Horse Racing Grades, Groups and Classes

Horse RaceHorse racing can be a little daunting for newcomers, or even the occasional bettor, with a whole host of new terminologies, types and classifications to deal with if you want to follow the sport. In the UK racing goes back to the 15th century, or possibly even earlier, and it is this history that creates a sport steeped in tradition but also full of unfamiliar phrases, terms and classes.

Horse racing is not that difficult to understand and is often over complicated by those within the sport that like to show off their knowledge of the lingo. There are just two major types of racing, flat and jump (or National Hunt) racing, flat racing takes place over the summer and is for younger fast thoroughbreds and jump racing happens over the winter for generally older horses with high stamina. The grades, groups and classes simply represent the quality of the horses in a race. Read more below about horse racing types and classifications.

Types of Horse Race

If you are completely new to horse racing in the UK then there are two major classifications of horse racing, flat racing and jump racing, referred to as National Hunt racing.

Things are however slightly more confusing than this as there are various types of races within flat, and particularly within National Hunt racing. If you don't know the difference between a hurdle or a steeplechase or an all-weather track from turf then here is a brief guide to get your started.

Flat Races

flat horse raceFlat racing, as the name would suggest, takes place on flat terrain. In the UK this is nearly always turf or, in the case of all-weather tracks, synthetic grass. Abroad it is more common to see racing on simple mud tracks or even sand but with the climate in Britain it means racing takes place, in the main, on good old green grass.

Flat racing is generally about testing speed and stamina alongside the skill of the jockeys themselves. Races are held between 5 furlongs (there are 8 furlongs in a mile) and 2 miles, a furlong is roughly 200m.

Horses, just like people, are fastest when they are adolescents and young adults and this means many flat racing horses are under the age of 5, with most aged 3 years old. Horses can be raced from age 2 and are considered fully mature at around age 4. Most horses reach their peak at three and many are retired off at 4 years old to go out to stud (become a breeder). Some horses, especially stayers (horses that run longer races), can stay on much longer.

Most flat racing takes place in the summer months with the main season coming between the end of April and the end of October. In recent years flat racing has become more common in the winter months due to the new synthetic all weather tracks at some circuits (often oval shaped) although all the top level racing happens during the main summer season.

Flat races are all pretty much all the same, all that varies is the distance and the quality. Shorter dashes (5 or 6 furlongs) are often run along the straight of a track whereas long races will incorporate bends and often more than one lap of the course. There are longer flat races during the National Hunt season, although these races, called bumpers, are very different (see next section).

The type of weather is often a bigger factor in flat racing than jump racing with horses favouring different types of ground, some harder and some softer.

Flat racing pre-dates jump racing in the United Kingdom and goes back to at least the 1600's. Referred to as the sport of kings, flat racing is still synonymous with the upper classes and in the UK has strong connections with the royal family and nobility. Prize monies for the top races can well exceed £1,000,000 with top horses worth tens of millions, not just for their ability to win races but also for their value once they go out to stud.

National Hunt (Jump) Races

national hunt jump raceNational Hunt racing is the name for racing in the UK, Ireland and France where horses must jump hurdles, fences and ditches. The races are longer and typically run between 2 miles and 4 and a half miles. The season in the UK is opposite to the flat season with most major meetings taking place between October and early April.

National Hunt horses tend to be older than those used in flat racing with juvenile races beginning with 3-4-year old's. This is again down to physiology, like us, horses become more robust in adulthood. Younger horses used for their straight-line sprint speed in flat racing peak at age 3-4 but in jump racing stamina is just as important as speed and therefore horses tend to peak much later at around 7 years old or more.

Flat racing horses are thoroughbreds but Jump racing horses don't have to be. Top flat racing males are retired off at age 4 or 5 and are sent out to stud, this gives the owner a fee each time they breed the animal. This can be hundreds of thousands of pounds a time for the best horses, such as Frankel who commands a fee over £130,000 each time. Therefore the best flat racing thoroughbreds actually earn more money in retirement as breeders than they do when racing.

