The Kentucky Derby (G1) is one of three races that comprise the coveted Triple Crown series. The second race along the trail is the Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course and the third race is the Belmont Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park. All three races are considered premiere races for 3-year-old Thoroughbreds and each share a grade I status.
The penultimate event in North American Thoroughbred racing is the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Each Breeders’ Cup race currently holds a grade I status and draws top talent from across the globe for competition. These talented horses tend to specialize in each racing surface at varying distances and a Breeders’ Cup win can help decide year-end honors and awards.
Races with a grade I status are accompanied by other grade levels, such as II or III, to help define prestige and class in American racing. Competition is typically toughest and purse money is often most lucrative in graded races. There are currently a total of 107 grade I races scheduled for 2017.
Every year a committee meets in late November, or early December, to analyze several key factors and may keep or change what races are designated with a graded status. Graded stakes are important to signify achievements in competitive races and also to guide owners and breeders in the pedigree and history of each individual Thoroughbred.
Famous BloodHorse editor Kent Hollingsworth once stated:
"Why bother? Why try to remember which race is better than, or inferior to, another?
Because to improve the breed, to upgrade a broodmare band, to select a stallion, to understand a catalogue page, to evaluate a family – one must be able to recognize racing class."
A few other significant grade-I races of the year are the Kentucky Oaks, Stephen Foster Handicap, Pacific Classic, Arlington Million, Haskell Invitational, Travers Stakes, Gold Cup at Santa Anita, La Troienne Stakes, Humana Distaff, Clark Handicap and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.
The talent and competition found in graded fields offer many opportunities for lucrative profits in betting. Not all horses can be a favorite in a graded stakes, thus the high level of talent provides great opportunity for upsets and big payouts. This leads into why days, such as the Breeders' Cup or other grade I races, tend to be the highest bet days of the year.