One of the most appealing components of horse race betting is its ubiquity.  Races are run year round and there are few if any days on which a bettor can’t find action taking place in North America.  This doesn’t even consider racing worldwide—particularly in Asia, Europe and Australia.  International racing is becoming more widely available to North American based bettors and further expands the daily menu of wagering options.

Within this year round abundance of equine action there are some races that stand out as more significant.  These are known as stakes races and this is where you’ll find the biggest purses and best competition.  A stakes race is one in which horse owners pay entries fees that subsidize all or part of the prize money for the race.  A prize purse for a local stakes event might offer a few thousand dollars.  The highest level stakes races like the Dubai World Cup or Pegasus World Cup offer purses in the millions of dollars.

Within the stakes race there are several levels of qualitative distinction.  Some lower profile stakes races are referred to as ‘Restricted Stakes’ events and will have some sort of prerequisite for entry, often that a horse must have been bred in that particular state.

The biggest and most important horse races are known as ‘Graded Stakes’ races.  A Graded Stakes race cannot have restrictions but they can have conditions as to the age or gender of the horses.  An example of this—the Kentucky Derby is limited to three year old horses, while only 3 year old fillies can run in the Kentucky Oaks.  These races will attract entries from all over the country and in some instances all over the world.

As the name suggests, there’s a grading level attached to these races which is assigned by the American Graded Stakes Committee based on the quality of competition involved.  Grading is reviewed every year considering the performance of the horses coming out of these races and adjusted as necessary.  The grades are 1,2 or 3 with Grade 1 races being the highest qualitative level.  In 2018, 455 Graded Stakes races will be held in the United States with 106 (23.3%) of these being Grade 1 events.  Canada has their own equivalent of the Graded Stakes Committee as do most countries with a significant horse racing presence.


The first Grade 1 race of the year is also the richest single race in the world—that’s the Pegasus World Cup Invitational held at Florida’s Gulfstream Park in late January.  The 2018 Pegasus World Cup offered a total purse of $16.3 million.  The Gulfstream Park Turf was February’s only Grade 1 event this year.  From this point onward, the frequency of Grade 1 events increases as Kentucky Derby qualification season begins.  The biggest Kentucky Derby prep races are Grade 1 events including the Florida Derby in March and the Santa Anita and Arkansas Derbies in April.

May begins Triple Crown season and the Grade 1 races start early in the month with the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.  The La Troienne (on the Kentucky Oaks undercard)  along with the Humana Distaff and Woodford Reserve Turf (on the Kentucky Derby undercard) are also Grade 1 events. The Preakness Stakes is a Grade 1 event, and the Belmont Stakes card features six Grade 1 races—the Belmont Stakes, the Just A Game Stakes, the Manhattan Stakes, the Acorn Stakes, the Ogden Phipps Stakes and the Metropolitan Handicap.

The Summer  continues with Grade 1 races across the country highlighted by the Bing Crosby Stakes and Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar in July, the Whitney and Travers at Saratoga in August along with the Arlington Million at Chicago’s Arlington Park.  September brings the Del Mar Futurity out West and the Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia’s Parx Racing.  The year culminates with the two day Breeders’ Cup event which in 2018 will feature 13 Grade 1 stakes events.