Sierra Leone Stamps His Authority On The Blue Grass

Sierra Leone | Coady

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He wasn't the most cooperative at the stalls and he left himself plenty to do over a Keeneland main track that was playing kind to speed over the course of the afternoon, but 'TDN Rising Star' Sierra Leone (c, 3, Gun Runner–Heavenly Love, by Malibu Moon) saved his best for last and cemented his status as one of the top couple of contenders for the GI Kentucky Derby with a fast-finishing victory in the 100th running of the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. Saturday afternoon.

The victory, on the back of an equally decisive score in the GII Risen Star S. at the Fair Grounds Feb. 17, sets up a titanic clash of 'TDN Rising Stars' in the $5-million GI Kentucky Derby in a month's time with Eclipse champion 2-year-old Fierceness (City of Light), a far handier sort possessed of a high cruising speed that can be difficult to reel in.

Sierra Leone was to be the last to load in gate 10, but he proved a bit difficult to handle, delaying the start of the Blue Grass by about three minutes. A bit easy in the market, having touched 6-5 before leaving the gates at odds just north of 8-5, the $2.3-million topper from the 2022 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale was perhaps a half-step slow to begin, but slid down to race one off the inside and last but one into the first turn as stablemate Top Conor (Twirling Candy)–himself a $1-million OBS March breezer–cut out sharp fractions of :23.15 and :46.48 while tracked intently by recent GIII Gotham S. runner-up Just a Touch (Justify). Unhurried and patiently handled at the tail by Tyler Gaffalione, Sierra Leone raced well out into the track while taking plenty of dirt down the backstretch and still had a double-digit gap to bridge as the Blue Grass field entered the final half-mile.

Wisely angled back down towards the inside for a two-path run around the far turn, Sierra Leone began pick off rivals and was steered outside of Be You (Curlin) and about five deep into the lane. Just a Touch hit the front in upper stretch as inexperience caught up with Top Conor, but the lead was short-lived, as Sierra Leone gathered him up with relative ease while lugging in a bit entering the final sixteenth of a mile and strode clear. Epic Ride (Blame), a latest runner-up in the John Battaglia S. Mar. 2 and trying the dirt for the first time in his five-race career, was a very good third, while Dornoch (Good Magic) failed to capitalize on a box-seat trip and was an even fourth, 6 1/2 lengths behind Sierra Leone, who he had famously beaten a nose in last year's GII Remsen S.

“He didn't break the sharpest, but it actually gave me time to get over and save some ground into the first turn,” said Gaffalione. “He took the dirt just fine. Down the backside he got into a great rhythm. From the five-eighths pole on, he was moving like a winner. I was able to save some ground into the second turn, pop him out, and he just has so much talent.”

Added trainer Chad Brown, winning a third Blue Grass: “We're just trying to maintain pretty much the way he's been his whole life, a special horse. I don't know if they ever fully figure it out, but he's only had a handful of starts. But there's such good chemistry with Tyler and Sierra Leone his last two starts. You can see he wants to lean in a little bit, but it's never too bad. He's still polishing off his experience and his skills, and I just think a mile-and-a-quarter won't be a problem going forward. We're looking forward to it.”

Trainer Danny Gargan is far from willing to give up on Dornoch, the full-brother to last year's Derby winner Mage.

“He went really well. He got in there behind,” the trainer said. “It's his first time really getting a lot of dirt like that, he resented it a little bit early, [jockey] Luis [Saez] said. He said he kind of ran away from the horses. Next time, we'll break him out of [the starting gate on the lead] and keep his face clean, and he'll run better next time.

Accorded 'Rising Star' status after overcoming an eventful journey to graduate over Aqueduct's one-turn mile at first asking on Breeders' Cup Saturday, Nov. 4, Sierra Leone looked all but home after a heroic rally in the Remsen, only to have Dornoch come back on him at the post. Opting for the long Fair Grounds stretch for his sophomore debut in the Risen Star, he was as many as 10 off the inside in upper stretch and powered home to best Track Phantom (Quality Road) and next-out GII Louisiana Derby winner Catching Freedom (Constitution) by a half-length with blinkers on for the first time.

Pedigree Notes:

Sierra Leone is the eighth elite-level winner for his leading fourth-crop sire and is the only winner from his dam, who carried the silks of breeder Debby Oxley to victory in this track's GI Darley Alcibiades S. in 2017.

Heavenly Love is a daughter of Darling My Darling, a $300,000 Keeneland September purchase by John Oxley in 1998 who won the Doubledogdare S. and Raven Run S. in Lexington while also placing in the GI Frizette S. and GI Matron S. Darling My Darling is also the dam of 2016 GII Santa Ynez S. winner Forever Darling (Congrats), whose son Forever Young (Jpn) (Real Steel {Jpn}) is the top 3-year-old dirt horse in Japan and followed up on a narrow victory in the G3 Saudi Derby Feb. 24 with success in the Mar. 30 G2 UAE Derby for trainer Yoshito Yahagi, stamping his own ticket to Louisville. Sierra Leone's Grade I-winning third dam also produced Japanese Horse of the Year Zenno Rob Roy (Jpn) (Sunday Silence).

Heavenly Love foaled a colt by Nyquist in 2022 and produced a full-sister to Sierra Leone Feb. 11.

Saturday, Keeneland
TOYOTA BLUE GRASS S.-GI, $995,782, Keeneland, 4-6, 3yo, 1 1/8m, 1:50.08, ft.
1–SIERRA LEONE, 123, c, 3, by Gun Runner
1st Dam: Heavenly Love (GISW, $346,200), by Malibu Moon
2nd Dam: Darling My Darling, by Deputy Minister
3rd Dam: Roamin Rachel, by Mining
1ST GRADE I WIN. ($2,300,000 Ylg '22 FTSAUG). 'TDN Rising Star'. O-Peter M. Brant, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Westerberg and Brook T. Smith; B-Debby M. Oxley (KY); T-Chad C. Brown; J-Tyler Gaffalione. $581,250. Lifetime Record: 4-3-1-0, $918,000. Werk Nick Rating: A+++. *Triple Plus* Click for the eNicks report & 5-cross pedigree. Click for the free Equineline.com catalogue-style pedigree.
2–Just a Touch, 123, c, 3, Justify–Touching Beauty, by Tapit. 1ST G1 BLACK TYPE. ($170,000 RNA Ylg '22 KEESEP; $125,000 Ylg '22 FTKOCT; $300,000 2yo '23 OBSAPR). O-Qatar Racing, LLC, Resolute Racing and Marc Detampel; B-Don Alberto Corporation (KY); T-Brad H. Cox. $187,500.
3–Epic Ride, 123, c, 3, Blame–Pick a Time, by Gio Ponti. 1ST GRADED BLACK TYPE, 1ST G1 BLACK TYPE. ($160,000 Ylg '22 KEESEP). O-Welch Racing LLC; B-Fred W. Hertrich (KY); T-John Ennis. $93,750.
Margins: 1HF, 3 3/4, 1 1/4. Odds: 1.66, 3.31, 51.37.
Also Ran: Dornoch, Mugatu, Top Conor, Seize the Grey, Be You, Lat Long, Good Money. Scratched: Encino.
Click for the Equibase.com chart and the TJCIS.com PPs. VIDEO, sponsored by FanDuel TV.

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