Equibase Breeders' Cup Handicapping Tournament
Introduction to Class
Level: Beginner

Class and form are inseparable. Class is the demonstrated quality of a horse, as proved on track, and form is its racing condition. A high class horse, such as a graded stakes winner, is capable of winning when it is at less than peak fitness or by overcoming difficulties such as an unfavorable pace scenario (Zenyatta was the ultimate high class racehorse). A low class horse, such as those populating the claiming ranks, is incapable of winning except in situations most favorable to its minimal talents. But class is hardly fixed — a horse often moves up and down the class ladder throughout its career, or as its form changes over the course of a campaign.

When it comes to assessing class, handicappers have to answer the question, “Is the horse racing at the right level?” Determining that can be done by looking at the past performances, which will usually reveal the level at which a horse is often competitive or the level at which it may consistently fail, as well as whether a horse is in form and ready to run to its best. A horse that won or finished well in its last race returning at the same level is usually competitive.

It took A. U. Miner three tries at the maiden special level to get his first win, and then he started 11 times in first-level allowances, never running better than second. Dropped into an optional claiming race for $16,000, he earned his second win in 15 starts. In the race below, an allowance for non-winners of two races at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2010, he is rising to a level at which his long toil in the first-level allowance ranks suggests he won’t be quickly successful:

A. U. Miner finished sixth at 16-1.

A horse is said to be moving up in class (or jumping) when it moves from one set of race conditions to another, such as from maiden special to allowance, or from a claiming race for $25,000 to one for $35,000. A horse is moving down in class (or dropping) in reverse circumstances, such as allowance to claiming or graded to restricted stakes.

Class analysis can include speed or pace, both of which will be addressed in separate posts on Hello Race Fans. For now, we’ll focus on finding contenders within the various conditions, which are more defined in our Overview of Conditions article.

Maiden Claiming
Every horse has to start somewhere. Maiden claimers are often animals that haven’t shown much in morning works or of which much is not expected, whether because of pedigree or other factors. These are the winless horses, the slowest horses in training, and maiden claiming is the lowest level of racing at every racetrack.

Horses in maiden claimers can be first-time starters or horses making their second, third, or eighth career start. They may be returning at the same level (racing at the same price on the same circuit), starting at a claiming price higher or lower than they did previously, or dropping from a maiden special (covered in the next section). The class drop from maiden special to maiden claiming is one of the biggest in racing.

Giarixa began his career in two maiden special events at Keeneland, a track that showcases better Thoroughbreds. He lost both starts, his second by a poor 18 3/4 lengths. Given a respite, Giarixa returned at Tampa, a lower level track, in a maiden claiming race at the higher end. For the first time in his career, he showed speed from the start and finished second. Brought to Gulfstream, he was entered in another maiden claiming race in which he finished third. On January 30, he was entered in a maiden claiming at the same level:

He finished ninth. He wouldn’t win until his next start, on March 16, again at Tampa Bay Downs, where he was entered in a maiden claiming race for $32,000. This was the class break Giarixa needed. His winning margin was 3 3/4 lengths as the even-money favorite.

Any experienced maiden that has not lost at the level in which it is starting must be considered a contender, unless it’s already proved itself a loser at the level by not finishing in the money or showing any speed (for instance, by pressing the pace in its previous start). You must be heartless when assessing horses that have had multiple chances in maiden claimers — if a horse has not been competitive in its prior starts, it’s unlikely that it will be in the latest, barring a significant drop in class. A horse making its second or third start that has been competitive still has potential for improvement at the same level.

One of the most tempting horses to play is the maiden claimer that has finished second in two or more starts. Bettors always think this horse is due. It’s not. It’s a sucker horse, perennially overbet. It may win one day, when it meets horses that want to win less than it does, but whatever its price, it won’t be worth the wager.

Maiden Special Weight
Maiden special weights attract starters that may develop into high-class allowance or stakes winners. These are the races in which you’ll find well-bred babies and sale-toppers from good barns.

