It was a case of mistaken identity. At first, owners Will Farish and E.J. "Joe" Hudson Jr. believed Parade Leader was an allowance-type grass horse. After a year and a half produced four wins from 17 races on the turf, that dog didn't hunt anymore. "We couldn't understand it," Hudson said. "His full brother Parade Ground was a graded winner on grass and the rest of his family were grass runners." After the turf trail turned cold, trainer Neil Howard thought the son of Kingmambo might be a middle distance-type horse capable of competing in the lower echelon handicap division. Well, not exactly. Everybody was still a little puzzled until the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) on March 3 when Parade Leader pulled the covers off and declared to his connections that his true nature was a graded stakes route horse. Route, as in give me more furlongs on the dirt to gobble. Better late than never. Behind Howard's furrowed brow is a man of planning and patience. Willing to plot a course and stick to it, Howard had prepared his stretch runner with three races over the New Orleans winter. In each race, Parade Leader showed improvement. On the morning of the New Orleans Handicap, Howard, speaking from his tidy tack room in Barn 4B, expected the cycle to continue. "He's progressing nicely," the trainer said, "and it looks like we have some speed to run at. As far as training, he has been doing everything we asked and the distance should not be a problem." It was difficult to draw a line of elimination through any of the nine runners in the race. Kiss A Native, winner of 10 of 20 career starts and four graded stakes, had vanned to Fair Grounds. The John Franks invader was coming off a big rally in the Feb. 9 Donn Handicap (gr. I) that had propelled him within a length of the winner Mongoose at the wire and a check for second after Red Bullet's disqualification. Millionaire Graeme Hall brought top rider John Velazquez with him from Gulfstream and a record of three victories in grade II races. With no more room in the starting gate for the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), Gary Tanaka's Argentine import Lord Jim represented the West Coast. James Jackson's Valhol, coming off a stakes win, had been training awesomely and appeared ready to put his troubled past behind him. The brilliant speed of Keats in a field of stalkers and deep closers had to be considered a threat. An arctic blast of wind obliged the horses to arrive in the paddock under blankets. Parade Leader stood professionally, watching the other horses pass him in the saddling ring. When the polls closed, the students had elected Graeme Hall as the favorite. Kiss A Native bumped with Fight for Ally coming out of the gate, then recovered. Keats cleared the field before the first turn and a wall of four horses gave chase. Fractions of 23.40 and 47.12 put daylight between Keats and the pressers Lord Jim and Fight for Ally. Parade Leader was off the radar, four lengths behind the next-to-last San Pedro. Heading into the far turn, Parade Leader, under a patient ride by Corey Lanerie, began to move forward, hugging the fence. "I was way back there but I knew I had a chance because there was just so much horse under me," Lanerie said. "Today he just placed himself in the race on his own and I let him pick up his horses. I hoped we would be the last horse running at the end. In deep stretch I knew we were in the catbird seat. I was amazed. He just kept accelerating. I shook the reins a little and he took off like he had just left the gate." Rumble, big horse, rumble. At the three-sixteenths pole, Lanerie detoured, steering Parade Leader off the rail, and grabbed the lead like he was snatching candy from a baby. Parade Leader's late attack was stunning. Showing the fans his serious side, the 5-year-old bay pulled away as if the nine furlongs in 1:50.44 was just a warm-up. Nobody else was close or gaining ground. Five-and-a-quarter lengths back at sea level, a sharp Graeme Hall caught Keats in the last few yards to be second. Oak Hall, who had applied pressure in mid-stretch, underscored his tenacity with a fourth-place effort. "My horse flattened out a little in the end," Velazquez said of Graeme Hall's effort. "It was a good race for him. Hopefully, he can move forward from this point." A cool and collected Howard stood almost invisible behind the celebrating group for the obligatory photo shoot in the winner's circle. "The pace played out perfectly for us today," Howard said, "and Corey gave him a great ride. This horse gets a little far back in his races but that's the whole point of running a mile and an eighth. We thought that extra distance would make the difference. Even when we were running him on the grass, you could tell he was begging to go long." Share the moment. As Parade Leader found himself with his first graded stakes victory, co-owner Hudson blew composure and refinement out the window. Going over the top in the joy department, Hudson fumbled for his cell phone. First he called his father, then he gave a long distance instant replay to his partner, Farish. "He was a ton of horse today," Hudson said, cupping the phone under his wool scarf. "He blew 'em away, Will. I mean, he just ate their lunch."
Holding a good horse together over a long meet and meeting your goals are the ultimate payoffs for a trainer. "This track is very kind from a training standpoint," Howard explained, "and the horse obviously has a lot of constitution. He's a big, strong horse that holds his flesh well." The message for the near future seems clear. If you want to run long on the dirt against Parade Leader, you had better bring your best. (Chart, Equibase)