The Week in Review: From Out of New Orleans Gloaming, Sierra Leone Splashes into Derby Relevance

Sierra Leone | Hodges Photography/Amanda Hodges Weir

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'TDN Rising Star' Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) checked off quite a few boxes on his GI Kentucky Derby development checklist with Saturday's half-length score in the GII Risen Star S. at Fair Grounds. In just his third career start, he handled shipping away from his home base, winning as the 5-2 favorite off an 11-week layoff, rating from mid-pack while equipped with blinkers for the first time, and racing under the lights on a sloppy, sealed and eerily shadowy track.

And yet, jockey Tyler Gaffalione still believes there's room for improvement–which is exactly what you want to hear if you fancy the chances of this $2.3-million Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale-topper on the first Saturday in May.

“He's a very special horse. We haven't even gotten close to the bottom of him,” Gaffalione told FanDuel TV's Caton Bredar post-win. “He's still learning. He's still green. You can see when he made the lead, he still wanted to lug in a little bit. But [he was] much more professional today. He honestly didn't hit his best stride until the gallop-out.”

After winning his one-turn-mile debut Nov. 4 at Aqueduct, trainer Chad Brown tried Sierra Leone in the Dec. 2 GII Remsen S., where the colt uncorked a sweeping, seven-wide move over a muddy surface that produced a heavily speed-slanted bias (five wire-to-wire and five on-the-pace winners). Sierra Leone sling-shotted to the lead, but bore in once it looked like he'd blow past Dornoch (Good Magic), who clawed back to the lead to win in the shadow of the wire.

It was an unfortunate loss-of-focus result for Sierra Leone, but Brown shrugged off the second-place finish and immediately suggested he'd equip the colt with blinkers to start his sophomore season.

The blinkers weren't intended to suddenly transform this deep closer into a speed freak. But on Saturday the equipment change did make a mid-pack trip easier to attain under the patient Gaffalione.

The second-favorite in the Risen Star, the 3-1 Track Phantom (Quality Road), was sent to the lead as expected, and Joel Rosario was able to milk a moderate tempo at the head of affairs, splashing through catch-me-if-you-can splits of :24.32, :25.35 and :25.07 for the first three quarter-miles of the nine-furlong race.

As a come-from-behinder, Sierra Leone might end up being one of those Derby hopefuls who is always going to be at the mercy of the pace and potential traffic. Three-eighths out, it became apparent that trying to reel in a relatively untaxed Track Phantom would be a good test of Sierra Leone's ability to overcome exactly that sort of adversity.

Going into the Risen Star, Track Phantom had won three straight two-turn races while controlling the cadence and then having to swat back legitimate stretch challenges, and he turned for home in the New Orleans gloaming still looking strong with the additional benefit of having taken no kickback at the front of the slop-spattered pack.

Sierra Leone takes a long while to unwind, but there was no panic in Gaffalione's tactics as he let his colt build momentum starting three-eighths out. Turning for home, Gaffalione was still content to be choosy about picking his path, spinning four-, six-, eight- and then nine wide for the drive, exchanging all that lost real estate for being able to get a clear shot at the hard-trying Track Phantom.

Sierra Leone was still four lengths in arrears at the eighth pole. But he sliced that margin in half a sixteenth from the finish while edging inward toward Catching Freedom (Constitution) and then Track Phantom despite left-handed urging from Gaffalione to stay straight.

With the line looming, Gaffalione knew he had Track Phantom zeroed in on his striking sights 50 yards from home, and Sierra Leone seemed to relish the task of inhaling that rival, striding out powerfully to stop the timer in 1:52.13.

Don't judge Sierra Leone's effort by that raw final clocking on a quagmire of a track that got more sluggish after sunset. By .66 seconds, it was the slowest Risen Star in six runnings (including split divisions in 2020) since the Risen Star got elongated to nine furlongs from 1 1/16 miles five years ago.

The winning Beyer Speed Figure came back as 90, which is more or less on par with the 91 Sierra Leone earned in the Remsen.

The timing to take note of out of the Risen Star is the fourth quarter clocked in :24.66.

For comparison, of the nine points-awarding Derby qualifying stakes run at 1 1/8 miles during the entire 2022-23 campaign, only one of those races (the GI Santa Anita Derby in early April) yielded a sub-25 seconds fourth quarter.

And the final furlong, during which Sierra Leone gained 2 1/2 lengths to win, was clocked in a respectable (given the course conditions) :12.73.

The Apr. 6 GI Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland will be next for Sierra Leone.

“What we had planned on win or lose–but assuming a good race–is to use the Blue Grass as our Kentucky Derby prep,” Brown said after the Feb. 17 win. “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.”

History could be on Sierra Leone's side in the Blue Grass. The last six times Brown has started a horse in that stakes, the results have been two wins, three close seconds, and a third.

But another recent angle–winning the Kentucky Derby off of just two starts at age three–could pose a historical hurdle.

After that game plan produced eight Derby winners between 2007 and 2016, horses with only two sophomore starts prior to trying their luck in Louisville have been a collective 0-for-39 since 2017.

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