Horses with speed or ability will usually win a maiden special within three starts. Horses that can’t are usually easy to toss when handicapping. Unless they’ve had the misfortune to come up against exceptionally tough fields in their first three races, as indicated by the number of next-out winners and in-the-money finishers, horses winless repeatedly in maiden specials have proven they could use a class break. When dropping into a maiden claimer for the first time, they always deserve consideration, although they are often underlays.

In all maiden races, more experienced maidens, and in particular, those who have finished in the money, have an edge on debuting contenders. The exceptions are horses coming from barns with strong first-out win percentages that have a record of stellar works.

Claiming
On every circuit, claiming races are the bread-and-butter of daily cards. These races are for horses who have won at least once and are being offered for a set price (the listed “claiming” price). Claiming races draw a range of horses, and claiming conditions can become quite complex. To help figure out whether a horse is moving up or down in class — and this applies as much to allowance races, discussed next — prepare a list of the conditions that are most frequently run at the tracks you follow, ranging from top to bottom. This will more easily help you identify where a race falls into the class spectrum.

Where a claiming horse best fits often depends on its form, which can be highly individual. A horse starting at the same level at which it was previously competitive is a contender. A horse that won its last start and is now racing at a higher level may be competitive provided it has recent works or has demonstrated the ability previously to move up off a win. Speed and pace analysis can help you determine if the horse is ready for the higher level of competition.

A horse that finished in the money or otherwise showed some spirit in its last race and is dropping in class warrants attention. Your conditions chart can point out particularly minor changes in class that could hugely beneficial to a starter. For instance, a horse might be going from an open $16,000 claimer to one that is restricted by date or number of wins.

Allowance
Allowance races are carded by number of previous races won, starting from N1X (non-winners of one race other than …) and going up. Races may also be restricted by date or earnings.

Horses that win maiden specials usually progress into allowance races. The lowest level, which draws winners of one previous race, is the easiest. Each level, as the number of wins required increases, becomes more difficult. As in maiden races, there are many horses who return at the N1X level and find it difficult to move up. A young, lightly raced horse with superior speed figures is a standout at the N1X level when racing against contenders of the same age. Three-year-old horses are generally not competitive against older horses at any allowance level during the first half of the year, but become so in the fall as they mature. James Quinn has written extensively on this pattern in his The Handicapper’s Condition Book: Advanced Treatment of Thoroughbred Class.

Stakes
The highest class of racing, comprising restricted, listed, handicap, and graded stakes.

With rare exceptions, stakes races are won by the best horse. A Grade 1 race will be won by a Grade 1 horse. This holds especially for older contenders. A younger or more lightly raced horse that has proven itself in a Grade 3 race is logically competitive in a Grade 2 race. The same goes for a Grade 2 winner entering Grade 1 company for the first time.

In the January 30, Grade 2 Forward Gal at Gulfstream Park, Pomeroy’s Pistol was a logical contender based on both past performances and condition. The filly won her debut, a maiden special at Monmouth Park. In her next start, a listed stakes, she finished fifth after pressing the pace early. Dropped back into first-level allowance company, she rebounded with a third-place finish, again after pressing the pace early. After being freshened, Pomeroy’s Pistol finished an excellent second at 34-1 in the Grade 3 Old Hat. In this race, she was making her second start of the year, and improvement could be expected:

Of the other six starters, three — including the two graded stakes winners in the field — were making their first start of the year, and three were questionable on class or speed. Pomeroy’s Pistol pressed the pace, as is her habit, and won by 3/4 of a length, defeating favorite Dancinginherdreams, a Grade 2 winner unraced since October. Dancinginherdreams may have had the class edge, but Pomeroy’s Pistol, who had established she fit the level, had the condition edge.

Class is only one factor in handicapping, but an understanding of it is essential. Being able to spot whether a horse out-classes its rivals or is out-classed, whether it’s on the improve or falling down the ranks, will help lead you to the best bets and steer you away from the worst.

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18 Replies

In your “Introduction to Class” article, it says that the horses in a maiden special or maiden claiming who have finished in the money have an edge on winning. You also siad that horses who don’t win a maiden race within three starts are the horses that won’t be successful. But I have a scenario. What if a horse often finished in the money but haven’t won a maiden race within three starts?