Horses used in National Hunt racing tend to have little breeding value and they are therefore raced well into adulthood.  Most horses are geldings (castrated male horses) and obviously have no breeding value. National Hunt horses have much longer race careers compared to their flat thoroughbred cousins and some can, in some circumstances race, for well over ten years. This longevity creates stronger bonds between punters and horses in National Hunt racing that is far less common in flat racing.

Top level jump racing pays a lot less in top prizes compared to the prestigious high profile flat races but the fact that horses race for so much longer means they can earn much more in prize money through a life time. There are a lot of horses that do switch from flat to jump racing as they get older, these tend to be the less successful flat racers who have little breeding value.

National Hunt racing has its origins in County Cork in Ireland in the 1700's. It was brought over to the United Kingdom in the early 1800's when flat racing was well established among the elite. National Hunt racing has always been seen therefore as a more common type of racing enjoyed by the working classes as well as the traditional following.

Whereas all flat racing is pretty much the same except for the distance in jump racing there are three major categories of race, the steeplechase, the hurdle and the bumper; you can read about these further down.

Flat Racing Classifications

flat racing silhouette In Flat racing horses are banded into seven classes numbered 1 to 7 and this system has been in place since 2010.

Within this there are a series of Group races, these are all class one races and divided into the Classics, Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3 races, all group races are conditions races.

In this section we break down these divisions for easy understanding.  In general the  lower the number (i.e. class 1) the more prestigious the race, the higher the prize money, and the more difficult it is to qualify.

Conditions Races

Flat racing is broadly divided into conditions races and handicap races. In conditions races horses must carry weights defined by the 'conditions' of the race. The weight carried is defined by several factors including sex (females carry less weight than males) and age (older horses carry more weight).

This calculation is known as the weight for age and effectively it means older more experienced horses 'give weight' to younger less experienced horses in an attempt to create a more equal field. All of the classics and group races in Europe are conditions races although conditions races are held at all classification levels.

Handicap Races

Handicap races are the most common type of flat race in Britain and Europe, they are generally less prestigious and carry less prize monies than conditions races but they also tend to have larger fields and are often preferred by punters looking to back outsiders to place.

In this type of racing horses are assigned a set handicap by the British Horse Racing Authority (BHA), this is set for all races that that horse competes in, unlike conditions races where weights will vary between events.

The idea is roughly similar; the handicapper's job is to try to make all horses equal so in theory they would all finish the race at the same time in a dead heat. The objective of the horse and trainer is to overcome the handicap given to them to gain an edge on the field. Following an assessment a horse is given an official rating  which can then be used to define what races a horse can enter and then what weight must be carried within those race classes.

Handicaps are constantly reassessed as horses either improve or deteriorate. The better a horse gets (by winning or placing in races) the more weight it must carry, if the horse's results get worse the weight is often reduced to compensate.

To give you an idea of how much weight can be applied through a handicap let's consider a mature adult horse weighs in the region of 1000 pounds or 450kg. Handicaps can run into the hundreds of pounds although this includes the weight of the jockey and equipment and all horses obviously have those. Once you factor out the jockey the amount of extra weight is in the single digits to tens of pounds range and when you consider the overall weight of the horse this isn't a huge amount of extra weight.

Official Ratings

Before we can consider the groups and classes we first need to understand how horses are rated. Most races have a ratings range for the runners and riders, this ranges from 0 to 115 or more in flat racing, only the best rated horses and jockeys can compete in top races for the highest prize money.

The official ratings are also designed to help inform punters and fans alike about the horse and jockey. It is a complicated system but for the average bettor all you need to understand is the higher the number the better that horses form and expectation – conversely the higher the rating the higher the weight handicap.

Ratings are calculated based on speed, ability on different surface conditions, age and weight, sex, wins, places and many other factors. This produces a number; the best horses will have a rating over 100. Similar systems are used in other countries such as the US and Australia.

The British Classics

The British classics represent some of the oldest and most prestigious horse races in the world. These are all class 1 group 1 races and all take place throughout the summer. There are five classic races all open to three-year old's only. Horse's qualify by winning other high grade group and class 1 trail races throughout the year.

Horses that win classic races, especially those that win multiple classics are considered true legends. There are also many classic races in other countries around the world.

