Updated on 09/16/2011 6:56AM

Parade Leader wins New Orleans Handicap

Lenny Vangilder
Parade Leader scores the first graded stakes win of his career on Sunday with a runaway 5 1/4 length victory in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap.

NEW ORLEANS - The question was whether to run Parade Leader in Sunday's $500,000 New Orleans Handicap or to wait for a softer spot, and even after the horse was entered Friday his connections weren't certain they would run.

"It was about 60-40," said trainer Neil Howard.

But run Parade Leader did, and the blossoming 5-year-old scored the first graded stakes win of his career with a runaway five and one-quarter length victory in the Grade 2 Handicap.

Not only was the race a coming out party for Parade Leader, it also was the most important win in the career of 28-year-old jockey Corey Lanerie.

"This is my biggest win by far," said Lanerie, who briefly lost the mount on Parade Leader six weeks ago to Robby Albarado.

Two of the three most highly regarded horses struggled in the race. Favored Graeme Hall finished a distant second but Valhol and Kiss A Native finished far back.

Parade Leader, who's owned and was bred by Will Farish and E.J. Hudson, has been transformed this winter by a switch to dirt. Parade Leader began his career on turf, and though he placed in a graded dirt stakes as a 2-year-old, Parade Leader made 12 consecutive grass starts before last fall.

At Fair Grounds, he won a dirt allowance race, was fourth in the $75,000 Diplomat Way Handicap and closed well to be second to Valhol in the $125,000 Whirlaway Handicap. Parade Leader was improving and Howard loved the way he'd trained recently, but indeed, his credentials weren't the strongest coming into a $500,000 race.

"If Mongoose had come, we might not have run," Howard said. "We waited to see the race and then made a decision."

Lanerie's decision coming out of the gate was easy: Let all the speed horses go and get position on the inside. Parade Leader made it to the rail before the first turn and stayed there for almost the whole race. Meanwhile, a rejuvenated Keats set a quick pace while making a clear lead. Last in the Donn Handicap after suffering a minor injury early in the race, Keats was clear through a quarter-mile in 23.40 seconds and a half in 47.12.

The pace pressers never caught up to Keats, but entering the far turn Parade Leader started rolling from the back of the pack. "I felt like I had them when I was inside at the five-sixteenths pole," Lanerie said. "I was within five lengths of them and I hadn't even asked them yet."

Lanerie clung to the rail until the eighth pole, then executed a nifty right turn to move past the tiring speed. With a full head of steam, Parade Leader ran alone for the final half-furlong. Parade Leader, who paid $23.80 to win, was timed in 1:50.44 for one and one-eighth miles on a fast track. Graeme Hall pushed past a brave Keats in deep stretch for the place.

"Hopefully he can move forward off that," said Graeme Hall's trainer, Todd Pletcher.

Valhol's effort was disappointing. Sharp in his Whirlaway win, Valhol showed no early zip Sunday and was never in the race. "He was a little dull today," Albarado said.

Howard wasn't sure where Parade Leader might next race. "We'll keep him nominated to everything," he said.