It won’t take long searching around any of the bigger bookmakers in the industry to see that horse racing has a massive coverage, especially in the UK. The sport has dozens of races every day and most bookmakers cover pretty much all of these races. The concept of each race is very simple; to win, you need your selection to cross the line first. This makes it an easy sport to bet on initial.
But, there’s actually quite a lot going on with horse racing and one thing that many people fail to understand is which horses are allowed to race in each race. You see, you can’t just have any horse apply for any race, they are rated using a number of attributes and then they can only apply to certain races which allow them.
With each race will come a grade and a classification. This is essentially what shows people what types of horses are able to enter each race. Both National Hunt (jump) and flat racing have their own grading and classification system in place. We will work through both the different types in this article but bear in mind that they do differ between the disciplines. As a blanket statement, the main thing to understand from this is that the lower the number, the higher the quality of race. So, a Group 1 race is going be of a higher standard than a Group 3 race.
Before we dive into grades and classifications for horse racing, it’s important to understand that pretty much all horses will carry what’s known as an official rating. This rating is based on a number of factors that include past results and the manner of victory in that result.
Ratings are important as it allows horses to enter high grades of racing. As you will see, the higher the grade of race, the higher the rating needed for the horse to enter. This is why things like the Classics in flat racing and Grade 1 races for National Hunt races have only the elite horses involved.
The easiest way to gauge the quality of a horse is simply by going with the highest number being the best horse for that race. For handicap races, however, the higher the rating the more weight they will be carrying to try and even the field.
We will start the guide with flat racing, which is often aimed at younger horses who are faster than that of jump horses. These races usually take place in the summer months in the UK, but they can be all year round on all-weather tracks where available.
First thing to note is that there are 7 classes in total with flat racing. On top of that, you get 4 Group races that are referred to as the Classics, Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3. You’ve also a number of classifications, which are essentially entry rules for the horses. This might be things like novices, maidens, sellers handicap and so on. We explain all throughout this article.
The best place to start with this are with the Classics. These are made up of 5 Group 1 , Class 1 races that are run in the UK every year. They are the pinnacle of flat racing and command huge prize pools as a result, making them some of the richest horse races in the world. The 5 Classics are:
- 1000 Guineas (Newmarket) – Fillies Only
- 2000 Guineas (Newmarket) – Colts & Fillies
- The Oaks (Epsom) – Fillies Only
- The Derby (Epsom) – Colts & Fillies
- St Leger (Doncaster) – Colts & Fillies
These races all have restrictions as to who can enter. As you can see, some are open to only to Fillies (female horses) and some are open to both Colts (male horses) and Fillies. All of these races are strictly limited to horses that are 3-year-old. Any older or younger and they can’t enter.
It’s generally considered that a winner of any of these races will go down in history, given hard it is to qualify for the race prior to it starts (winnings one of the qualification races) and then the calibre of horses in the field, which are the best from all over the world.
The group system has been in place since 1971 and it was designed in order to offer a simple look at the grading for each flat race. Whilst there are three traditional groups, there’s actually also a fourth, which comes under “Listed and conditions”, although not classed as Group 4.
As you would expect, the quality of race works its way down, with Group 1 being the highest and then Listed races being the lowest. With each group it will allow a certain horse depending on their rating, something that all horses will have based on past performances in rated races.
Group 1 is the highest of the groups and this allows horse in that have a rating of 115 or higher. The Classics are in Group 1 to give you an idea of the calibre of racing, but it also includes races, such as the July Cup at Newmarket, Gold Cup at Ascot, Sussex Stakes at Goodwood and the Sprint Cup at Haydock, to name just a few.
Group 2 sees only a small drop in rating for the horses as the need to be that of 110 or higher. These are still regarded as high-quality flat races and with it have races such as July Stakes at Newmarket, York Stakes at York, Doncaster Cup at Doncaster and the Rockfel Stakes at Newmarket.
You take another step down in quality with Group 3 races and you see the rating drop down to 105 or higher. There are a higher number of Group 3 races than any of the other Groups, with some highlights including the Musidora Stakes at York and the Princess Royal Stakes at Newmarket.
Listed & Conditions Races
The final category for grouped races is that of the Listed and Conditions races. To be honest, they could have just called this Group 4 as it’s of a lower standard than Group 3, but can include horses that aren’t yet rated and often younger in age.
The Class system was added back in 2010 and was devised in order to create a more stringent set of rules for each race. Classes range from 1 to 7, with 1 being the higher rated races and 7 being the lowest.
Class 1 is the most important and with this they include Group 1, Group 2, Group 3 and Listed races. As you work down the classes it will then often reflect the rating included for this class of racing. Here is an overview of how this might look:
- Class 2 – Heritage Handicaps, Handicaps of rating 86-100, 91-105 & 96-110
- Class 3 – Handicaps of 76-90 & 81-95
- Class 4 – Handicaps of rating 66-80 & 71-85
- Class 5 – Handicaps of rating 56-70 & 61-75
- Class 6 – Handicaps of rating 46-60 & 51-65
- Class 7 – Handicaps of rating 45-50
With each class there is set prize money as well. Obviously, the higher the class, the more money that’s on offer. But, with flat racing prize money is distributed differently from races with 2yo horses and then races with 3yo+ horses, with the latter getting the higher purses for each race.
