In Sierra Leone, Brown May Have Best Chance Yet to Win a Derby

Sierra Leone | Coglianese

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Chad Brown's barn includes a lot of fillies and is dominated by turf horses, which makes winning the GI Kentucky Derby more challenging than it is for trainers like Todd Pletcher, Brad Cox and Bob Baffert, who seem to have an almost endless supply of ammunition. The future Hall of Famer has started just seven horses in the Derby and the best he has to show for it is a second-place finish in 2018 with Good Magic (Curlin). But that doesn't mean the right horse won't come his way, and this year may be the year.

Brown may have the favorite in Saturday's GII Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds in 'TDN Rising Star' Sierra Leone (Gun Runner), who checks a lot of boxes. Sold for $2.3 million, he was the sales topper at the 2022 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale and has since given every indication that he can compete at the highest level of the sport. He broke his maiden in November at Aqueduct and then ran second in the GII Remsen S., losing by just a nose. The Risen Star will mark his 3-year-old debut.

“The Derby, it's one of the few races we haven't won and it's definitely right there at the top of the list,” Brown said. “We have a very diverse group of horses to work with. There's a big split between fillies and colts and within those groups are the turf horses. What it boils down to is we don't have many horses in that division. I have plenty of nice horses to work with. I'm not complaining by any means. Any one would love to have the horses I get sent. Once you start paring them down, to see what dirt colts you have that can run two turns and have ability, well, for us, the group isn't huge. If we end up with two or three horses that are on the trail by the first of the year, we are lucky.”

Brown will probably always focus primarily on turf horses, but that obviously didn't bother the Coolmore team. They arrived at the 2022 Saratoga sale eager to spend money. Not only did they buy Sierra Leone, they also paid $1.4 million for Hall of Fame (Gun Runner), who will also start in the Risen Star for trainer Steve Asmussen. If Coolmore continues to support Brown with expensive yearling purchases that will make his chances of winning a Derby all that much easier.

“Will Coolmore keep supporting me, I think that has to be determined,” Brown said. “A lot depends on how these relationships unfold and how successful we are or aren't with this particular horse. I've had horses from them in the past. Not many, but nice horses. Minorette (Smart Strike) was one of the first horses they sent me and we won the Belmont Oaks on the turf with her. I've done a lot of business with Coolmore. I have several stallions standing there: Jack Christopher, Practical Joke. I've always had a great business relationship with them and, occasionally, they have sent a horse or two my way. They like to spread things out and use top trainers all over the country. I'm just happy I'm in that group of trainers.”

After the maiden win, Brown thought Sierra Leone was ready for a challenge. He entered him in the Remsen, knowing the competition would include Dornoch (Good Magic), the full-brother to 2023 Derby winner Mage. For Sierra Leone, it was on oddly run race. On what was a speed-favoring track, he dropped far back early, trailing the field for most of the way before he started to roll on the far turn and set his sights on Dornoch. Inside the sixteenth pole, he put his head in front of Dornoch and it looked like race was over. But Dornoch came again and came back for the win.

“I was a little disappointed,” Brown said. “I thought the second time out he'd show a little more speed. You also have to factor in that sloppy track. He had never been on a track like that and maybe he was caught off guard by that. He was the only horse that day that made up any ground and that's an important thing to note. He really wasn't unlucky. He had every chance to win. He just lost some focus and allowed that other horse, who is a nice horse in his own right, to re-rally on him. I was pleased with the effort though disappointed by the outcome.”

Because Sierra Leone appeared to lose his focus in the Remsen in deep stretch, Brown will equip him with blinkers on Saturday.

With Brown based in Florida over the winter, the most logical spots for Sierra Leone's return may have been the GIII Holy Bull S. or the GII Fountain of Youth S. But Brown feels that the Gulfstream racing surface is a bad fit for Sierra Leone and that's why he has shipped him to Fair Grounds.

“I didn't like the short distance and short stretch of those two races at Gulfstream,” he said. “I had Blazing Sevens (Good Magic) for example. He was a nice horse and nearly won the Preakness, but he ran terrible at Gulfstream. He didn't like the kickback. The kickback at Gulfstream, according to a couple of jockeys I really trust, is that it is a very challenging kickback for a horse to run through. That probably contributes to the appearance that it is a speed-favoring track. Even if they slow the track down, so to speak, it still seems like it's dominated more by front-running horses. I think the kickback has something to do with that. It's just not anything I'm interested in putting this horse through.”

The Risen Star will be the first step in what Brown hopes is a progression that will have his horse at his very best come Derby Day.

“We decided to use just two preps, which is always risky,” Brown said. “I thought, all things considered, like his running style, I feel like his third race of the year will be his best race. And that is a big if because there is a lot of training and racing to still overcome.”

Brown's best two Derby horses have been Good Magic and Zandon (Upstart), who was third in the 2022 Derby. Does Sierra Leone represent his best chance yet?

“I won't say that he's my best threat yet,” Brown said. “Those two horses were really good horses to take into the race. I'd say he belongs in their group, but he's got a ways to go to get to the point where we know he's going to be one of the first two choices in the Derby. I think he can get there. He has the potential to do it. He's training great and he's the right kind of horse. We are really excited about him.”

Brown has a few other horses that could get him to the Derby. Domestic Product (Practical Joke) was second in the Holy Bull. Good Money (Good Magic) broke his maiden at Tampa Bay Downs in his lone start. Tuscan Gold (Medaglia d'Oro) is coming off a maiden win at Gulfstream. But none, at least at this point, compare to Sierra Leone.

“When they give you a horse that cost $2.3 million at the sales, yes, there's a little bit more pressure,” Brown said. “The expectations are certainly high, being that he was a sale-topping yearling at the prestigious Saratoga sale, and rightfully so. The expectations should be high.”

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