Apr 5 2015

Needs The Lead: Causes Troubles Indeed

Battle for the Lead

When handicapping, I will sometimes make the notation, “Needs The Lead” at the top of a horse’s Past Performances (PPs). Meaning they do their best (and sometimes only) running when they are happily cruising on an uncontested lead at the front of the pack.

Now, if the horse is running in a race on a speed favoring surface, or happens to be the “only” speed in the race, I will color code my comment in Blue (for a good thing). But, more times than not I don’t view this trait as a “good thing.” Especially if there are other “Needs The Lead” horses in the same race or if the horse in question doesn’t seem to have superior speed to establish an easy lead.

On Saturday, December 7th, 2013 at Gulfstream Park I spotted this type of horse in the 8th race. I marked the bettor’s second choice (Plainview, 2-1 odds) with the “Needs The Lead” label. I did this despite Gulfstream Park being a speed favoring surface, and having seen this horse win impressively Gate-to-Wire at Saratoga over the past summer. I knew he could be dangerous … IF he was left alone on the lead.

However, I also felt there were other horses in the race that had speed good enough to pressure Plainview. And one of those horses, Major Marvel, had shown the ability to press a horse loose on the lead and run him down in the lane. Here are the PPs for Plainview.

Plainview PPs

A couple of things to notice, besides the “Needs The Lead” comment … in his last three races Plainview had given up the lead late in the race. Finishing 4th on September 21, and 2nd in his last two outings. Also, he had barely held on for 2nd, finishing only a nose and neck in front of the 3rd place horse. The little red circles show this fact, and are a sign for concern.

Now, to be honest, giving an edge to Major Marvel in this race was not exactly something brilliant. He was the 8-5 Favorite, so the public had it right. What was more important was identifying another short priced horse as being vulnerable, and thereby creating betting opportunities for other horses. This is often the case with “Needs The Lead” horses. Because when they win, they win big, often posting impressive Beyer Speed Figures. These big figures are like candy to the betting public – hard to resist.

To complete the December 7th story on Plainview, he was pressed by Major Marvel from the outset, yielded to that one in the stretch and finished in 8th place.

Another good example in recent years was Verrazano, who time after time struggled when unable to get an easy lead in a race. But, when he did … oh, la la … he won big. Standing at the rail, I saw him demolish a field of maidens by 8 lengths in his career debut at Gulfstream Park on January 1, 2013. In his second start, he dominated a group of Allowance horses by 16 lengths. In late July he won the Grade 1 Haskell Stakes by 10 lengths, earning a huge 116 Beyer Speed Figure in the process. There is no doubt the impressive Haskell victory led the public to making him the 8-5 favorite in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. However, unable to get an easy lead at The Spa, he finished a very disappointing 7th place.

Fast forward to the Breeders Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita on November 1, 2013. He was made the 5-2 favorite; the betting public feeling that the shorter distance (8 furlongs vs. 10 furlongs in the Travers) was going to make the difference. I had my doubts, and added the “Needs The Lead” label on his PPs. Here’s the video replay of the Breeders Cup race, Verrazano is #10.

Once again, without getting to the lead, he faltered in a big race. The same thing would happen again in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct later in November.  Overall, Verrazano started in eight Graded Stakes races. He won four of those by establishing an early lead and cruising to reasonably easy victories.  In the other four races he did not make an early lead and finished 3rd, 4th, 7th, and 14th.

Extended on Slop

What happens to these horses when they can’t get the lead? Well, the most obvious answer is they get frustrated. If they’re racing on dirt (like Verrazano), they get dirt kicked in their face and they’re stuck looking at the backside of other horses.

Maybe it can be summed up in an old saying about sled dogs, “If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” And, when that happens, perhaps they just lose the will to run.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

6 comments on “Needs The Lead: Causes Troubles Indeed

  1. Very timely article Neal. After watching the Wood, Blue Grass and SA Derby, I couldn’t help but think of how wonderful a sight the KY Derby will be with Carpe Diem and Dortmund joined by American Pharoah, Firing Line, Materiality and Stanford going the opening half in 45 flat.

    I said “wonderful” because I’ll be looking elsewhere (say International Star or Mubtaahij) for one to take advantage of the suicidal pace it’s setting up to be.

    • Good observation. It will be interesting to see if any of these horses are adaptable in their running style. Also, as I’ve said in the past, I’m a sucker for horses that give their best effort despite serious obstacles placed in their way. International Star has demonstrated that capability, over multiple tracks and surfaces.

  2. I’m trying to figure out why you consider Verrazano a need the lead type? In his first two races at 1/4 of a sprint and 1/2 of a mile race he was pressing the pace with at least one horse in front of him. Same goes for the Wood Memorial. Wouldn’t those be considered winning from pressing the pace?

    • Great question, and thanks for asking. As with so many things in horse racing, it’s subjective. Looking back at the replays you listed, yes Verrazano was pressing the pace, but in all 3 cases he was in an outside position, getting no kickback in his face, and there were far inferior horses to his inside. In the Wood the pacesetter was some 78-1 no-hoper. He easily took over in all these races and really was never challenged. In subsequent Stakes races (BC Mile, Cigar Mile, Travers Stakes, Kentucky Derby) where it was more difficult for him to get to an easy lead, he struggled. When I say “Needs The Lead,” don’t take it 100% to mean has to be in 1st place. It can mean “pressing the pace” or “forwardly placed” in a way that the horse has minimal obstacles to overcome. In my opinion, Verrazano was a horse of great talent, but also needed everything to go his way in order to run his best race. Fair statement?

      • Fair, thanks for clarifying that. Now I see what you’re saying about pressing outside no hopers. And that needs the lead doesn’t necessarily mean actually on the lead. Thanks again and keep up the great work.

  3. one of saddest aspects of this great game is seeing a Running Work of Art like Verrazano, trailing off..sometimes i wouldnt even bet his races, just to watch him run..Neal you are a great teacher of this sport..thank you..

    thomas Lorentz on

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