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.
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.
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 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.
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.