Blue Grass: Sierra Leone Dazzles in Winning Final Derby Prep

Fractious at the gate, fantastic at the finish!

Sierra Leone’s co-owner Peter Brant hugs trainer Chad Brown

Sierra Leone came up with a doozy of a Derby prep with a powerful victory in the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes (G1) at Keeneland on Saturday, stamping him a top contender for the Run for Roses.

Sierra Leone Cruised Right Into the Kentucky Derby Gate With His Blue Grass Win

After refusing to go into the starting gate several times, Sierra Leone ($5.32 for a $2 win bet) kicked into gear on the backstretch, picking off rivals one by one, and surging to the lead in the stretch for a 1 ½-length victory over Just a Touch.

On a final weekend of huge Kentucky Derby preps, Sierra Leone was the star. A closing winner of the Risen Star (G2) at the Fair Grounds on a rainy day last out, Sierra Leone did himself one better in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass.

The top five finishers earned Derby qualifying points of 100-50-25-15-10; Sierra Leone soared to the top of the leaderboard with 155 points, while Just a Touch picked up 50 points (75 total) to claim his spot in the Derby field.

Epic Ride picked up 25 points (35 total points), followed by Dornoch for 15 points (75 total points), and Mugatu (10 points). Dornoch is also Derby bound.

With Tyler Gaffalione aboard, the $2.3 million colt had to be coaxed into stall 10 by the gate crew. He was backed in and balked; he was led sideways and balked; and he bobbed his head and turned away when led to the gate straightaway. Finally, he relented, was loaded in, and the field of 10 was on its way.

Top Conor led with Just a Touch racing second. Sierra Leone was ninth and didn’t begin to make up ground until midway into the backstretch. And you could see he was moving with authority and his stride seemed longer than his rivals.

Sierra Leone

He was taken six wide into the stretch, the leaders dropped out of the picture, and Dornoch put up a mild challenge. He was no match for Sierra Leone, and neither was Just a Touch or third place-finisher, Epic Ride.

“I loved everything about it. He didn’t break the sharpest, but it actually gave me time to get over and save some ground into the first turn,’’ Gaffalione said. “He took the dirt just fine. Down the backside he got into a great rhythm.

“From the five-eighths pole on, he was moving like a winner. I was able to save some ground into the second turn, pop him out, and he just has so much talent.”

Winning time was 1:50.08.

The win comes a week after Fierceness went gate-to-wire and won the Florida Derby (G1) by a record 13 ½ lengths. Sierra Leone’s win established these two as the clear Derby favorites four weeks out.

Sierra Leone (right) finished ahead of Just A Touch in the Blue Grass

Sierra Leone, beaten a nose by Dornoch in the Remsen (G3) back in December, has won his other three starts.

Brad Cox, who trains Just a Touch, said: “He’s going to have to move forward in the next four weeks. Colts can do that. If he moves forward, he will be able to compete in the Derby.”

Danny Gargan, who trains Dornoch as well as Wood Memorial (G2) runner-up Society Man, said: “There’s no pressure now. We’re going to go over there (to Churchill) and have fun. We’re going to have two horses in the race and try and enjoy ourselves, and hopefully get lucky and win that day.”

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