Whilst these are the main classifications for flat racing, there are actually quite a few others that will either allow or remove certain horses from that race.
- Condition Stakes – Instead of the horse being rated on their official rating, with these races they are rated on the age and sex of the horse. So, colts and geldings will carry more weight than fillies and mares, and older horses will carry more weight than younger horses.
- Classified Stakes – These races are set up for less experience horses that have either run at least three times or have run twice and have at least one win to their name. Horse above the rating for the race can enter, but they must carry the difference in weight to the highest rated horse for that race.
- Maiden – Maiden races are often within the first couple of races for most horses. Often made up of 2yo or horses that have only ridden competitively a few times. Once they have raced in these races a handicap and rating will be given.
- Auction Maiden – Races for horses sold at public auction.
- Median Auction Maiden – Open to 2yo horses who have a sire that has that have produced two or more yearlings within the year.
- Nursery – A handicap race for 2yo horses to allow them to get their first taste to competitive racing.
- Maiden Handicap – This race is for 3yo+ maidens that have run 3 or more races and a rating of 70 or more.
- Novice – This race can be entered by either 2yo or 3yo horses providing they have not won more than twice.
- Sellers – These are where the winner of the race will be put up for auction. Often for horses that the owners want to move on but offer the buyer an investment of a winning horse.
- Claimers – This race is similar to the sellers, but the horses run with a maximum weight limit. Horses can run with lower than maximum limit, but they will be sold for less money at auction.
- Apprentice – These races are for apprentice jockeys only.
- Amateur – Races for amateur jockeys only.
National Hunt (Jump) Racing
National Hunt is run all year round in the UK, although it’s busiest throughout the winter months, before quieting down throughout the summer months to allow flat racing to come to the front. Jump racing is a lot easier to understand in terms of the number of classifications that are on offer. It works, in principle, the same as flat racing, but the lower number of classes means that as a novice to horse racing, it’s likely going to be easier to follow.
It’s worth noting that official ratings work in very much the same way as the flat racing in that horses are rated based on previous results and performances. The official ratings in terms of numbers are usually higher than the flat though, with good horses coming in over 100 mark and exceptional horses being nearer the 140 mark.
Grades are the highest rated jump races of the season and just like the flat racing there are 3 Grades, with 1 Listed “grade” as well. The quality of the fields get higher with the lower numbers, so for example, Grade 1 is considered the higher and then working down from there.
Grade 1 races are often seen as the pinnacle of National Hunt racing and with it rated on an age to weight basis. So, older horses will carry more weight than younger and female will carry more than male. The biggest Grade 1 races of the season include the King George VI Chase at Kempton, Cheltenham Gold Cup at Cheltenham, RSA Chase at Cheltenham and the Betfair Chase at Haydock, to name just a handful.
Grade 2 races are the next level down from the Grade 1 races. Again, these are based on age to weight, but the twist is that if the horse has won previously, then they will carry more weight as a result. There are over 70 Grade 2 races in the UK each season, with some of the more notable including Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr, Denman Chase at Newbury, Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock and Ascot hurdle at Ascot.
Grade 3 races are pretty much all open handicap races, which means that pretty much any horses are able to enter these races. The handicaps are solely based on their official rating. So, the race will be taken from the lowest rated horse and then weight handicaps applied accordingly to the rest of the horses. Grade 3 races include the Grand National at Aintree, Scottish Grand National at Ayr and the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow.
Listed races are a bit of a “best of the rest”. The standard is lower than that of Grade 3 races, but better than any of the lower class races that we talk about next.
Like flat racing, each race is divided into Classes and from this determines the quality and in turn, the prize money for that race. There are 6 Classes in total ranging from 1 to 6, with 1 being the highest and then 6 being the lowest.
Also like flat racing, Class 1 is made up of the Grade races mentioned above. So, this will include Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3 and Listed races. These include the biggest purses in National Hunt racing, so are seen as the most prestigious. As you work your way down through the classes the ratings for each class will lower, with the following categories:
- Class 2– Open Handicaps & Handicaps of 0-140+
- Class 3– Handicaps of 0-120 & 0-135
- Class 4– Handicaps of 0-100 & 0-115
- Class 5– Handicaps of 0-85 & 0-95
- Class 6– National Hunt Flat Races (Bumpers)
Other Types of National Hunt Races
As stated, there are a number of other types of National Hunt races that you need to be aware of. The list is less confusing and cluttered than that of flat racing, but each has a different makeup for how the race is either run or the horses that are able to enter the race.
The first one to note is steeplechases which are races that include fences made up of hedges, bushes and open ditches. These races are designed to be the ultimate test for a horse and instead of just jumping over standard hurdles, they come in all shapes and sizes. The Grand National is the best example of what sort of conditions are included with a steeplechase.
Next up is that of the hurdles. These are much more forgiving and often smaller than that of the obstacles in a steeplechase. A hurdle will allow for a fair amount of flex as well and if a horse were to clip it, the hurdle will drop, rather than making the horse drop. These sorts for races tend to include slower of younger horses as a result.
Finally, we have bumpers, which are also referred to as National Hunt flat racing. These are pretty self-explanatory in that they aren’t run over any fences and instead are flat races. The difference is that these races are often much longer than true “flat” races, which makes them quite a bit tougher and as a result, are more suited to National Hunt type horses.