Ryan Doyley said on 22 Dec 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink


Ryan, that’s a great question, because that’s a scenario that happens pretty often. I didn’t have to look far to find two examples at Aqueduct on December 26, 2012. Got a Hunch, entered in race two, a maiden claiming, has made five starts and finished in the money in three. He’s the morning line second favorite. In race eight, Keyaly makes his 35th career start. He’s coming off a streak in which he’s finished second three times. Whatever his post-time odds, he’ll be overbet on the strength of bettors believing he’s finally figured things out, or that he’s at the right level.

And he might win. Because horses who toil most of their careers in the maiden ranks sometimes catch a break and find that field full of horses who, as I write above, want to win less than they do.

So, how do you figure out whether that maiden who’s finished in the money but hasn’t won within three starts is one to bet? You look at all the other factors — are they dropping in class? Have they had a string of bad luck (and I mean, really bad luck, like terrible trips or finishing behind next-out allowance or stakes winners multiple times)? Are they making their first start as a 3-year-old, or at a new distance, or on a new surface, or for a new trainer, or in new equipment? You consider psychology and trips — how hard has a horse tried? (I find that sucker horses often fall into two types — yielders and followers. Yielders are horses who are capable of taking the lead, but will give it up if challenged. Followers are horses who are happiest running behind whoever is in front. Either can change, but I will rarely bet that they do.) You want to see a strong indication of radical change in class, surface, training, or mentality that can result in a win — a stat or angle that has a high rate of success.

Of the two horses mentioned above, Got a Hunch has a better shot of ending up in the winner’s circle, because he’s still a juvenile and relatively lightly raced. But he almost certainly will not be the value he should be, given his record and his competition, which includes horses making their second or third start off reasonably good performances. Value is key when evaluating maidens who fit the scenario you’ve asked about — the question isn’t can they win, because they’ve shown that, given the right circumstances, they probably can, but whether the price you’re getting matches up with the likelihood that they’ll win, given the scenario they’re starting in that day. With every winless race, the odds grow longer. If there’s one piece of advice I can leave you with, it’s this — never bet these horses as short-priced favorites.

Jessica said on 23 Dec 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink


I was just looking into this, Got a Hunch ran 5th at about 2-1, the winner in that race (Grand Award) payed $53!

Keyaly went off at around 7-1 and finished 2nd, 6 1/2 lengths behind the winner (who was the favorite).

Thanks for the detailed answer Jessica!

Dana Byerly said on 28 Dec 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink


Does moving from allowance optional claiming to allowance count as a class drop, or is it the same level?

Ryan Doyley said on 22 Mar 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink


It depends on the conditions — a horse going from an AOCN1X to an AN1X (and that wasn’t offered for a claiming price in the first race) is racing at the same level. If the first race was open company, and the second is for state-breds, that would be a class drop (that’s just one example; it could also go the other way, and be a move up in a class).

Jessica said on 23 Mar 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink


Does moving from an AOC race for $75k to an AOC for $14k count as a class drop?

Ryan Doyley said on 06 Apr 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink


If a horse wins a $20,000 maiden claiming race, does that mean he’ll do well in a $20,000 claiming race? Because I was looking at the DRF PPs for Saratoga and in the first race there’s a horse named “Bill of Rights” that’s 7-2 on the morning line.

Ryan Doyley said on 11 Aug 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink


Ryan, sorry I didn’t see your question earlier, and I hope that you cashed on Bill of Rights, who seems to have figured out what’s expected of him. He followed his maiden claiming win at the $20K level with a win against non-winners of two at the same price. In general, horses going from a maiden win (claiming or special) are getting a class test in their next race, for the reason that they’re facing a field full of winners. That’s a little less of a test when it’s the same claiming level, but it still requires the horse to move forward off its last — you want to see some indication it has the ability to do that. In this case, the tote board was also talking — Bill of Rights went off as the post-time favorite.