ClassicEstblishedRestrictionsCourse and DistancePrize Money
1000 Guineas 1809 Fillies Only Newmarket - 1m £500,000
2000 Guineas 1814 Colts and Fillies Newmarket - 1m £500,000
The Oaks 1779 Fillies Only Epsom Downs - 1m 4f 10y £500,000
The Derby 1780 Colts and Fillies Epsom Downs - 1m 4f 10y £1,625,000
St Leger 1776 Colts and Fillies Doncaster - 1m 6f 132y £750,000

Group Races

Back in 1971 a system was introduced to classify the most important conditions races, these are known as group races. This is a Europe wide system and includes races such as the Prix de l'arc de Triomphe and the Irish Derby as well as top UK races.

The European Pattern Committee are responsible for grading top races into the three group categories and a listed category below this. The grouping is dependent on the official ratings of the horses that place in the top four in that race over a range of three years. Races do change their groupings from time to time although a race can only move up or down one group at any time.

All group races are conditions races, listed races can be both handicap and non-handicap. Every group race is also a class 1 race (see next section).

  • Group 1 – Official rating of 115+ required, this includes the classics and races of international quality. There are around 36 group one races in the UK.
  • Group 2 – Second grade of international races, slightly less important but still very prestigious, official rating of 110+ required. Currently there are 46 Group 2 races in Britain.
  • Group 3 – Mainly domestic races and some less important international races, minimum rating 105+. There are just over 70 Group 3 races.
  • Listed and Consitions – In some ways you could think of listed races and other conditions races as 'Group 4' – again mainly domestic, lower quality than group 3 but better than a typical handicap race. In the calendar there are in the region of 150 other conditions, listed and listed handicap races.

Class 1 to 7

The grouping system has remained unchanged since the 1970's and is still used for segregating the top races. Prior to the class system there was a lettering system (A-H) in place below the group and listed categories giving 11 classifications in all. In 2010 a new class system was introduced ranging from class 1 (highest) to class 7 (lowest), it is arguable whether this simplified anything and many would say it made things much worse. Still it is what it is so in this section I'll try to show you how races fit into various classes.

Each class has specified minimum prize values for the various race types within the category, apart from class 7 which has no minimum value. The number ranges in the table below show the official handicap ratings for those races. Minimum values are lower for races of two year old's compared to three-year-olds.

ClassRace TypeMinimum Purse (2yo)Minimum Purse (3yo+)
1 Classic and Group 1 £150,000 £200,000
1 Group 2 £65,000 £90,000
1 Group 3 £40,000 £60,000
1 Listed (including 96-110 listed handicaps) £25,500 £37,000
2 Heritage Handicaps £25,500 £100,000
2 0-105, 0-110 and Open Handicaps £25,500 £45,000
2 Conditions Stakes £25,500 £45,000
2 86-100, 91-105 and 96-110 Handicaps £25,500 £45,000
2 Open Nursery Handicaps £25,500 £45,000
2 0-95 Classified Stakes £25,500 £45,000
2 Maidens and Novices' £14,000 £19,000
3 Conditions Stakes £19,000 £25,000
3 76-90 and 81-95 Handicaps £19,000 £25,000
3 0-85 and 0-90 Classified Stakes £19,000 £25,000
3 0-90 and 0-95 Nursery Handicaps £19,000 £25,000
3 Maidens and Novices' £10,000 £11,500
4 Conditions Stakes £11,000 £12,500
4 66-80 and 71-85 Handicaps £11,000 £12,500
4 0-80 Classified Stakes £11,000 £12,500
4 0-80 and 0-85 Nursery Handicaps £11,000 £12,500
4 Maidens and Novices' (including Auction) £11,000 £12,500
4 Sellers and Claimers £6,100 £7,250
5 56-70 and 61-75 Handicaps £7,000 £8,000
5 0-70 and 0-75 Classified and Nursery Handicaps £7,000 £8,000
5 Maidens and Novices' (including Auction) £7,000 £8,000
5 Sellers and Claimers £4,500 £4,500
6 46-60 and 51-65 Handicaps £5,000 £5,000
6 0-60 and 0-65 Classified and Nursery Handicaps £5,000 £5,000
6 Maidens and Novices' (including Auction) £5,000 £5,000
6 Sellers and Claimers £3,500 £3,500
7 45-50 Handicaps No Minimum No Minimum

