Most people new to horse racing are usually only familiar with the big races like the Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup. These are the pinnacle of racing in North America and the top rung of the class ladder for Thoroughbred race horses. Before a race horse can get to that level, he or she will have started out at a much lower level of competition. To understand where the big horses come from, you need to understand the class system for North American racing. Here is a look at the types of races, starting at the bottom and working our way up.
Any horse who has yet to win 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 so an exceptional horse (in skill or luck) may get that first win in an allowance or even stakes race. Just like the races for winners, race for maidens also have several levels of class.
The top races for maidens are called Maiden Special Weight races. These are the top quality horses who are expected to win quickly and move on to races for winners. There are also maiden claiming races for the horses who failed in maiden special weight company or who are not thought to be good enough to start out higher. Maiden claiming is a subset of claiming races which are explained below. For now, just realize these are the lowest class horses at the track and the lower their claiming tag the lower their quality.
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 person wanting to claim the horse, puts in the request before the race and after the race they are the new owner, regardless of what happens to the horse in the race. The old owner gets any purse money and the new owner gets the horse, even if he is injured or dead after the race. About half of all races run at tracks in North America are claiming races, so these are the horses you will see most often at your local track.
Claiming races come in a wide race of classes based on the price of the horses in them. The highest level is the optional claimer, usually for a high price like $75,000 or more, where the horses can be entered to be claimed or not at the owners option. Regular claiming races can go from $1,000 to $100,000 price tags, with the high end only at major tracks like Belmont or Santa Anita and the low end only at minor tracks like Portland Meadows or Great Lakes Downs.
The next level up from claiming races is allowance races. Here the horses are not for sale and the purse levels are generally higher. The allowance name comes from the fact that the races will have set conditions and weights to carry with weight allowed off for meeting various other conditions. Typical races are for non-winners of a certain number of races other than maiden, claiming, or starter. So a non-winners of one other than allowance means the horse could have any number of wins in lower quality races, but none in the allowance ranks. Usually these are for non-winners of 1, 2, 3, or 4 other than and are abbreviated NW1X, NW2X, NW3X, and NW4X. 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. Reading these conditions to place a horse at the level where he/she has the best chance of winning is an art mastered by most top trainers.
Stakes races are where the top horses race. These have the highest purses, although the amount can vary widely from a small track to a major one, and carry the most prestige when winning. Stakes races run from small local stakes for a few thousand dollars to the Breeders' Cup Classic for $5 million. Obviously, the class difference between the two extremes is quite wide.
Local stakes are where you will find the best local horses, while graded stakes will have top horses from both the local trainers and shipped in from other locations. Local stakes will often have restrictions such as having to be bred in the local state or have raced at the local track. These are called restricted stakes.
The top level for stakes races is the Graded stakes race, and these can have no restrictions other than age or sex. There are three grades, and the grade assigned a race is controlled by the Graded Stakes Committee which insures a Grade 1, 2, or 3 race is the same class level regardless of what track it is being run at. The grades are reviewed each year based on the performances of the horses coming from those races and are adjusted up or down as needed. Most midsize or larger tracks will have at least one grade 3 race while big tracks like Belmont Park or Churchill Downs will have several of all grades.
There were 713 unrestricted US stakes races in 2013 with a purse of at least $75,000 and 455 of those were assigned graded status for 2014 after being reviewed. 111 were assigned grade 1, 1430 to grade 2, and 202 to grade 3. Grade 1 races include the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, and all eight Breeders' Cup races. Horses running in these are the cream of the crop and a horse who is competitive here but can't win should always be watched when dropping to a lower grade of race.