Horse Racing Partnerships 101 – The Graded Stake Landscape


Editors note: Winning a graded stakes race is the pinnacle for anyone in horse racing partnerships! Above is Little Red Feather Racing’s Midnight Storm capturing the 2016 Eddie Read at Del Mar. A grade 1 for many years, the race was “dropped” to a grade 2 in 2016. Senior LRF blogger Joe Longo explains the graded stake landscape below. We hope you have enjoyed Joe’s blogs this summer. Enjoy!

In 2015 there were 38,941 races run and all indications point to the same figures for 2016. Despite a declining foal crop and races run each year, the number of stakes and their purses continue to trend upward. Of the total races run, a very small percentage are stakes races with roughly 65% consisting of claiming races that make up the majority of race cards. For those not in the know, there are a bevy of stakes races offered each year that run the gamut from a listed stakes to graded stakes. In order for a race to receive a “grade”, several criteria must be met. First and foremost, there is a purse level requirement. A Grade 3 race must have at least $100,000, a Grade 2 $200,000, and a Grade 1 $300,000. The race must also be consistently run over the same conditions for two years with respect to age and gender, but the actual distance can be tweaked slightly (think going from 1 and 1/8th to 1 and 1/16th). Lastly the only restrictions permitted relate to age and gender, which is one reason why you will never see a state bred graded stakes race.

The level of the grade of the race depends on the quality of the field over the years. In keeping with the purse levels above, not all Grade 1 races have a purse of $300,000 and not all $300,000 races are Grade 1. As noted in our previous blogs, the more money you offer the better talent that will show up. If (when) the better horses show up year after year the race will be reviewed and eventually given a grade. Races that do not receive a grade at considered “listed” stakes and must have a purse of at least $50,000.

Now for some numbers. Total purses in 2015 were just under $1.1 billion with an average of $28,086 per race. That is looking at the entire industry. In 2015 there were 492 graded races run that represented just 1.3% of the total races for the year. These 492 races had total purses of $167,900,000 and accounting for over 15% of the total purses distributed. Average purse per race was a whopping $341,000! NYRA was the leader in terms of the number of graded races and purses given out to the tune of 106 and $42,900,000. Keep in mind some of these figures over the years can be skewed based upon where the Breeders Cup is help. Keeneland held the event in 2015, so total graded purses were just over $34 million. When you back those out, the figure comes to about $9.6 million. Santa Anita was the clear cut second coming in at $16.6 million, with Churchill coming in at third with just over $10 million.

In terms of graded races, 23% or 115 of the total 492 are for ages three and up which makes complete sense since it casts a “wide” net over the racing population. Thoroughbred racing in the US is very “three year old-centric” and the number of graded stakes supports that. Three year old restricted races for both sexes represent 29% of the total graded races and 32% of the total purses available. 3 year old age restricted races average $358,000 per race but when you further separate the two sexes it pays to be a colt with the average being $440,000 compared to $277,000 which is no doubt attributed to the value placed on the breeding industry with stallions.

It was recently announced that the American Graded Stakes Committee will be examining the number of graded races and determining which ones should be eliminated. While I am normally not in favor of any contraction in the industry, this is one move that I applaud.  The simple fact is that we don’t have the horses to fill these races and with so much casino subsidy money floating around, we should not be rewarding mediocracy. Horses can simply avoid one another for other lucrative spots. The product is watered down and undermines the accomplishments of the champions of years gone by. Sometimes, you just can’t have your “stake” and eat it too!