Types of Flat Race

flat horse raceIn addition to the group and listed races discussed earlier there are several other types of races, below is a brief summary for each:

  • Heritage Handicap – These are the top level handicap races where the minimum prize purse exceeds £100,000 or £25,500 for 2 year old races.
  • Handicap – Races in which the weight carried by a horse is determined by the official rating from the handicapper, the higher the number the better the horse and the more weight they will carry, horses can only take part in races within their ratings range.
  • Conditions Stakes – Weight for age races (same system as group races), the weight carried by a horse is determined by how old they are, their official rating and their sex.
  • Classified Stakes – To run in these races a horse must have raced at least three times previously, or twice with a minimum of one win, within the ratings range.
  • Nursery Handicap – Handicaps for two year olds.
  • Novices' – Two year olds and three year olds who have won twice or less previously.
  • Maiden – These are races for horses who have never won a race, this is where most racing careers start. Open to 2yo and 3yo's, as soon as a horse wins it receives a rating so it can race in a handicap, otherwise three races are required for those who fail to win.
  • Sellers – Races where the winner is put up for public auction. All horses in the race can be 'claimed' however – generally low grade.
  • Claimers – Races with a maximum weight limit, horses can be bought after the race however if they choose to run with lower than maximum weight the selling price is reduced proportionally.
  • Auction – Horses that compete in these races will have been sold at specified auctions or at any auction below a set price.
  • Apprentice – Races restricted to horses ridden by apprentice jockeys.
  • Amateur – Restricted to amateur jockeys.

National Hunt Racing Grades and Classifications

Horses Jumping IconClassification and grading systems in National Hunt racing are different to the classes for flat racing discussed above. The principle is however the same, horses are rated on ability and their ratings allow them to compete in different classes and grades of races.

The higher the grade or class the better the quality of racing and usually the higher the prestige and prize money.  In general jump racing prize money is less than that seen for flat racing, although horses can run compete for many more years compared to younger flat racing thoroughbreds, meaning over a career they can often earn more money.

Official Rating

Using very similar methods as those used to rate flat racing thoroughbreds National Hunt horses are also assigned a rating by the official handicapper. Once rated horses are allocated a number, horses those rated above 100 are the best although the range is slightly higher with outstanding horses rated 140+.

Horses can race in handicap races where the weight carried is dictated by their official rating or in weight for age conditions races where both the official rating and age and sex are considered. Most of the top grade races are conditions races.

Grades 1 to 3

Similar to flat racing group's the grade races in the National Hunt season represent the highest quality races, with grade 1 races being the most prestigious and commanding the highest prize funds. Below the grades there are listed races followed by other handicaps that fall into one of 6 classes.

Grades were first established in 1964 and have been modified a few times since. The structure is roughly the same as with flat racing with a Pattern committee responsible for allocating races into grades.

  • Grade 1 – There are 40 grade one races in the UK, these include well known event such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup and King George VI Chase. Minimum prize money for grade 1 steeplechases start at £100,000. These are weight for age races conditions races where conditions are determined on a race basis, similar to group races in the flat season, females also carry less weight. Previous wins are not taken into account.
  • Grade 2 – Very similar to grade 1 with slightly lower quality, most races are weight for age conditions races although in grade 2 races previous wins are taken into account by adding extra weight. There are in the region of 70 grade 2 races.
  • Grade 3 – These races are pretty much all open handicaps, therefore weight additions are dictated solely by the official rating. You can watch just under 40 grade 3 races in Britain each year.
  • Listed – Listed race are less prestigious than grade races but more so than the run of the mill handicap.

Classes 1 to 6

National Hunt races are divided into six different classes, as with flat racing this system has been in place since 2010. You will notice from the table below that prize monies are much lower compared to flat racing at all classes.

