Sierra Leone and Brook Smith Shine Light on Backside Learning Center

Sierra Leone races for a purpose in the Kentucky Derby Horsephotos 

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One of the many trademarks of Kentucky Derby week during mornings on the backside at Churchill Downs is the media frenzy that never fails to ensue as dozens of outlets vie for interviews with Derby and Oaks connections. Some owners shy from the camera, others embrace their moment in the spotlight, and most fall somewhere in between.

One owner who will not be hesitating to get his horse's name out there over the next week is Brook Smith, a part-owner in GI Blue Grass S. winner Sierra Leone (Gun Runner). And it's not that Smith will be jumping at the chance for an interview because his colt is expected to be one of the horses to beat, nor is it because the Louisville resident has been dreaming of having a horse in the Kentucky Derby all of his life. That's all true, but the real reasoning for Smith is that any chance to talk about Sierra Leone also gives him the opportunity to shout out the Backside Learning Center (BLC).

The BLC is a non-profit organization that provides support and resources for the community of racetrack workers at Churchill Downs and their families. Sierra Leone is enrolled in the BLC's “Purses for a Purpose” initiative, where a percentage of all of his earnings go straight to the BLC to fund programs that promote health and wellness, education, family empowerment and community engagement throughout the backside.

The way Smith sees it, this partnership with the BLC has served to increase the number of Sierra Leone fans going into the first Saturday in May.

“When you're in a situation like this, sharing it is the best thing whether it's with your partners or the people around the shedrow here,” said Smith. “It's everybody's moment, everybody's horse. The way it has worked out because [Sierra Leone] is in the program, it's going to put a spotlight on the Backside Learning Center.”

Trained by Chad Brown and also owned by Peter Brant, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith and Westerberg, Sierra Leone is the first Purses for a Purpose horse to run in the Kentucky Derby.

“I think other owners will really be inspired by Brook and what he's doing,” said Sherry Stanley, the executive director of the BLC. “We're hoping that this is just the beginning. Hopefully we can have one Derby horse every year. That would be incredible. I think for us, this is really exciting in that it sets a precedent with a team that is so high profile and is getting so much exposure around the Derby.”

A longtime supporter of the BLC, Smith recalled how he first learned of the nonprofit by accident, citing that organization's building was close to two other places he frequented on the backside: the betting window and the track kitchen.

The Backside Learning Center at Churchill Downs | courtesy BLC

Since then, Smith has worked to find creative ways to get the word out on the program. In 2022, he placed a $10,000 Kentucky Derby future wager on Tiz the Bomb and announced that any winnings would go directly to the BLC. While that bet didn't bring home any checks, Smith's idea for the Purses for a Purpose initiative has provided significant funding for the BLC.

“The thing that stuck out to me was their budget,” Smith recalled of his early interactions with the BLC. “I was like, 'So you're running this with all these people, all these barns, all these folks that are working back here,' and it was minuscule. Obviously Churchill Downs supports the Backside Learning Center, but they need funding well beyond that. So I thought, 'Well what about all these people that are winning these purses? Maybe we could come up with a program where owners could contribute a percentage of their horse's purses to support the backside, because the backside is supporting their horses.'”

Launched in 2020, Purses for a Purpose has celebrated success with dozens of participants from claimers to allowance horses and even a few stakes horses–a handful of which were campaigned by Smith's own Rocket Ship Racing–but there has never been as high-profile of a participant as Sierra Leone.

Smith owns 16% of Sierra Leone and has pledged 10% of the colt's earnings to the BLC, so a chunk of that newly raised $5 million Kentucky Derby purse alone would go a long way for the nonprofit, but Smith has also said he will donate an additional $100,000 to the organization if his colt wins.

“At the end of the day, what's the difference?” said Smith. “I mean, this horse hopefully continues to race quite prolifically and likely has a career as a sire, so why not spread it around?”

This kind of philosophy is typical of Smith, according to Stanley. She said that the outgoing owner has been an irreplaceable advocate for the BLC over the past decade.

“He just has such a magnetic personality and is so incredibly positive and enthusiastic,” she said. “He has such a great heart and a belief in our mission and respect for the workers back here and for all that goes into making the industry happen. He's not the kind of person that just wants to get out a checkbook and write checks. He wants to really serve as an example for others.”

Purses for a Purpose only had just over a dozen enrolled horses at the start of Derby season, but thanks to Smith's fervent PR, the numbers have already started to grow over the past few weeks. Now Smith has an ambitious mission for the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby. He hopes to get 150 horses enrolled in Purses for a Purpose.

“Even if it was just a 1% pledge, that moves the needle,” he said. “They're looking to expand and they need a new building. Hopefully through these types of conversations, more owners will hear about it and think it sounds like a great idea. I'm not trying to tell people what to do with their money, but it seems like a no-brainer to me.”

The team at the BLC will be plenty busy during Derby week, but after the weekend's festivities they will shift their focus to planning for their upcoming 20th anniversary celebration. When the organization opened its doors in 2004, there were two employees. Now the count is up to almost 20.

In 2023, 93 adults were actively enrolled in the BLC's English language class and 47 youth participated in after-school programming. 33 individuals received therapy from an on-site social worker and 40 families participated in the BLC's weekly fresh food market.

Brook Smith | courtesy Brook Smith

“We're making a great impact,” said Stanley. “We've opened up our programming to families and children, which was an important gap that we needed to fill. We feel like we're doing important things and really transforming lives.”

As for Smith, there will be a lack of sleep but an abundance of anticipation in the coming days as he waits to watch Sierra Leone enter the starting gate. When asked that familiar question of how it feels to have his horse running in the Kentucky Derby, he described the experience as surreal.

“I really just want the horse to continue to do as well as he has,” he said. “He's in great hands. He certainly has a good mind and spirit. He just loves to be out there, whether it's training or racing. I think it's too early to say he's special, but at the same time, so far, so damn good.”

And what would a victory come Saturday mean for Team Sierra Leone?

“It would be a moment in history in a lot of ways, but mainly for the Backside Learning Center,” he said. “Hopefully that will be an over-the-top moment where more people will think about supporting the services they provide to the community here.”

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