Last year, Sonneteer drew attention for running in the Kentucky Derby (G1) while still a maiden.

That took some explaining to friends who usually only tune in for horse racing’s big events. The general thought was that he had never raced before.

Not quite. The dark bay colt wouldn’t have made the Derby field if he hadn’t accrued points in designated races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

No, Sonneteer was called a maiden because he had never won a race. He actually boasted 10 starts before showing up on the first Saturday in May, but hadn’t been able to cross under the line first.

Like the majority of the runners out there, Sonneteer’s initial starts came in maiden contests. Maidens are restricted to horses who have never won, or have been disqualified if they did finish first.

After a horse has broken, or won, his maiden, the next stage is to try him against winners. Some runners will go through the different race classifications – maiden, allowance/optional claimer, stakes, graded stakes – in order.

Allowance/optional claimers can be broken down in so many ways, but the general rule of thumb is they are for runners who have broken their maidens but aren’t quite ready for (or up to) stakes-level competition. These types of races, which can have multiple conditions, provide a horse with more race experience and opportunities for success at a less difficult level.

In terms of conditions, a good way to look at these contests is that in allowances, horses aren’t sold; in allowance/optional claimers, horses may or may not have a claiming price; and starter allowances are for horses that have run in a claiming race.

Horses running in claiming races have a tag, or price. If someone wants to buy that horse, they submit a claim for that amount. If more than one person puts in a claim on a single horse, a shake, or random draw, will take place to determine the new owner.

Claiming races usually don’t show up on the record of a Derby caliber runner, but there are exceptions and a notable one is Charismatic. The popular chestnut captured both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (G1) in 1999 before his career-ending injury in the Belmont Stakes (G1).

A few months before that, though, Charismatic ran in a claiming contest at Santa Anita Park.

Whether a runner graduates from maidens into allowances or heads straight to the big leagues in stakes depends on the horse himself.

Trainer Keith Desormeaux believed Sonneteer was capable of handling the step up in competition and saddled him in the California Cup Derby, Rebel Stakes (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) despite the colt boasting no wins. Sonneteer rose to the occasion and placed in those latter two events, which earned him enough points to make the Derby field.

That was quite a feat, considering stakes races are often filled with horses who have at least one win if not more. They are considered the top level of competition, offer the most prize money and prestige.

They are broken down into restricted and non-restricted, and some of the non-restricted kind called graded stakes offer even more status and much higher prize money.

Graded stakes are the upper echelon in horse racing, the major leagues. They are further divided into Grade 3s (the lowest level), Grade 2s and Grade 1s (the highest level).

The Kentucky Derby is, of course, a Grade 1, as are the other two races making up the Triple Crown. Whether a race is graded or not depends on the American Graded Stakes Committee, which meets each year to determine what races will achieve that status.

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