Horse Racing Grades

For every Derby winning horse, there are hundreds more who are inconsistent and a heck of a lot slower. Similarly not every jumper can be in contention to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup and are more at home trying to get around the course at Hexham on a Monday afternoon. This article will look at the different grade classes in horse racing and what they mean.

There are two different types of horse racing in this country. There’s flat racing and National Hunt racing. But how do these differ?

Different Grades in Horse Racing

Just like humans, horses have a differing level of ability. It certainly wouldn’t be much fun putting a top class horse in a race with ones that are a lot slower so racing is split into a number of grades to allow better competition. There are over 15,000 horses in training and only a small fraction of them are of the highest quality.

Race meetings are held almost every day of the year, the average day might see four or five meetings over the flat and jumps. At the weekend this can be higher and in double figures when it’s a Bank Holiday Monday. The vast majority of the races are lower level ones though with the higher class races often at the weekend or at festivals of racing such as Royal Ascot, Epsom and Newmarket on the flat and at Cheltenham and Aintree over the jumps.

With so many different classes, it means owners are given plenty of chances to find a race in which their horse can compete and hopefully be competitive in.

National Hunt Racing

Older and stronger horses compete in National Hunt races. The general progression is that a horse will begin their National Hunt career jumping over hurdles with a minimum distance of two miles. Rather confusingly perhaps, horses new to National Hunt racing begin with a flat race before their first run over hurdles. As horses  gain experience they can progress to racing over the much larger fences and races can be over four miles.  It’s not uncommon for horses to keep running season after season and still be competing at the age of eleven or more.


There’s a massive gap in class between the very best and the worst racehorses in training. Whereas the very best possess speed and are excellent jumpers, there are plenty who are a lot, lot slower and cant always be trusted to get over the next hurdle or fence.

The very best horses compete in Class 1 races. These are split into Grades 1,2 and 3 and just below that are listed races. It’s races such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle that are the elite Class 1 races. These are the races that crown champions and the weight carried by each horse is determined by their age and sex. For example, Annie Power who won the Champion Hurdle in 2016 is a female horse and was allocated a lower weight to carry than her male opponents.

Below Class 1 are Classes two to six. Just in which class you race depends on the rating a horse has. These ratings have to be earned, if you put in good performances then the rating you have increases. This means a horse doing well in a Class 4 race can move through the ranks and perhaps compete in a Class 2 or 3 race next time out.  Whether it’ll be good enough to compete at the higher level makes racing so fascinating. If the horse does well then that’s great, if it disappoints then it can go back down in class. It’s a bit like boxing really, you do well in a few fights and then it’s time to see if you can compete in higher class.

Horses that put in disappointing performances see themselves slipping down the ratings and competing in lower classes. It’s logical really because if a horse can’t win in Class 4 then next time out it can be tried in a lower Class and may well put in a much better performance now up against less capable opponents.

Flat Racing

Don’t think that this is racing that takes place on a flat course, anyone who has ever seen horses go downhill at Epsom will appreciate that. By flat racing we are referring to races that don’t have any requirement to jump fences or hurdles. Major flat races include The Derby, The Oaks and The St Leger.

Horses mostly begin their racing career at the age of two and it’s in flat races that they compete. When they are older they may well start to compete over the jumps when more experienced and stronger.

The minimum distance for a flat race in Great Britain and Ireland is five furlongs. Those horses that have a lot of stamina can take part in long-distance races that are over two miles. It’s those competitors who are likely to move onto National Hunt racing.

The top flat races are known as the Classics, more about these later in this article. High quality races such as the Derby are ran over a mile and a half.


A similar pattern follows in flat races but with a few different names for the various classes. The very best races, for example the Derby, Oaks, St Leger 1000 and 2000 Guineas (the five Classics) are Group 1 races as are races such as the Coral Eclipse.. These are competed in by the very best and highest rated horses in training. Below this level are Group 2 and 3 races followed by Listed races. They are still high quality races and horses that perform well in a Group 3 race for example are well on their way to competing in the very best races out there.

As in National Hunt racing, there are a number of classes below the Group races. These form the bread and butter racing that you’ll see every day of the week with Classes 1 to 7. Again these are populated by horses of varying levels of ability.

Prize Money

Of course the prize money available in these differing classes  really does vary a great deal. A Class 6 race on the All-Weather surface at Wolverhampton might see the winner receive just over £2,000. The winner of the Group 1 Epsom Derby gets over £750,000.


Another way of trying to create more opportunities for horses to compete against others of a higher quality is handicap. Here horse are given a handicap rating with the better quality horses given more weight to carry and the lesser quality ones lower weights. This makes for a much more competitive race and gives punters a right headache trying to work out if Horse A can  beat horses such as Horse B which is carrying 8lbs less.

There are plenty of other types of races too such as Maidens, where all the horse competing have never won a race and races for novices. All part of creating competitive races and part of a horse’s progression through the levels.


As you have just read, there are a lot of different grades/classes in horse racing. It’s not surprising considering there are so many race horses in training of such varying abilities. Without all the grades though racing would be a much duller sport with less competitive races and horses with little ability probably not racing at all.