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Beginner's Guide To Horse Racing


AGE: If physically and mentally ready, the career of a race horse can begin during the second half of their 2-year-old season. Because of their breeding potential, the average career of a female horse is not as long as that of a male. In most cases, females do not race beyond the age of six. It's somewhat rare, but male horses, geldings in particular, can sometimes race until they are 10, 11 or even 12 years old.
SEX: Males under the age of five are colts. Males 5 years old and up are called horses. Males who have been cut are geldings. Females under the age of five are fillies. Females 5 years old and up are referred to as mares. Females typically race against one another and must be exceptional to beat male rivals. However, 2-year-old fillies often blossom quicker and beat the boys.
SURFACES: Races are contested over three types of surfaces – Traditional dirt, turf (grass) and synthetics (man made). Some brands of synthetic tracks include: Polytrack, Tapeta, and Cushion Track.
DISTANCE: Races under 1 mile are called "sprints" and over 1 mile deemed "routes". A race under 1 mile is measured in furlongs, with each furlong measuring one-eighth of a mile (a city block). At most racetracks, sprints are run around one turn and routes are contested around two turns.
RUNNING STYLE: Horses that race on or near the early lead are commonly referred to as "speed" horses or "front-runners". Those who sit a couple of lengths off the pace are known as "stalkers". Horses that lag behind early and finish strong are called "closers" or "come-from-behinders". Pace makes the race. Pace refers to the fractional times set by the leader at each point of call. Races with few "speed" horses are most often won by horses on the front end, while races with several "speed" horses often favor the "closers" when the early pacesetters tire.


In order to keep the game competitive, and bettable, a wide variety races are written by the track's racing secretary. The job of the trainer is to place their horses where they can be the most competitive.

(Listed lowest to highest)

MAIDEN CLAIMING: All horses looking for first win; horses can be purchased by other owners. Common claiming prices range from $5,000 to $50,000.
MAIDEN SPECIAL WEIGHT: All horses looking for first win; horses cannot be purchased by other owners.
CLAIMING: Class level for horses that have won at least one race; horses can be purchased by other owners. Conditioned claiming races, for non-winners of two, three and sometimes four races lifetime, are also common. Common claiming prices range from $4,000 to $50,000.
STARTER ALLOWANCE: Horses entered have raced previously in a claiming race at a designated level, but today cannot be purchased by other owners. To be eligible to compete in most cases, horses would have had to have started for the designated claiming price once in the current year, or the year before.
ALLOWANCE: Top level of "everyday" racing, horses entered cannot be purchased by other owners. Horses are often the most accomplished or most promising horses at the track. There are traditionally four allowance levels. Once a horse runs through their allowance conditions, they will either transition to either stakes, or claiming races, depending on their level of talent. Talented young horses who have not yet run through their allowance conditions have immediate earning potential.
OPTIONAL CLAIMING or ALLOWANCE: Tougher level of race in which some horses are made eligible to be purchased by other owners and some are not. Horses who have already won at the allowance condition can still be entered for the designated claiming tag. These types of races often provide interesting battles between up and comers, and older, more accomplished horses.
STAKES: Prestigious races where the purse money is substantial and participants must pay a fee for the right to enter the race, thus making the events very competitive.
GRADED STAKES: Stakes races that a national committee ranks among the toughest in the US, based on the yearly quality of horses that have entered. Less than 500 races in the entire country most any year are designated this level. As a point of comparison, the Triple Crown races – Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont – are all Grade I's.

As a rule of thumb, horses stepping up from a lower level on this list to a higher level are said to be "jumping up in class". Theoretically, they'll have a tougher time competing as the races get more difficult. Conversely, a horse going from a higher level on this list to a lower level would be said to be "dropping in class" and often times hold an advantage over their competition in lesser races, at least on paper.