Dec 12 2013

Needs The Lead

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 summer.  I know he can be dangerous if 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 To Lead” comment, is that in his last three races he 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 real concern.

Now, let me say, that 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 a vulnerable short priced horse, that could create 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 numbers seem like candy to the betting public – hard to resist.

Probably the best recent example of this is Verrazano, who time after time has struggled when unable to get an easy lead in a race.  But, when he does … oh, la la … he wins big.  I personally 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.  This no doubt led to him being the 8-5 favorite in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.  However, unable to get an easy lead at The Spa, he finished in 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.

Extended on Slop

So, 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, which is no fun.  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.


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