Trainer Chad Brown seeks first Kentucky Derby victory after coming close. Having 2 entrants helps

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — There was a brief moment three weeks ago when trainer Chad Brown’s Kentucky Derby outlook was jolted as one of his hopefuls resisted multiple attempts to enter the gate in a major qualifying race and then started slowly.

Things turned out way better than Brown could have guessed as that testy colt, Sierra Leone, put any concerns to rest by storming from the back to win the Grade 1 Blue Grass by 1½ lengths at Keeneland. That stirring rally not only gave Brown two Derby contenders along with Domestic Product entering Saturday’s milestone 150th Derby at Churchill Downs, but the points leader coming into the race.

And as Brown seeks his long-awaited Derby breakthrough in the $5 million race, having multiple chances certainly helps against 18 other horses.

“We’ve come in with some good shots, but we’ve yet to win the race,” said Brown, who is winless in seven starts with a second and third since 2018. “So, hopefully it’s our year this year.”

Sierra Leone, the 3-1 second choice behind Todd Pletcher-trained Fierceness (5-2), provides Brown his best chance thanks to uncanny closing speed. It has helped the son of Gun Runner and Heavenly Love won both starts as a 3-year-old by narrow margins after settling back early. Catching Freedom is the 8-1 third choice in the 1 1/4-mile first jewel in the Triple Crown.

Domestic Product enters as a 30-1 long shot but also rested after winning the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby by a neck on March 9 following a runner-up finish in the Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in February.

A four-time Eclipse Award winner, Brown has come close to entering the winner’s circle, most recently with Zandon two years ago behind 80-1 long shot Rich Strike and Epicenter. Good Magic gave him his best performance in 2018, finishing second to eventual Triple Crown winner Justify. In his first Derby in 2013, Normandy Invasion was fourth.

Those close calls fuel Brown’s determination to win the Derby, no matter how low key he appears.

“It’s a long walk back to the barn after you come up just short in the Derby and you wonder if you’re going to get back,” Brown said. “It’s just such a hard race to win.

“I’ve had that walk back a couple times now where I was thinking, ‘you know, it’s just my one shot.’ But that’s the great thing about the sport. You never know what the next year brings. And the next crop of horses, your next potential derby starter could be in there. Thankfully, I have two.”

Brown, Louisville-born Brad Cox and Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen have shown consistent success in their careers, and four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas believes it’s just a matter of time before their names are engraved on the gold Derby trophy. And he makes sure they believe it, whether he’s mentored them or not.

“I remember before Nick Zito won one I put my arm around him one day when I beat him and said, ‘Nick, you’ll get one’ and he actually got two,” Lukas said of his fellow Hall of Famer. “I don’t have any trouble encouraging young guys, or even my colleagues.”

Brown appreciated Lukas’ sentiment and is encouraged by both horses’ on-schedule maturation for the biggest race of their lives. Sierra Leone’s gate work no doubt has been part of the preparation given his most recent effort, an issue that will be put that to the test on Saturday when he breaks from the less-than-optimal No. 2 post.

That spot has yielded seven winners in 94 starts (7.4%) since the use of gates began in 1930, the last coming in 1978 with eventual Triple Crown champion Affirmed. Domestic Product’s No. 15 post has won nearly 10% of 62 starts, with Authentic winning the pandemic-delayed race four years ago from that spot.

Brown relishes those challenges, which will make it most satisfying if one of them is draped in the garland of red roses. It will definitely be a long time in the making, and he hopes to savor it with everyone around him.

“It’d be most rewarding to see them getting to that point with a Derby winner because they put in a lot of hours, a lot of traveling,” he said. “There’s been some disappointments along the way, but they’ve been consistent with their approach with working with these animals. I respect their work as a team, and it would be very rewarding to do it with them.”


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