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One of the many mistakes I made for years in trying to handicap horse races had to do with how I evaluated class and whether or not a horse was moving up to race against better horses or moving down to race against worse ones.

My father, the man who taught me to read the Racing Form at the tender age of nine and acted as my first handicapping mentor until I was 15 (and found my way to the “Eighth Pole Gang” at Oaklawn – but that’s a blog for another day), taught me about class the following way:

Maiden races are for horses who have never won before. The more races a maiden has run, the more likely it is “due” to win one. Bet the more experienced maiden against the lighter-raced or first-time starter horse.

Claiming races are for horses that have won before but aren’t good enough to win against allowance competition. Any horse running in a claiming race is for sale and can be purchased, so it is a risk to run them. However, sometimes it is a trainer’s only option to get their horse a win and some purse money.

Allowance races are for horses who have won before and want to race for nice purses and aren’t up for sale. They are usually the steppingstones to stakes races. They are hard to handicap.

Stakes races are where the best horses at the track compete for the highest purses.

Any horse that is dropping down in class, from stakes to allowance, or allowance to claiming, is worth a look. They may be better than the other horses they are running against.

Within these classifications there is always an amount of money the horses are running for. When a horse drops down and races for less money, even when the horse isn’t moving into a new classification, it is probably better than the other horses in the race.

The inverse is also true, a horse moving up the money ladder or the classification ladder is less likely to win.

Okay, so that’s what my dad taught me. And over the years I’ve learned that a lot of that is wrong. I should have known not to listen to him, based on the fact that I hardly ever saw him cash any tickets, but he was my dad. It took me a long time to get that maybe he wasn’t the best handicapper in the world. So don’t listen to my dad.

There is a lot that isn’t right about this analysis of class, and I identified a lot of the flaws pretty early on in my education as a horseplayer. For example I figured out pretty quick that those maidens with lots of races under their belts got burned by first- and second-time starters over and over again. But today, I want to discuss one of the mistakes here that stuck with me for far too long, well into adulthood, that I’ve since learned to correct and as a result have had much better luck handicapping claiming races.

Claiming races are not all created equal. It is true that, like my dad said, claiming races were run for various purse sizes. However within each purse size claiming races had all kinds of restrictions placed on them. These restrictions created lots of different ways to assess the relative strength of fields within them.


You’ll see a $5,000 claiming race listed the following ways:


Open race, any horse can enter


Only horses who haven’t won twice in the last six months can enter


Only horses who haven’t won at all in the last six months can enter


Only horses who haven’t won two races in their life at this level can enter


Only horses who haven’t won three races in their life at ANY level can enter


Only horses who haven’t won two races in their life at ANY level can enter


Only horses who have never won can enter

These same restrictions exist no matter how much the claiming race is run for.

In Steve Davidowitz’s essential book, “Betting Thoroughbreds,” he ranks the races the way I’ve ranked them above, arguing that this is the actual class ladder. A horse that drops from a n2y race to a n2x race is making a much bigger drop than if that horse dropped to a n1y race.

The important lesson that I learned is that these restrictions are often far more important than the amount of money in the purse in claiming races. For many years, I considered a $10,000 claiming race at any restriction to be a higher class than a $5,000 claiming race at any restriction. The fact is, often the horses in an open Clm5000 race are tougher competitors than the horses in a Clm10000n2L. The move from restricted races to open races, no matter the purse amount, is a big step up and vice versa. 

For me, the simple betting angle here is this: bet horses that finish on the board in open races (or races higher on the restricted ladder) when they drop down into a lower restriction but with a higher purse amount.

If you see a horse who ran pretty well in a Clm5000 race and is now entered in a Clm12500n2L race, that’s a really good bet. If it’s a Clm12500n2x, that’s a tad tougher, but still a good bet. Of course all of this depends on whether or not other horses in the race have similar or better form. But a horse that finishes strong against winners moving to a higher-priced race against losers is a good betting angle.

Davidowitz says in “Betting Thoroughbreds” that recent maiden winners racing against n2L horses are always a good play. The horses in the n2L divisions are often some of the biggest tomato cans at the racetrack. A fresh winner is very likely to wallop them on its way to bigger and better things.

Understanding this ladder based on the restrictions that you see after the amount of the purse in a horse’s form is key to understanding if the horse is truly making a drop down or a step up in class. It just goes to show you that every single strange number and letter in the Daily Racing Form is important. But you don’t need to be a codebreaker to make good plays. You just need to learn a few key angles (like this one!) that help you make a choice in a race between a couple of horses you like equally well.



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David Hill

David Hill is a writer, an agitator, a comedian and a gambler. He grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas near the Oaklawn Park. Today he lives in New York City. Further reading at

Image Description

David Hill

David Hill is a writer, an agitator, a comedian and a gambler. He grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas near the Oaklawn Park. Today he lives in New York City. Further reading at

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