The best horses in the country compete in stakes races. Last year there were 681 unrestricted stakes races with a purse of at least $75,000, with the largest purse, $5 million, offered in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Over 450 of these stakes races were assigned graded status by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.
A detailed explanation of the American graded stakes process can be found here, but, quickly stated, graded races have no restrictions other than age or sex. The grade assigned a race is controlled by the American Graded Stakes Committee which is charged with insuring that all races listed in each of the three graded categories are the same class level regardless of which racetrack the event takes place at.
“The Committee meets annually to evaluate and affirm the relative quality of these races, and issues its collective opinion in the form of ranked Grades: Grade I, Grade II, and Grade III, with Grade I being the highest.”
Non-graded stakes races will often have restrictions that must be met in order to compete. Such restrictions may include, but not be limited to, being bred in a particular state or having raced previously at the track presenting the race.
A novice handicapper might jump to the conclusion that a winner of graded stakes races holds some sort of edge over horses that have never won a graded stakes event, but such is not always the case. As an example, one only need to look at the $300,000 Prioress Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on July 27, 2013. Multiple graded stakes winner Kauai Katie, the 2/5 favorite, “failed to fire,” and non-graded stakes winner Lighthouse Bay, off at odds of 21/1, came home on top.
Another example is Strapping Groom, a horse which was claimed for $35,000 in May 2013. The animal “stepped up in class” to win the 34th running of the Grade I, $500,000 Forego Stakes for sprinters 3-years-old and up on August 31, 2013 at Saratoga Race Course, beating Grade I winner and 3/5 favorite Justin Phillip by 3 1/2 lengths.