Racing Seasons by Division
By Dana Byerly, Hello Race Fans Co-founder
As we’ve discussed in Overview of the Racing Season, the racing season is a subjective notion. The prep season for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks are as clearly defined as a season gets in Thoroughbred horse racing. But what about racing beyond 3-year-old route races on dirt? Do turf races, sprints or older horses on dirt have equally defined seasons?
The official Breeders’ Cup challenge races, which get into full season as the Triple Crown comes to an end, are marketed as the second season. Although the Breeders’ Cup hosts races for multiple divisions (types of races), the challenge race schedule doesn’t tell the whole story of when you can expect to see races for each loosely defined division.
In order to answer the question “are there defined seasons by division in Thoroughbred horse racing?”, we looked at the graded stakes schedule to get a better sense of when each type of race takes place throughout the year. While there are small annual shifts in the graded calendar, it’s a good overall indication of the rhythm of the year. Keep in mind that racing happens all year around, and with the exceptions of 2-year-olds, you can probably find every type of race with regard to surface and distance at any given point of the year in the allowance and claiming ranks.
Using the 2014 graded stakes schedule from the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, we broke out the divisions as follows:
2-year-olds – dirt and turf: no distance or sex differentiation
3-year-olds – dirt: no distance differentiation
3-year-olds – turf: no distance differentiation
3-year-old and up – dirt route: 8 furlongs and up, no sex differentiation
3-year-old and up – dirt sprint: under 8 furlongs, no sex differentiation
3-year-old and up – turf route: 8.5 furlongs and up, no sex differentiation
3-year-old and up – turf mile: 8 furlongs, no sex differentiation
3-year-old and up – turf sprint: under 8 furlongs, no sex differentiation
After reviewing the calendar, a few observations lead to the above groupings. Most notably, the only age group with an appreciable difference in number of races available between the sexes was 3-year-olds, both on dirt and turf. For everyone else the number of available races only varied by approximately one race per month and only on occasion, therefore we only broke out the 3-year-old races by sex. We also didn’t break out distance differentiation for 2- and 3-year-olds. Approximately 16% of 3-year-old races were run at less than 8 furlongs and 63% of 2-year-old races were run between 8 and 8.5 furlongs. Also of note, we’ve included races run over synthetic surfaces as dirt races.
Having said all that, here’s a look at the number of graded stakes races available each month by our non-official divisional groupings. Further notes and observations can be found below. You can mouseover each chart to find exact numbers of races for each month. You can also access a spreadsheet of the 2014 graded stakes races here.
2-year-olds / Juveniles
This representation is a little misleading in that juvenile racing starts a few months before any graded stakes are available. For example, in 2015 the first juvenile dirt race was on March 21 at Sunland Park and the first turf race was on May 16 at Laurel Park.
Another thing to keep in mind is that because the Breeders’ Cup was spread over October and November in 2014, the two turf races were in October and two dirt races were in November.
It’s no surprise that the spring is where the majority of dirt races are for males with the Kentucky Derby preps, although there are a significant number of age-restricted opportunities to prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic given that six of the seven races in September are over a mile in distance.
Turf racing at the graded stakes level doesn’t start until March for 3-year-olds, and even then there are not many races available.
Older on Dirt
One thing to note about the older divisions is that races eligible for 3-year-olds and up start off gradually in the beginning of the year, with most races being open to 4-year-olds and up. By July the 4-years-old and up restriction has full transitioned to 3-years-old and up. It’s also rare that 3-year-olds run against older earlier in the year, at least in graded stakes. And judging by the amount of available opportunities restricted to 3-year-olds in the fall, it’s sometimes rare that they run against older until the Breeders’ Cup!
We felt it was worthwhile noting the difference between 3 & up versus 4 & up, but we’ve added an “All” bar to make it easier to see all the opportunities available for older horses.
Older on Turf
For older horses on turf, the milers seem to have the most defined season, starting in February and ending in November with an emphasis on spring. The routers race all year long and peak in July. Since there were no instances where turf sprints were being run for 3 & up and 4 & up in the same month we omitted the “All” bar.
In conclusion, and as we expected, outside of Juvenile races, Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks preps, there’s really more of an ebb and flow than defined seasons. With the exception of turf sprints and turf miles, you can find graded races for older horses all year long.
It’s tempting to try to shoehorn horse racing into traditional sports paradigms, especially given how ingrained sports are in American culture. The idea of a “season” is one such paradigm that doesn’t exactly have a one-to-one comparison in racing, and that’s not a bad thing if you consider that you can catch graded stakes racing all year round!