Stakes races offer the highest level of competition, but not all stakes races are equal.
Stakes races date at least to the era when horse racing truly was the “Sport of Kings.” The name derives from the fact that the prize offered is made up at least in part from money put up by the owners of the horses entered.
In the modern age, that usually means paying nomination fees to make a horse eligible for a given event. The cost can be modest, but the highest level stakes races require owners to make a substantial payment up front for the privilege of running for a big purse. The Pegasus World Cup, for example, the richest horse race in the world with a purse of $13 million, requires owners to pay $500,000 to start a horse in the race.
There are different types of stakes races. The highest level of stakes races in the U.S. are graded stakes, which refers to the fact that the American Graded Stakes Committee made up of racing experts ranks them based on the level of competition they attract, purses and other considerations. The toughest races, such as the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup Classic, are Grade 1 races. Grade 2 races attract slightly softer fields, while Grade 3 races are slightly softer than Grade 2s.
Beneath that come “listed” stakes, which may be prestigious races at lower quality tracks or races that don’t quite lure the top thoroughbred talent. These races must have a purse of at least $75,000.
You may also see or hear references to a horse earning “black type,” which refers to any stakes race. The term derives from the tradition of printing the names of stakes races in bold type in sales catalogues.