April 15, 2024

Sierra Leone bags Risen Star with big late kick

Sierra Leone passes Track Phantom in deep stretch to win the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds (Photo by Hodges Photography / Credit to Lou Hodges, Jr.)

Despite receiving no pace assistance and being forced to rally extremely wide over a sloppy track, Sierra Leone would not be denied in Saturday’s $400,000 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, overhauling Track Phantom in deep stretch to score by a half-length. The fast-closing son of Gun Runner confirmed himself as major Kentucky Derby (G1) contender while notching his first stakes win.

Chad Brown added blinkers following an adventurous nose second in the Remsen S. (G2) last December, and Tyler Gaffalione picked up the mount on the Coolmore-owned colt. Connections said the blinkers appeared to keep him more focus, and Sierra Leone looks like the type who will continue to improve with more ground and experience.

“Given the track conditions and slow pace and that he hasn’t run since the Remsen, I thought he showed a lot to run down a pretty good horse who was in form and fit and didn’t have to ship,” Brown said via phone. “I wasn’t sure if he’d reel him in-not because we’re not good enough-but that was a tall order. So this proved a lot to me today.”

Sierra Leone was off as the 2.70-1 favorite in the 1 1/8-mile race, a Road to the Kentucky Derby series qualifier offering points on a 50-25-15-10-5 scale to the top five finishers.

Track Phantom, the 3-1 second choice following wins in the Lecomte (G3) and Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds, sped forward from his outside post at the break to show the way first turn, establishing moderate opening fractions in :24.32, :49.67, and 1:14.74 while on a clear lead. Sierra Leone settled off the pace in ninth and after beginning to advance on the far turn, he was fanned about 10 paths wide into the stretch.

He found his best stride while straightening for home, but Sierra Leone still had plenty to do. Track Phantom surged to about a two-length advantage in upper stretch and battled hard to the wire, but he could not withstand the massive late strides of the winner.

Sierra Leone got up nearing the wire to prevail, and Track Phantom held second by 1 1/4 lengths over Smarty Jones S. winner Catching Freedom, who offered a fine run from midpack for third at 5.70-1. It was almost two more lengths back to last-out Gulfstream maiden winner Resilience, who tracked the pacesetter in second and remained in the mix until deep stretch.

Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner Honor Marie closed belatedly from last for fifth, and Awesome Ruta, Hall of Fame, Real Men Violin, Moonlight, Tizzy Indy, Cardinale, and Bee Dancer completed the order of finish.

“The blinkers really helped him focus today,” Gaffalione said. “He broke alertly and we hoped going into this race there would be more speed. He got a comfortable trip up the backside and relaxed for me. When he took the lead in the stretch I could feel beneath me he is only going to want to go longer after this. He is an incredible horse and Chad Brown and his team have done an incredible job with him. You always keep dreaming of the big races like the Derby and horses like this help you keep the dream alive.”

A closing maiden winner when debuting over a one-turn mile at Aqueduct in early November, Sierra Leone has now won two of three starts, both stakes coming at 1 1/8 miles. Debby Oxley bred the dark bay in Kentucky, and Coolmore paid $2.3 million for Sierra Leone as a yearling at the 2022 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga August sale. The regally bred sophomore is the first stakes winner out of the Grade 1-winning Malibu Moon mare Heavenly Love.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby series will return to Fair Grounds for the $1 million TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) at 1 3/16 miles on March 23, but Brown said he will aim Sierra Leone for the $1 million Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland on April 6.

“What we had planned on win or lose – but assuming a good race – is to use the Blue Grass as our Kentucky Derby prep,” the trainer said. “So things went well today and we’ll stick to that, but having the points is a nice-to-have in case there’s a rough trip or something doesn’t go according to plan in the Blue Grass.”