Sierra Leone wins Blue Grass Stakes and enters 'Kentucky Derby favorite' conversation

LEXINGTON — Move over, Fierceness. Four weeks out, there’s competition for status as Kentucky Derby favorite.

Sierra Leone made his case Saturday, overcoming early gate issues and rallying from the back of the pack to win the $1 million, Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland by 1 ½ lengths over Just a Touch.

With Tyler Gaffalione riding, Sierra Leone covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.08 and paid $5.32 to win as the 8-5 favorite. He earned 100 qualifying points for the May 4 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, clinching a spot in the field.

Whether he’ll be the morning-line favorite remains to be seen. Fierceness, the 2-year-old champion, won last week’s Florida Derby by 13 ½ lengths and likely will be the Kentucky Derby favorite.

But Sierra Leone’s impressive performance Saturday will be worthy of conversation.

“Once you get down to that first Saturday in May, the crop just keeps getting pared down to just that 20 that to into the gate,” trainer Chad Brown said. “What you’re looking for is a horse with a burst of energy that looks like they can get the mile-and-a-quarter. He looks like he can.”

Sierra Leone improved to 3-1-0 in four career starts for the ownership group of Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Westerberg, Brook Smith and Peter Brant.

Sierra Leone, ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, won the 100th Running of The Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland Saturday afternoon. .
April 6, 2024
Sierra Leone, ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, won the 100th Running of The Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland Saturday afternoon. . April 6, 2024

A $2.3 million purchase at the 2022 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling Sale, Sierra Leone is the highest-priced Triple Crown nominee this year.

“He’s been a star since he was born,” Brown said. “He’s just an unbelievable physical specimen. You can’t fault him anywhere.”

Just a Touch was making just his third career start for Louisville trainer Brad Cox. He earned 50 qualifying points, giving him 75 total and clinching a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

Just a Touch took the lead with a furlong remaining before Sierra Leone went flying by.

“I thought he had a good shot when we straightened up, but I also saw Sierra Leone making a pretty big move from the three-eighths pole,” Cox said. “I knew he was coming. Obviously, he’s a very good horse and that’s his running style and he’d be hard to hold off.”

Brown and the rest of the Sierra Leone connections had some tense moments before the horses even left the gate — namely, their horse wouldn’t go in, causing a short delay.

Brown said Sierra Leone “got spooked” as he waited to get loaded in the No. 10 post.

“From there on out he was more interested in the crowd than going in the gate,” Cox said. “Hats off to the gate crew. Did a wonderful job to stay with him and get him in there safely so he was able to run his best race.”

Sierra Leone began making his move from last while entering the final turn and showed he was much the best.

Gaffalione called it “great schooling” for the Kentucky Derby.

“He’s been schooled in his past races and handled dirt fine, but today I was able to save the ground,” he said. “Even in the second turn we went inside a couple of horses. He’s just push-button. He does whatever you ask him to.”

Now comes the long four-week wait until the Derby. Brown said Sierra Leone will remain at Keeneland for the foreseeable future.

Brant and his partners are excited about their horse’s chances.

“Very proud to have a horse in that race,” Brant said. “There are a thousand ways to lose that race, so you can’t ever feel really secure. But I feel this horse has a big career in front of him.”

Brown will be looking for his first Derby victory but has been close before, finishing second with Good Magic in 2018 and third with Zandon in 2022.

He was asked to compare Sierra Leone to those two.

“This horse,” Brown said, “he’s probably just ahead of them the way he’s marching into the Derby.”

Jason Frakes: 502-582-4046; Follow on X @KentuckyDerbyCJ.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Sierra Leone enters Kentucky Derby favorite convo with Blue Grass win