Weekend Round-Up: Did Sierra Leone Do Enough?

April 9, 2024

Sierra Leone victorious in the Blue Grass (Courtney Snow/Past The Wire)

By Laura Pugh

We knew going in that this weekend would give us some answers leading up to the Kentucky Derby, and while it didn’t in the way many of us thought, it still revealed several contenders while exposing just as many pretenders. 

Deceptive Blue Grass

I know that I’m about to rile up several of you, but here it goes…I don’t think Sierra Leone was as impressive as several are making his Blue Grass Stakes out to be. 

You could argue that there was a bias, however, the majority of the races were sprints, in which the splits, while solid, were not blazing for the distance. The only sprint in which the splits were legitimately fast was the Madison, and that resulted in the pacesetter fading to a well-beaten third, while the winner came from fourth. The only two-turn race, the winner came from three lengths off the pace, despite the early leader setting moderate opening splits. 

In the Blue Grass Stake, the early pace was scorching. TimeformUS even red coded the race, and not, just a few splits, but every single split. This was due to Top Connor being used as a rabbit, in setting such a fast pace, he softened up anyone near him, giving Sierra Leone the perfect set-up.

Sierra Leone was able to take advantage of this and win, “closing” from 8 ¾’s off the lead. I say “closing” because I believe the close was more of an optical illusion of the field coming back to him. The fourth quarter was caught in 25.82, over a second slower than the third and over two seconds slower than the second quarter. This proves the theory that the field backed up into Sierra Leone, allowing him to expand minimal energy while getting within 2 ½ lengths from the leaders at the stretch call.

From there, I would have expected a powerful closing split from a horse. That didn’t happen. Sierra Leone’s final split for the last furlong was 13 seconds flat. For comparison purposes, here are other final splits for the final round of Kentucky Derby preps. Fierceness, 12.52; Muth, 12.29; Catching Freedom (final 3/16’s), 18.35; Resilience, 12.93; and Stronghold, 13.10.

As you can see, Sierra’s final split is the second slowest of all, even though he was the farthest off the pace, which should have enabled him to have more in the tank. 

Could this be because he threw a fit when trying to load, expending energy then? Sure. However, I don’t think that is a positive, considering he was in front of roughly 40k people and the crowd for the Kentucky Derby can easily be double that amount. 

While he’s talented enough for me not to leave him out of my top four, given this performance, if it’s a fast track for the 150th Kentucky Derby, I can’t endorse him as a win candidate. 

“Strong” Santa Anita Derby?

Antonio Fresu gets his first US G1. (Ernie Belmonte/Past The Wire)
Stronghold captures the Santa Anita Derby (Ernie Belmonte/Past The Wire)

When I said I was worried about Stronghold encountering a troubled trip from his inner post I wasn’t wrong. When the real running started, Stronghold made his move, but it looked as though he had nowhere to go. Then, split through a seam between E J Won the Cup and Imagination. 

The final time wasn’t something to write home about at 1:49.98. The pace was insane early on, and it definitely took a toll on the horses late, with Stronghold recording a 25.44 fourth quarter and a 13.10 final furlong. Since the 2000’s horse that’s pulled the Santa Anita/Kentucky Derby double has done so after recording a 13-second final furlong, or slower.

However, if you like him, don’t rule him out of the top four, as both Dortmund and Exaggerator recorded final furlongs in excess of 13 seconds and wound up running second in the Kentucky Derby. 

Other pluses to take from Stronghold’s effort are that he was able to rate and still make a nice run. He was 2-2 ½ lengths off the pace for the majority of the race, which is a stark contrast to the Sunland Derby where he was in close proximity to the front or on it, the entire time. He also bested Imagination, who had the jump on him, and though Imagination is not within Baffert’s top flight, he’s still shown quite a bit of talent. 

It was also encouraging to see Stronghold not deterred by the traffic or running inside of horses, which is something that he will more than likely encounter in the Kentucky Derby, should he get a middle or inside post position. 

Weighing the Wood Results

Resilience much the best in the Wood Memorial (Angelo Lieto)

With the two favorites, Deterministic and Tuscan Sky, nowhere to be found, that left the Wood Memorial wide open, and Resilience carped that diem. 

One wouldn’t think of it, looking at his record, but it’s possible that Resilience could progress well out of the Wood Memorial. 

Firstly, let’s examine the race he had two starts back… the Risen Star Stakes. That race is now looking to be a key prep, having produced three next-out winners. I need to go through my history books, but I’d love to know the last prep that produces three or more, next-out Kentucky Derby prep winners. 

In that race, Resilience ran almost identically to the way he ran in his maiden-breaking score and Wood Memorial victory. Sitting third, just a couple lengths off the lead, only that day, he didn’t have the same kick. For his maiden and Wood Memorial victories, he caught fast, dry tracks, and as we all know, the Risen Star was sloppy. 

His running style is one that typically performs well in the Kentucky Derby, plus, from a numbers standpoint, he’s improved incrementally with each race, starting from his maiden, which is exactly the pattern you want to see going into the Kentucky Derby.

History is against him, as a Wood Memorial winner hasn’t won the Kentucky Derby since 2000. However, with streaking going by the wayside the last couple years, and favorites not faring so well, maybe Resilience will have a chance at snapping the Wood Memorial cold streak. 

Contributing Authors

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that...

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