Week In Review: The Horse to Beat in the Derby? It's Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone won the 100th GI Toyota Blue Grass Coady

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When Fierceness (City of Light) put on a show in the GI Florida Derby there didn't seem to be any question over who the favorite would be in the GI Kentucky Derby. The Mike Repole-homebred put on quite a show that day, winning by a record 13 1/2 lengths while earning a 110 Beyer figure, the fastest dirt number recorded by any horse this year. He gave the impression that if he could duplicate that race in the Kentucky Derby, there wouldn't be a horse on the planet that could beat him that day.

Then again…

Just seven days after the Florida Derby, Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) turned in a special performance of his own in the GI Blue Grass S. at Keeneland. He didn't win by 13 1/2 lengths. The margin was just 1 1 /2 lengths. He didn't get a triple digit Beyer. It was a 98. It was a very different race than the one turned in by Fierceness but was every bit as special, maybe even more so.

His story really begins at the 2022 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale. The Coolmore team and Peter Brant have a sharp eye for talent and it looks like this was a horse they had to have. They paid $2.3 million for him, which made him the sale topper. With Brant involved, the horse was sent to his main trainer, Chad Brown.

He broke his maiden in November at Aqueduct and came back in the GII Remsen, where he staged an epic duel with Dornoch (Good Magic). He lost by a nose but Dornoch was hugging the rail on a day where the inside was the place to be.

Sierra Leone kicked off his 3-year-old season winning the GII Risen Star S. at the Fair Grounds. Catching Freedom (Constitution), who was third, went on to win the GII Louisiana Derby. Resilience (Into Mischief) was fourth in the Risen Star and came back in his next start to win the GII Wood Memorial.

But it was the Blue Grass where Sierra Leone really showed how special he is. He acted up prior to the start and delayed the race. That's oftentimes a kiss of death, but it proved not to be a problem. With Tyler Gaffalione aboard he dropped back to ninth in the ten-horse field before launching his bid. Midway on the turn, he still had to get past six horses, which wasn't any sort problem. He came with monstrous, ground gobbling strides and flew past Just a Touch (Justify) to win going away. He ran like a horse who should love the mile-and-quarter and one who has yet to peak.

“We're just trying to maintain pretty much the way he's been his whole life, a special horse,” said Brown, who is 0-for-7 in the Derby. “I don't know if they ever fully figure it out, but he's  only had a handful of starts.”

So this was a race where Sierra Leone had to fight and show what he is capable of. He also beat some top quality horses in Just A Touch and GII Fountain of Youth winner Dornoch, who was fourth.

That wasn't at all the case for Fierceness in the Florida Derby. Perfectly ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, he was wisely taken to the lead and Velazquez was able to slow the pace down. Fierceness was in front the whole way while posting tepid fractions. He went the first quarter in 24.06, the half in 47.50 and the three quarters In 1:11.31. No one was ever going to catch him with the trip he was able to work out. And to make matters even easier on him, neither of his top two challengers fired. Conquest Warrior (City of Light) was fourth, beaten 16 lengths. Hades (Awesome Slew), the GIII Holy Bull S. winner, was even worse, finishing fifth, beaten 19 3/4 lengths. Catalytic (Catalina Cruiser), a 29-1 shot, was second and 21-1 shot Grand Mo the First (Uncle Mo) was third. Both will be among the longest shots on the board in the Kentucky Derby.

Then there is Fierceness's erratic nature. He runs well every other start and seems unable to overcome any adversity. In the Derby, with 20 horses, he's never going to get a clear, uncontested lead and a slow pace and probably, at some point will encounter some trouble. It's a very hard race in which to get a trouble-free trip.

When it comes to Fierceness-versus-Sierra Leone, the deciding factor could be the pace. As strong a late kick as he has, Sierra Leone still doesn't want to be 19th in the Derby with someone, maybe Fierceness, setting slow fractions. If Fierceness can get loose on the lead he can absolutely win, Just don't expect that to happen in a 20-horse race where there is usually a pretty quick pace.

Even without Bob Baffert's participation, this looks like a deep, Derby field with a lot of quality. Can Fierceness win? Despite his tendency to throw in bad races, absolutely. But he's going to have to beat Sierra Leone and so will 18 other horses. He's the horse to beat.

Post Time is on a Roll

The GII Carter at Aqueduct has seen better days. Once one of the most important sprint races on the calendar, it was downgraded to a Grade II for this year and the race attracted all of four horses. But the winner was notable.

Even with the small field, this was the biggest test to date for the Brittany Russell-trained Post Time (Frosted). He came into the race with seven wins from eight career starts but some were arguing that he was just beating up on inferior competition in Maryland. His lone defeat had come in the Perryville S. at Keeneland, the only time he had run outside of Maryland.

As expected, Super Chow (Lord Nelson) got off to an uncontested lead and was allowed to set easy fractions. He went in 24.38 and 48.18 and Post Time was last. He then got carried out to the middle of the track by Super Chow, who has a bad habit of bearing out in the stretch. Despite all that, he was able to get the win, beating Castle Chaos (Palace Music) by a neck.

With Elite Power (Curlin) and Gunite (Gun Runner) both having been retired, Post Time could be on his way to an Eclipse Award.

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