ClassRace TypeMinimum Purse Steeple ChasesMinimum Purse HurdlesMinimum Purse Flat Races
1 Grade 1 £100,000 £75,000 £25,000
1 Grade 2 £50,000 £40,000 £20,000
1 Grade 3 £40,000 £35,000 £20,000
1 Listed £27,500 £22,000 £20,000
2 Open Handicaps £22,500 £18,500 £20,000
2 Conditions Races £22,500 £18,500 £20,000
2 0-145+ Handicaps £22,500 £18,500 £20,000
2 Open Novices' Handicaps £22,500 £18,500 £20,000
2 Juvenile, Novices' & Beginners' £22,500 £18,500 £20,000
2 National Hunt Flat Races £22,500 £18,500 £20,000
2 Hunters' Steeple Chases £18,500 £15,000 £14,000
3 Open Novices' Handicaps £25,000 £20,000 £14,000
3 0-125 and 0-140 Handicaps £25,000 £20,000 £14,000
3 Juvenile, Novices', Beginners' & Maidens £25,000 £20,000 £14,000
3 National Hunt Flat Races £25,000 £20,000 £14,000
3 Hunters' Steeple Chases £10,000 £8,300 £8,300
4 0-105 and 0-120 Handicaps £11,500 £10,000 £8,300
4 Juvenile, Novices', Beginners' & Maidens £11,500 £10,000 £8,300
4 Sellers and Claimers £11,500 £10,000 £8,300
4 National Hunt Flat Races £11,500 £10,000 £8,300
4 Hunters' Steeple Chases £5,800 £5,000 £5,000
5 0-100 Handicaps £7,000 £6,000 £5,000
5 Maidens £7,000 £6,000 £5,000
5 Sellers and Claimers £7,000 £6,000 £5,000
5 National Hunt Flat Races £7,000 £6,000 £5,000
5 Hunters' Steeple Chases £3,800 £3,500 £3,500
6 National Hunt Flat Races £3,800 £3,500 £3,500
6 Hunters' Steeple Chases £1,500 £3,500 £2,400

Types of National Hunt Races

There are three major classifications of National Hunt race, the hurdle the steeplechase and the bumper (National Hunt flat race):

Steeplechases

painting of horses jumping a fenceThe steeplechase is the oldest form of jump racing, the name comes early Irish racing where horses would race from the church steeple in one town to the next. Horses would race over natural obstacles such as hedges, farm fences, ditches and canals.

In the modern day steeplechases are obviously held within racecourses but the obstacles remain true to its origins. Jumps are made up of robust hedges, bushes, fences and open ditches, these are particularly unforgiving and if a horse hits a fence they are likely to fall or unseat the jockey. Horse that race in steeplechases must therefore clearly jump the obstacle to avoid falling.

There are set minimum height limits in place for the various types of obstacle. A plain fence must be at least 4 foot 6 inches (1.37m), water jumps must be at least 3 feet (0.91m) high and the horses must land in water at least 3 inches deep (7.6cm) and open ditches must have the same height as a plain fence with a ditch on the take off side meaning horse must jump longer.

Steeplechases test the power and stamina of horses to their maximum, falls can be particularly devastating and this form of jump racing sees more injuries than any other. Horses that race in top steeplechases tend to be older having already been tested in hurdle racing previously. The most famous steeplechase in the world is the grand national which takes place over just under 4 and a half miles and 30 fences.

Hurdles

Hurdles are deigned to flexible, at least at the top, so that if a horse hits the hurdle it will bend a little making the horse and jockey less prone to falling. Hurdles therefore don't require horses to jump quite as high and races tend to be faster than steeplechases, horses also tend to be younger. Juvenile 3 or 4 year old nags will start their jump racing careers in hurdle races. For this reason many hurdles are named novice or juvenile races.

The minimum height of a hurdle is 3 feet 6 inches (1.07m).

Bumpers - National Hunt Flat Races

These are flat races held during National Hunt meetings. They are longer than the flat races of the summer season and typically take place at the end of the race card. These races are used by novice horses to become more familiar with racing before taking on the challenges of jump racing proper.

Although these races tend to be low grade with poor prize monies it is a great way to spot a future star early and pick up a good outsider bet.

The name comes from the fact that the jockeys along with the horses are inexperienced and so tend to bump up and down a lot when riding as opposed to their smoother more experienced peers.