Photo Credit to Kim Pratt

The Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes, and the Hambletonian Stakes represent three of horse racing’s most prestigious events. A stakes race is a race for top quality horses in which the owner pays a fee to enter his horse in a specific race. Fees make up part of the purse of a race and may be required to nominate a horse, to sustain, to enter, and to start in a race. Thoroughbred’s Triple Crown races are for three year olds and consist of three Grade 1 stakes races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, and nominations are due in January of a horse’s three year old year. This year, 346 horses were nominated to the Triple Crown, and each owner paid the initial nominating fee of $600. The horses need qualifying points won in designated races in order to qualify for the Triple Crown races.  Breeder’s Cup races require that a foal be nominated in October of the year it was born for a fee of $400 which entitles the horse to participate in Breeder’s Cup events for its entire life. Additional payments and qualifying points are required for specific races.


Unlike harness racing, thoroughbred stakes are graded and non-graded and are run on the dirt and the turf. Each year, the American Graded Stakes Committee, founded in 1973 by TOBA, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, releases its list of North American graded stakes. Grade 1 is the highest ranking and the most prestigious, and must offer prize money of at least $300,000. These races include the Triple Crown races and the Breeder’s Cup races.  Grade 2 races must offer a purse of at least $200,000, Grade 3 races must offer at least $100,000, and listed races must offer at least $75, 000. All races must have been run for at least two consecutive years, and must follow guidelines for drug testing per committee’s protocol. HISA meets those requirements.


Photo Credit to Kim Pratt

Non-graded stakes usually require nominations several weeks prior to a race, and handicap races are stakes where horses carry varying weights which are assigned to them by the racing secretary or the track handicapper to create an equal playing field. The favorites in a race carry more weight than the long shots.


Pennsylvania’s top thoroughbred stakes are two grade 1 races, the Pennsylvania Derby and the Cotillion, both with a purse of $1 million each, and both held at Parx on September 21, 2024. This year, Parx Racing offers forty graded and non-graded stakes including twenty three for state-bred horses. The Grade 3 Penn Mile on the turf held at Penn National on May31, 2024 is the highlight of their racing season, and the Grade2 Presque Isle Downs Masters, held at Presque Isle Downs on September 16, 2024 highlights their stakes program.


Photo Credit to Kim Pratt

“Unlike thoroughbred racing, harness stakes are not graded. We have early and late closures and for races like the Hambletonian, payments begin in the horse’s yearling year,” explained Moira Fanning, director of Publicity and COO of The Hambletonian Society. “We have talked about grading stakes, but we haven’t done it yet. Early closure races are where declarations for a race occur at least six weeks prior to the running of a race and payments are made during that time. Late closure races are when nominations close less than six weeks and more than three days before a race is run. Regional sire stakes are growing in popularity, and they are helping our states breeding programs. Similar to thoroughbred’s Triple Crown stakes, our trotting Triple Crown includes the Hambletonian, the Yonkers Trot, and the Kentucky Futurity,” said Fanning.


“The Adios at The Meadows is Pennsylvania’s most prestigious race and is equivalent to a thoroughbred Grade 1 race. It’s for 3 year old pacers, and is run on July 27, 2024. Another difference between thoroughbred and harness racing is that thoroughbreds run on the dirt and the turf, which we don’t do. We have races for trotters and pacers,” explained Jessica Schroeder from the USTA, U.S. Trotting Association. “Our Breeders Crown stakes races are similar to thoroughbreds

Photo Credit to Kim Pratt

Breeders’ Cup races, and yearlings are nominated and payments continue periodically until the race. Also, the yearlings have to be by sires that are nominated to the Breeders Crown,” said Jessica.


Pennsylvania’s other premiere harness racing events are The Sun Stakes held at Pocono Downs at Mohegan Pennsylvania on August 17, 2024 which offers a stakes filled card of significant races for trotters and pacers, and the annual Super Sunday at Harrah’s Philadelphia on May 26, 2024.


Pennsylvania offers top quality stakes racing that attracts the highest level of competition in thoroughbred and harness racing.


Cover Photo Credit to Kim Pratt

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