This could be the year the Blue Grass Stakes ends its Kentucky Derby drought

Ever since prominent thoroughbred owners opted to stick with Bob Baffert instead of transferring their contenders to trainers eligible for the Kentucky Derby, the assumption was the first Saturday in May would not include this year’s top 3-year-old.

Turns out, that’s a maybe, maybe not.

That’s not because Amr Zedan, owner of Arkansas Derby winner Muth, has thrown a Hail Mary with a last-minute lawsuit against Churchill Downs in hopes of an injunction against the track regarding its Baffert ban, with a hearing scheduled for Monday in Jefferson County.

It’s because Sierra Leone, the $2.3 million yearling purchase trained by Chad Brown, made a serious statement while winning the Grade 1, $ 1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in impressive fashion.

For starters, the son of Gun Runner balked at entering the starting gate before finally loading. Next, Sierra Leone was placed next to last in the 10-horse field for much of the 100th running of the 1 1/8-race. When Sierra finally got going, he really got going, blowing by the field for the 1 1/2-length win, his third victory in four career starts.

It was the most memorable performance on a day that saw 9-2 shot Resilience win the Grade 2 Wood Memorial for trainer Bill Mott as even-money favorite Deterministic ran a disappointing eighth.

Meanwhile, Stronghold won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby by beating the Baffert-trained Imagination in a thrilling photo finish in California.

Baffert is banned from his third consecutive Derby, a suspension enforced and then lengthened by Churchill Downs Inc. after Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance banned on race day after finishing first in the 2021 Derby.

Unlike the past two years, Baffert’s owners opted not to transfer their horses to eligible trainers by the Jan. 29 deadline. That means that without a judicial upset, Muth will not be in the starting gate for Kentucky Derby 150 despite his two Grade 1 victories.

Thus the expected favorite on May 4 is Fierceness, the Mike Repole-owned colt trained by Todd Pletcher. After a third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 3, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner returned to form to smash the Florida Derby field by 13 1/2 lengths on March 30 at Gulfstream Park.

Fierceness’ jockey, John Velazquez, also rode the Wood Memorial winner on Saturday. After breaking his maiden in his fourth attempt, Resilience finished fourth in the Grade 2 Risen Star, won by Sierra Leone, in his stakes race debut. Mott added blinkers for the Wood.

A $1.05-million yearling purchase at the 2022 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Imagination was the even-money favorite in the Santa Anita Derby after winning the Grade 2 San Felipe. Stronghold was coming off a win in the the Grade 3 Sunland Derby for trainer Phil D’Amato on Feb. 18.

Tyler Gaffalione celebrates winning Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes aboard Sierra Leone.
Tyler Gaffalione celebrates winning Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes aboard Sierra Leone.

The Blue Grass winner hasn’t worn the garland of roses on Kentucky Derby day since Strike the Gold in 1991. Based on Saturday, Sierra Leone has a legitimate shot to end that drought.

Owned by Peter Brant, Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Westerberg and Brook T. Smith, the dark bay colt won his career debut as a 2-year-old before losing by a nose to Dornoch in last year’s Remsen Stakes. In his 3-year-old debut, Sierra Leone made a strong rally in the stretch to beat pacesetter Track Phantom to win the Risen Star by a half length on Feb. 17. it was his first race in blinkers.

His Blue Grass victory came against a respectable field — runner-up Just a Touch now has a win and two second-place finishes in his three career races for trainer Brad Cox — under less-than-ideal circumstances.

“He’s a special horse,” Brown said Saturday. “He was a special horse since he was born. He’s an unbelievable physical specimen. You can’t fault him anywhere. We’re lucky to have him in our barn.”

Brown was runner-up to Triple Crown winner Justify in the 2018 Kentucky Derby with Good Magic. He was third in the 2022 running with Zandon.

Said the trainer of Sierra Leone and the Derby: “We just have to get him there healthy.”

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