Thoroughbred Racing 101 — things I had to learn

When my husband and I decided to become horse owners, I was amazed at the lack of knowledge I had. My husband has followed racing for years and so has been more knowledgeable about the racing game.

When I was growing up, I remember my dad taking us to Arlington Park in Chicago only about twice a year. It was a family outing for fun not business.

People new to horse racing like I was usually recognize the biggest races like the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders Cup. These are the highest levels of racing in North America.

Before any horse can get to that level, he has to start at a lower level of competition. An understanding of the class system for North America might help to understand whether the “big boys” come from.

Maiden Races

Before a horse actually wins a race, he is considered a maiden. When the horse wins the first race, it is called breaking his maiden and can be done in a maiden race. As with anything, there are exceptions and a horse can break his maiden in any type of race. Usually only a few exceptional horses get the first win in an allowance or stake race.

Maiden races have several levels of class with the top races being called Maiden Special Weight races. There are also maiden claiming races for the horses who failed in maiden special weight or who were not thought to be good enough to start that high. Maiden claiming races are just like claiming races with the exception that none of the horses are winners yet.

Claiming Races

Over 70% of horses racing are in claiming races. Every horse has a price tag and the horse can be bought or claimed out of a race at that set price. The individual wanting to claim the horse puts in the request prior to the race. At the conclusion of the race, they are the new owners regardless of the outcome. Hopefully the claimed horse is not injured or dead after the race.

Claiming races have a variety of classes based on the price of the horses. The highest level is the optional claimer, usually for a high price, where horses are entered to be claimed or not at the owner’s option. Regular claiming races can go from $1,000 to over $100,000. The high-end claiming races are at major tracks like Belmont, Santa Anita or Churchill Downs.


Allowance Races

The next level from claiming races is called allowance races. The horses are not for sale and the purses are generally higher.


Stakes Races

Stake races are races for the top horses. These have the highest purses and carry the most prestige. Local stake races are where the best local horses run, while graded stakes will have top horses from any location.

The top level for stake races are the graded stakes. There are three grades of graded stake races with the grades controlled by the Graded Stakes Committee which guarantees that a Grade 1, 2, or 3 race is the same class level regardless of where the race is run. Grade 1 races are the highest and include races such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup races. These races are for the cream of the crop.

Now that I have established a basis for understanding races, it’s time to move on to the condition book. Prior to owning a horse, I must confess I did not know what a condition book was.

Condition Book

The condition book is a book of upcoming races that is released by the racing secretary at each race track.

The book contains a list of races that owners or trainers use to pick races for their horses. The book is the basis for selecting the best race for each horse. Not understanding the book can lead to the possibility of entering a horse in a race that might not be the best fit for the horse.

The major components of the condition book are (1) the sex of the horse; (2) the age of the horse; (3) the type of race, i.e. maiden, claiming, allowance or stake; (4) the distance of the race; and (5) the surface that the horses will run on.

Male horses are never allowed to run in a race restricted to fillies and mares. Female horses may run against male horses under certain circumstances.

It is essential to find a race that best fits the horse’s age group. Races are categorized in a few different age groups: 2-year olds, 3-year olds, 3-year olds and upward, and 4-year olds and upward. It is important to note that a 3-year old is better suited for a 3-year old race since horses continue to mature and get better with age. Therefore, races for 3-year olds and up would normally be tougher.

The type of race is the next important component. If the horse is a maiden, he generally belongs in a maiden race. Claiming races are the majority of races, but it’s important to note the price tag being placed on the horse. If a horse was claimed for $5,000, it would seem unwise to place them in a lower priced race unless it was hope the horse would get claimed. Generally, horses are placed near their last claiming price. It really takes the expertise of an experience trainer to determine the claiming price in which to enter a horse. If a horse has consistently been unsuccessful, it may be necessary to lower your expectations and thus lower the class of the next race.

Now it is necessary to consider the distance of the race. Many young horses start their careers running in races from 5 furlongs to 6 1/2 furlongs. However, a horse with a proven pedigree of distance horses in his family might start at lengths of a mile to 1 1/16th miles. In general however, the majority of horses make their debuts in races under 1 mile.

Finally the surface must be considered. The majority of races are on dirt tracks or synthetic tracks. Some horses that start on the turf (grass) have a proven pedigree of turf horses in their family or might have certain conformations, such as the shape of their hooves that lead an experience trainer to want to start a horse on the grass.

Luckily, it is the responsibility of the trainer to make the necessary determination when choosing the best race of each horse. It is however helpful to the owners to understand the reasoning that the trainer has utilized in entering a horse in a particular race. So as an owner, it is important to learn at least the basics of the condition book.

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