Horse Racing Grades & Classes Explained

Naturally, racing wouldn’t be fair if the slowest horses in the country had to race the fast horses in the country. We all want racing to remain as competitive as possible and as such, horses are all graded. Horses can naturally improve or in some cases regress and so they move up and down to different grades quite frequently.

The way horses are graded is by the handicap ratings system. The Chief Handicapper at the British Horse Racing Authority is responsible for assessing the ability of all horses and giving them a rating. The better they do, the higher the rating they receive.

In handicap races the idea is that, in theory at least, all horses will have an equal chance of winning. Of course this is never the case as some will be out of form, some will not like the track, some are drawn wide and so on. They are weighted accorded to their handicap ratings though, so if the best horse in the race is due to carry 10 stone and is rated 86, then a horse rated 84 would carry 9st12lbs and so forth.

Grades and ‘classes’ of races can be quite confusing for some and perhaps at times it’s just expected that the racing public will understand the various classifications. These classifications differ slightly by code, but we’ll start with racing on the level.

Flat Racing

Flat racing splits its grades into three main bands. From the bottom; Class 2-7, Class 1 and Classic races. Just to confuse us all, the Classics are in fact Class 1 races as well as this is the highest overall band. A fair breakdown of the classes would be:

Class 1

These are also known as ‘Pattern Races’ and consist individually of:

  • Group 1 – races of major international importance and included in these are the five British Classics; the 1000 Guineas, the 2000 Guineas, the Oaks, the Derby and the St. Leger.
  • Group 2 – major international races of a slightly lower grade than Group 1.
  • Group 3 – important domestic races.
  • Listed Race – high quality races, important for horses to win at this level or above to increase their stud value.

Classes 2-7

Mainly, but not exclusively, run as handicap races, ergo where the horse with the highest rating carries the most weight and so on and are categorised like this:

  • Class 2 – races for those with handicap ratings of 86-100, 91-105 and 96-110. Some of these, such as the Ebor, the Stewards Cup or the Northumberland Plate are now known as Heritage Handicaps and are held in high regard despite being a grade below Pattern races.
  • Class 3 – for those with handicap ratings of 76-90 and 81-95, depending on the race.
  • Class 4 – for those with handicap ratings of 66-80 and 71-85.
  • Class 5 – for those with handicap ratings of 56-70 and 61-75.
  • Class 6 – for those with handicap ratings of 46-60 and 51-65.
  • Class 7 – for those with handicap ratings of 46-50 only.

As you can see, the lines of class are blurred slightly as it is possible to have a Class 2 race where the highest rated horse may be 86, yet have a Class 3 race where there may be horses rated as high as 95.

Horses run mainly in handicaps right up until they are rated in the 90’s or even early 100’s, however once their handicap mark is a little higher they will have to start competing in Listed or Group 3 races. If they are above that level, they are in ‘weight-for-age’ or ‘conditions’ races.

At this level, two four-year-old male horses would carry the same weight, even if one is rated 110 and the other is rated 125. Some penalties do exist at this level though, for instance a horse which is competing in a Group 2 race but has previously won a Group 1 race will have to give weight away.

Jump Racing

Grading in jump racing is very similar; with a slight change in the terminology as Group races are known as Grade races:

Class 1

Again starting at Listed level and moving up, more class 1 races over the jumps can be handicaps. This is the case with the Grand National, for example.

  • Grade 1 – the top rated horses run in this grade. These are championship races.
  • Grade 2 – still races of major importance, slightly less so than Grade 1 races.
  • Grade 3 – unlike the flat, these important races are handicaps.
  • Listed Race – not as important as graded races, though still of high importance on the National Hunt racing scene.

Classes 2-7

Whether running over hurdles or fences, the categories are:

  • Class 2 – open handicaps and handicaps of 0-140+.
  • Class 3 – handicaps of 0-120 and 0-135.
  • Class 4 – handicaps of 0-100 and 0-115.
  • Class 5 – handicaps of 0-85 and 0-95.
  • Class 6 – National Hunt Flat races (bumpers).

To give an idea of how different our race horses are; there are many flat horses in training rated as low as around 45. Frankel, the highest rated horse of all time on the flat was rated at 140. This means that if they ran against each other and even if the lower graded horse carried a light weight of 8st, Frankel would have to carry over 15st to give him a chance, something which would never be allowed anyway!

The relative ability of racing thoroughbreds is so disparate that the handicapping and grading system is vital to the art of keeping racing competitive for the racing public.