Jessica said on 11 Aug 2013 at 8:09 pm | Permalink


When you’re handicapping maiden special weight and allowance races, does the amount of purse money matter?

Ryan Doyley said on 30 Aug 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink


Insofar as a larger purse indicates a better class, yes. But with the rise of slots-supplemented purses at the lower levels, that’s become a somewhat distorted measure, especially if you’re comparing one track’s purses to another.

Jessica said on 30 Aug 2013 at 4:58 pm | Permalink


When I was reading “The Handicapper’s Condition Book: Advanced Treatment of Thoroughbred Class”, I was going over the Maiden Claiming section and James Quinn said in the book that in Maiden Claiming races I should eliminate first-time starting horses that have good breeding, good works, and a good trainer. It says that on page 26, if you have the book. Is this statement true, or is it just an opinion?

Ryan Doyley said on 13 Sep 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink


Hi Ryan,

In my opinion all statements like that are an opinion based on the author’s experience which may or may not apply to the context of the race that you are are handicapping. However, he makes some good points re: questioning why a high profile barn would run such a horse in a claiming race. My advice would be to keep his insights in mind and evaluate whether or not want to play or incorporate that type of horse based on 1) price and 2) your opinion about the rest of the horses of the field.

Dana Byerly said on 14 Sep 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink


Sometimes when I’m looking at the past performances, I see allowance optional claiming races that look like this: “Aoc 75000nw1/x-N”. When I see that, what does the “N” mean in that condition? Does it mean the horse wasn’t offered for a claiming price?

Ryan Doyley said on 30 Sep 2013 at 6:30 pm | Permalink


Hi Ryan,

Yes, In this case the condition was $75k allowance optional claimer (AOC) for non-winners of one race (nw1), probably for a specified time period, where the horse was not entered to be claimed (x-N).

Dana Byerly said on 30 Sep 2013 at 9:32 pm | Permalink


Today when I was watching the races at Gulfstream Park, in the 5th race there was a horse named “Dixie Hot Shot” who was 20-1 on the morning line. I was confused by her odds, because by looking at her past performances it shows that she won a $25,000 maiden claiming race at Calder. After that, she was entered in an allowance optional claiming race at $25,000. She wasn’t entered for a price, and she finished 7th. In today’s race (Claiming $35,000) by looking at her past performances, she is dropping in class. But why was she 20-1 on the morning line? By the way, she finished last.

Ryan Doyley said on 27 Dec 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink


Today when I was watching the races at Gulfstream Park, in the 5th race there was a horse named “Dixie Hot Shot” who was 20-1 on the morning line. I was confused by her odds, because by looking at her past performances it shows that she won a $25,000 maiden claiming race at Calder. After that, she was entered in an allowance optional claiming race at $25,000. She wasn’t entered for a price, and she finished 7th. In today’s race (Claiming $35,000) by looking at her past performances, she is dropping in class. But why was she 20-1 on the morning line? By the way, she finished last.

Ryan Doyley said on 01 Jan 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink


When I was watching the races at Gulfstream Park, in the 5th race there was a horse named “Dixie Hot Shot” who was 20-1 on the morning line. I was confused by her odds, because by looking at her past performances it shows that she won a $25,000 maiden claiming race at Calder. After that, she was entered in an allowance optional claiming race at $25,000. She wasn’t entered for a price, and she finished 7th. In today’s race (Claiming $35,000) by looking at her past performances, she is dropping in class. But why was she 20-1 on the morning line? By the way, she finished last.

Ryan Doyley said on 03 Jan 2014 at 6:05 pm | Permalink


When I was watching the races at Gulfstream Park, in the 5th race there was a horse named “Dixie Hot Shot” who was 20-1 on the morning line. I was confused by her odds, because by looking at her past performances it shows that she won a $25,000 maiden claiming race at Calder. After that, she was entered in an allowance optional claiming race at $25,000. She wasn’t entered for a price, and she finished 7th. In today’s race (Claiming $35,000) by looking at her past performances, she is dropping in class. But why was she 20-1 on the morning line? By the way, she finished last

Ryan Doyley said on 04 Jan 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink



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