Topping the Bill Stateside: The Biggest Horse Races in the USA

Our friends across the Atlantic may have their own distinctive sporting culture, but whilst baseball and basketball have struggled to cross the divide, the love of equine excellence is something we do have in common. Predominantly held on uniform dirt tracks, the US action looks a little different to the varied offering of British horse racing, but the level of talent on show is no less impressive.

All told, the US and Canada play host to no fewer than 107 Grade 1 events each year – almost three times the number of Group 1 contests during the British flats season. Here, we take a look at a selection of the biggest and the best.

The Triple Crown

Belmont Stakes Race
Belmont Stakes (Mike Lizzi, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)

During the early stages of the season, the US racing narrative is driven by the chase for the Triple Crown. Win one of these events, and you are sure to hit the headlines; win all three, and you will find your name etched into racing folklore alongside the likes of Secretariat, American Pharoah, and Justify. In common with the British Classics, all three Triple Crown events are restricted to three-year-old performers.

Kentucky Derby

  • Distance – 1m2f
  • Where – Churchill Downs
  • When – First Saturday in May
  • Prize Money – $3 million

Kentucky DerbyWhen you think of US Racing, the name of this contest likely immediately springs to mind. First run in 1875, and named in honour of its Epsom inspiration, this dirt contest serves as the first leg of the US Triple Crown.

Variously known as “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” and “The Run for The Roses” – in reference to the elaborate garland draped across the winner – the Kentucky Derby is the one event of the year which transcends the racing world – creating a cultural phenomenon approaching the level of the Grand National on these shores.

Preakness Stakes

  • Distance – 1m1½f
  • Where – Pimlico
  • When – Third Saturday in May
  • Prize Money – $1.65 million

Preakness StakesFollowing a two-week break, the Maryland track of Pimlico is the next stop on the Triple Crown tour. First entering the scene two years before the Kentucky Derby in 1873, the event is named after the colt who won the first edition of the Dinner Party Stakes at the track.

The middle jewel of the US Triple Crown is held over a slightly shorter trip than the Kentucky Derby but invariably attracts many of the same runners – with the winner of the Kentucky Derby almost always attempting to follow up. Much like the Churchill Downs event, the winner will soon find themselves engulfed in a floral decoration – this time in the shape of a blanket made from Black Eyed Susans – the state flower of Maryland.

Belmont Stakes

  • Distance – 1m4f
  • Where – Belmont Park</li
  • When – First or second Saturday in June
  • Prize Money – $1.5 million

Belmont StakesKnown as “The Test of the Champion” or the “Run for the Carnations”, the headline act at the New York track of Belmont Park is the oldest of the Triple Crown events, having made its debut in 1867. It is also the most challenging from a stamina perspective, with the 1m4f trip testing the resolution as well as the speed of the contenders.

Given its position as the third and final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes has provided the stage for many of the most iconic moments in US Racing History. It was around Belmont’s turns that Secretariat set the current 1m4f dirt World Record when blitzing his rivals by 31 lengths in 1973, and here that American Pharoah won the hearts of a nation when ending a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015.

Breeders’ Cup Meeting

Breeders' Cup
Breeders’ Cup Race (Jlvsclrk , CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia)

Breeders' CupThe Triple Crown contests dominate the early racing season in the US but, by autumn each year, the thoughts of many fans have become fixated upon a single meeting – the international jamboree that is the Breeders’ Cup Festival. Held at a different track each year and combining dirt and turf contests with incredible prize money, this later October/early November feast regularly attracts the top US stars and a talented squadron of overseas raiders. Running for a whole week, the majority of the headline acts take place on the concluding Saturday – a card which contains some of the biggest events held anywhere in the world.

Breeders’ Cup Classic

  • Distance – 1m2f
  • Where – Various US Tracks
  • When – Late October/Early November
  • Prize Money – $6 million

Topping the bill on the Saturday card is the dirt race titan of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. With a total prize pool of $6m, this was formerly the richest race held anywhere in the world and remains comfortably the most valuable contest held on US soil.

Despite usually being held on dirt, the riches on offer regularly prove irresistible to British and Irish runners. The home team are tough to crack in this event, but not impossible, as illustrated by the John Gosden-trained Raven’s Pass, who came home in front under Frankie Dettori in 2008. American Pharoah entered the history books in 2015 when he became the first Triple Crown winner to add this contest to his haul.

Breeders’ Cup Turf

  • Distance – 1m4f
  • Where – Various US Tracks
  • When – Late October/Early November
  • Prize Money – $4 million

Heading up the undercard of the Breeders’ Cup line-up is this prestigious turf event open to runners aged three and older. With an impressive purse of $4m up for grabs, the contest regularly sits within the top two or three richest turf contests on the planet and attracts a suitably star-studded field.

If there is a single event on the Breeders’ Cup schedule designed for the top European talent, it is undoubtedly this one. Many of the stars of the British and Irish scene have successfully flown in to plunder the prize over the years, including Pebbles (1985), High Chaparral (2002, 2003), Conduit (2008, 2009) and Enable (2018).

Best of the Rest

Gulfstream Park
Gulfstream Park, home of the Pegasus World Cup (Paige Alonso, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)

Here is where we detail the biggest races that don’t fit into any of the categories mentioned above. Well, we say biggest races, but it’s actually just a single (albeit highly prestigious) race.

Pegasus World Cup

  • Distance – 1m1f
  • Where – Gulfstream Park
  • When – January
  • Prize Money – $3 million

Pegasus World CupLighting up the stage towards the tail end of the flat season is the newest addition to our list. An enormous Pegasus statue looms over the track at the iconic Gulfstream Park track in Florida, and in 2017, the famous winged horse of Greek Legend lent its name to the track’s signature event.

Initially, this 1m1f dirt affair soared above all others in the prize money stakes, with the total purse rising to a staggering $16 million in 2018. However, much of that was due to the eye-watering $1m entry fee. The structuring of the race has since been brought down to more sensible levels, but the contest remains one of the main late-season targets – along with the Dubai World Cup and the Saudi Cup – for the most talented international middle-distance performers.