Understanding Race Types and Classes

The casual horse racing fan (or newbie) is generally familiar with the big races in North America like the Kentucky Derby. However, if you plan to take handicapping seriously (or even do it for fun but win) you have to understand a few things about horse types and classes. First and foremost, they don't just take a bunch of horses, line them up and ring the bell. Not all horses are created equal and not all races are equal.

Horse racing operates just like several other sports - you have the minor leagues and the big leagues. A horse may run at many levels over the course of its lifetime and during that lifetime it may move up and down many times. Below is a list of classes for races from the minor leagues up to the majors.

Maiden Races

Any horse who has never won a race is known as a maiden. To win that first race is known as "breaking his/her maiden" and while this is usually done in a maiden race, it can happen in any type of race. A horse may get that first win at any class of race (Maiden, Claiming, Allowance, or Stakes). There are also levels to each Maiden Race.

Maiden Claiming Race

Maiden Claiming races are for the horses who have never won (or never raced) and aren't thought to be good enough to run in a higher class. A maiden claiming race is a subset of Claiming Races which are explainedin more detail below. A horse running in this category can be "claimed" by another party. This is the lowest class of horse racing and typically accounts for about 15% of all horse races.

Maiden Special Weight

Maiden Special Weight races are for the top quality maiden horses that are generally expected to win quickly and move up in class. Horses in this category cannot be claimed. Many Maiden Special Weight races have special restrictions, such as locally bred horses only.

Claiming Races

In a claiming race, every horse has a price tag and the horse can be bought or "claimed" out of the race for that price. The horse must be claimed BEFORE the race takes place. In other words, the outcome of the race has no bearing on whether or not the horse will be claimed. If a horse is claimed, the old owner still gets any purse money, but the new owner gets the horse.

Regular claiming races generally range from as little as $1,000 to as much as $100,000. Optional claiming races is considered the highest level and usually have a price tag of $75,000 or more. In an optional claiming race, the horse can be entered to be claimed or not at the owner's discretion.

Claiming races account for about half of the races run at American tracks.

Allowance Races

In an allowance race, horses are not for sale and the purses are generally higher. These races have set conditions and weights to carry with weight "allowed" off for meeting other conditions. Rankings for allowance races are based on previous allowance race wins and are as follows:

  • N1X - All horses must have not won an allowance race before. In other words, the horse can only have won at previous levels.
  • N2X - All horses have won no more than one allowance race.
  • N3X - All horses have won no more then two allowance races.
  • N4X - All horses have won no more then three allowance races.

Additionally, there are usually the allowances such as 5 pounds off the assigned weight if the horse hasn't won since a certain date or hasn't won a certain amount of money.

Stakes Races

Stakes races are the major leagues of horse racing featuring only the top horses. They have the highest purses from a few thousand at small local tracks to $10 million at the Dubai World Cup.

Restricted stakes races are the lowest level and, as the name implies, have certain restrictions placed on them. For example, some local restricted stakes races will require any horses running to have been bred at the local track or within the state.

Graded stakes races are the highest level and run from Grade 3 to Grade 1 with Grade 1 featuring the most superior horses. Grades stakes races generally have no restrictions except for age or sex.

While the difference in grades can be significant, stakes races are among the hardest for most people to handicap. The reason is that all horses in a stakes race are excellent horses and if a non-favorite horse is having a good day, they can blow away the track. A good example of this is the Kentucky Derby where the favorite very seldom wins.


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