Catch a Flight with Gary Stevens (Left) defeats Moreno and Cornelio Velasquez to win the Californian Stakes at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia CA. Alex Evers/ESW/CSM

Catch a Flight with Gary Stevens (Left) defeats Moreno and Cornelio Velasquez to win the Californian Stakes at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia CA. Alex Evers/ESW/CSM

Race Classifications

Approximately 30,000 thoroughbreds are born each year. They all have varying level of talent and desire so a variety of racing classes were developed to give each horse its best chance to be successful. It helps to envision the classes as a pyramid with maiden horses making the base and stakes horses at the top.

Maiden Races 

The word “maiden” means that the horse has not yet won a race. Within the maiden class there are two categories: maiden claiming and maiden special weight. Once a horse has won a race, he or she is no longer eligible to run in this class.

Maiden Claiming

Maiden claiming is the lowest rung in racing. In this category, each horse is for sale for the claiming tag (price determined by the race track). This category is for horses that have not shown their connections (owner(s) and trainer) much promise in the morning during training or for horses that were simply not competitive in the maiden special weight.

Maiden Special Weight 

Maiden special weight is the highest tier of the claiming rank and is commonly shortened to MSW or “maiden special”. The horses entered in these races are not eligible to be claimed out of the race. Horses that do well in this category are expected to perform well in their racing career.

Once a horse has won its first race, it has “broken its maiden” and moves up to the next class.

Claiming Races 

Claiming races are sale races, meaning that every horse entered in a claiming race is for sale for the amount of the race. For instance, a $25,000 claiming race means that every horse is for sale for $25,000.

Many consider the claiming ranks to be the bread and butter of the horse racing industry since most horses will spend their careers in this category. Horses that are improving will move up in class, while horses that are not improving or are going backwards will usually drop in class to keep them competitive

Claiming races are run from $5,000 at smaller tracks to $100,000 at larger tracks.

Allowance and Non-Selling Races 

Horses that show more promise than the average claiming horse are typically put in this category. Horses that run in these races are not up for claim, so connections can run their horses without fear of them being purchased by other people. There are three categories:

Starter Allowance

These races are for upper claiming-level horses but the horses in this particular category of race are not eligible to be claimed. In order to enter these races, a horse must have run in a claiming race for a certain amount of money and within a specific time period.

Optional Claiming

Also shortened as “OC” at times, these races are a combination of both a selling race and a non-selling race. A horse’s connections can choose to put the horse up for claim in order to receive a weight allowance (to carry less weight than other competitors) of around two pounds but it is not necessarily required like it is in a true claiming race.


These races are for horses who have won a maiden special weight who seem to be too talented for the claiming ranks or for actively racing horses in the claiming rank who is ready to move up. These races are usually restricted to horses who have less than a certain number of races.

Horses that show promise in this division are moved up to stakes company.

Stakes Races 

Horses running in stakes races are elite-level horses. They will face their equal peers or may face horses shipping in from other racetracks in the purse is lucrative enough. Within the stakes category, there are two categories: ungraded stakes and graded stakes.

Overnight Stakes:

These races are the lowest tier of the stakes category and are essentially allowance races with a higher purse. These races are written three days in advance and can sometimes be used to attract a fan favorite horse to run at a particular track. Unlike other stakes races, there is no nomination fee.

Restricted Stakes: 

These are stakes races written for horses bred in a specific state, age, or gender. Only horses who meet the specific requirements are eligible to run in these races. For example, a horse born in Kentucky is not eligible for a stakes race written for horses born in New York. Many state bred programs offer lucrative purses to state-bred horses, which is an attractive option for buyers and breeders of horses that race in-house. Furthermore, only three year olds can run in three year old races and males are not allowed to enter female-only races.

Non-Graded Stakes:

This level is a step below the graded tier and are used as a stepping stone to graded level races. These races typically carry modest purses and will likely not attract horses stabled at other racetracks.

Graded Stakes:

Graded stakes come in three tiers: Grade 3, Grade 2, and Grade 1. Grade 3 is the lowest, while Grade 1 is the highest. Few horses make it to this elite level and even fewer become winners. These races have the highest purses and you will often see the best in the world competing against one another over their preferred surface and distance.