May 17, 2024

Sierra Leone rallies to take centennial edition of Blue Grass

Sierra Leone wins the Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland (Photo by Coady Photography / Credit to mary Ellet)

Sierra Leone overcame some pre-race jitters before a large, enthusiastic crowd to impressively capture the 100th edition of the $995,782 Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland on Saturday. There’s no telling what he might me do for an encore before a potential record audience at the 150th edition of the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs four weeks from now.

Favored at 1.66-1 in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass and breaking from post 10, Sierra Leone didn’t break the sharpest, but it allowed jockey Tyler Gaffalione to guide the colt closer to the inside before entering the first turn.

“I loved everything about [the trip],” Gaffalione said. “He got into a good rhythm down the backside and from the five-eighths pole onward he was moving like a winner.”

Saving ground around the second turn, Sierra Leone was tipped out to the six path entering the stretch and motored through the stretch to pass Just a Touch en route to a 1 1/2-length decision in a time of 1:50.08 over a fast track. He paid $5.32.

“We’ll do plenty of gate schooling before the Derby and I don’t anticipate that being a problem for him,” said trainer Chad Brown when asked of Sierra Leone’s hesitancy at entering the starting gate before the Blue Grass.

Just a Touch had a 3 3/4-length margin on third-place finisher Epic Ride. Finishing fourth was Dornoch, while 181-1 longshot Mugatu outran expectations to finish fifth. The order of finish was rounded out by pacesetter Top Conor, Seize the Grey, Be You, Lat Long, and Good Money.

Sierra Leone earned 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points for the win, pushing his total to 155. Just a Touch increased his total from 25 to 75, while Epic Ride boosted his from 10 to 35. Dornoch’s rose from 60 to 75, and Mugatu jumped from four points to 14.

Sierra Leone closed as the 7-1 second individual choice behind Florida Derby (G1) winner Fierceness in Pool 6 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager before the Blue Grass and two other preps, the Wood Memorial (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1), were run. Sierra Leone figures to start at an even shorter price on the first Saturday in May.

He will enter the Derby with a 3-for-4 record. After taking his debut impressively at Aqueduct in November, when much of the racing’s world attention was on the Breeders’ Cup action at Santa Anita, Sierra Leone next ran second in the Remsen (G2), nearly overcoming a pronounced speed bias. However, after taking a short lead over Dornoch in midstretch, Sierra Leone allowed that rival to come back on the inside to win by a nose.

That has not been a problem for Sierra Leone in either of his two Derby preps. Prior to the Blue Grass, he made a sustained rally over a sloppy track to win the Feb. 17 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds by a half-length. The form of that race has held up extraordinarily well, with third-place finisher Catching Freedom winning the Louisiana Derby (G2) next out and fourth-placed Resilience easily capturing the Wood Memorial earlier on Saturday.

Sierra Leone races for the high-profile partnership of Peter Brant, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Westerberg, and Brook Smith, several of whom have tasted Derby success in the past in other partnerships. Brown, however, is still in search of his first Derby win. His best finishes have come with his prior Blue Grass winners Good Magic, who was second in 2018, and Zandon, third in 2022.

Bred in Kentucky by Debby Oxley, Sierra Leone is by Gun Runner and out of Alcibiades (G1) heroine Heavenly Love, a daughter of Malibu Moon. He sold for $2.3 million at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga.

“He’s been a star since he was born,” Brown said of Sierra Leone after the Blue Grass. We’ll find out in less than a month if the talented colt will be top of the bill after a mile and a quarter.