The Different Classes of Horse Racing

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jockeys racing on their racehorses on a grass track
BetMGM @BETMGM Sep 12, 2023, 12:09 PM

Horse racing is a captivating spectacle of grace, power, and speed. Like any major sport, it’s a highly competitive arena with multiple levels of competition. To ensure that the playing field is fair and odds for winning are narrow, competing horses and jockeys must meet certain criteria based on past performance, perceived value, age and weight.

Whether you’re physically at the track or online sports betting on the go, knowing the types of horse races available on race day is crucial for race analysis and enjoyment of betting opportunities. With that in mind, here’s a clear and concise summary of the official types of horse races so you know what to expect and when to bet.

Maiden Horse Racing

Every year, thousands of thoroughbred horses are born and raised to compete and win. But they all have to start somewhere, and maiden races are designed with this in mind. Maiden horse racing gives inexperienced horses the chance to prove their pedigree, and while some horses might have better training than others, they all begin their racing careers as maidens.

Any horse that has never won a race is regarded as a “maiden.” When a horse manages to win, it breaks its maiden status and becomes eligible for higher tiers of competition. In other words, maiden races are a good early indicator of a horse’s future potential. Horses gain valuable experience in this first stage of competition.

Maiden races can also be claiming races. In a claimed horse race, horses can be purchased during the race by any licensed horse owner, as long as the prospective owner has the necessary funds and a registered trainer to see to the horse. If there’s more than one claim on a horse, a claims clerk will select the new owner randomly. Claimed horse races ensure parity by only selecting horses of similar value for each race.

At the highest level of maiden horse racing, you’ll find maiden special weight races. Participating horses must meet various conditions to qualify, such as age and sex, for example. Most importantly, they aren’t for sale and owners can demonstrate the quality and potential of their prized assets. If a horse struggles to win in special weight races, it usually gets moved down to maiden claiming races.

Handicapped Horse Racing

In handicap races, horses are assigned a weight value based on abilities and performance history. The goal is to give each horse an equal chance to win. Race organizers determine weight distribution by analyzing the results of previous races, resulting in the opportunity for different racehorse types to compete against each other. Because every horse has a fair chance to win, handicapped horse racing odds are extremely narrow and the field is highly competitive.

Allowance Horse Racing

Allowance races offer higher prize money and stiffer competition. Horses must meet specific conditions to compete in allowance races, such as age, gender, earnings, or past wins. But the conditional criteria differ from race to race and it all depends on whether or not an even playing field can be achieved. Putting conditions in place helps to maintain fairness and allows owners to find suitable races for their horses.

Generally, owners and trainers are heavily invested in the success of their horses. If a horse that breaks its maiden shows promise as a high-level competitor, the horse owner can skip claiming races and enter allowance races. Unless it’s an optional claimer allowance race where the horse can either meet allowance criteria or be put up for sale allowance races ensure that the horse and owner are completely protected. 

Stakes and Graded Stakes Horse Racing

Also known as black-type races, stakes races are the cream of the crop of horse racing. This is where you’ll find the biggest horse races in the world, such as the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and Dubai World Cup. These renowned races are divided into categories based on prestige, prize money, and level of performance.

To ensure that there are a variety of horse racing bets offered at higher levels of competition, stakes races are split into three grades of competition (Grades 1–3,) with three being the lowest and one the highest. Additionally, there are non-graded stakes, restricted stakes, and overnight stakes, adding up to six classes of horse racing at the highest level.

Overnight Stakes

Overnight Stakes are high-level allowance races scheduled with limited notice. They offer higher purses than allowance races and serve as stepping stones for horses moving up the ranks.

Restricted Stakes

Restricted Stakes showcase the best locally bred horses. They’re specifically for horses born in a particular state, be it California, Florida, Pennsylvania, or Ohio (to name but a few.)

Non-Graded Stakes

Just below graded stakes in terms of prestige, non-graded races are for horses that still need to develop skills and experience. Competing horses are often talented enough for graded stakes but may use non-graded stakes to prepare for higher classes.

Grade 3 Stakes

Grade 3 is the lowest level of graded stakes. It attracts a large pool of the best non-graded stakes horses, resulting in a bigger field of lesser caliber competition. Purses are usually on the smaller side compared to higher classes of horse racing, but the level of competition remains high.

Grade 2 Stakes

Below grade 1 in terms of stakes, grade 2 is the second-toughest level of competition in horse racing. The best horses from grade 3 get to compete for larger purses and more competitive odds up the excitement factor.

Grade 1 Stakes

With the most competitive odds and the biggest purses, grade 1 is reserved for the most prestigious races that only attract the highest caliber horses. These are the types of racehorses bred to be world champions, but the field size is smaller and competition is stiff. 

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.