hope this article helped you understand the types of races and the levels of the sport more!


Author - Kaeli Bartholomew: I run Champions of the Track as a way to spread the love of horse racing through writing, photography, and videography. The best way to increase the popularity and respect for this sport is by sharing stories and memories! Thank you for joining me on my mission to improve and grow the sport of horse racing.

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