Where Next for KyDerby Runnerup Sierra Leone?

May 6, 2024

Sierra Leone losing in a photo finish by a nose. (Churchill Downs Image)

Kentucky Derby Update

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Trainer Chad Brown is always purposeful with his thoughts and words, mindful of his phrasing and the fact that perspective can shift on a dime in Thoroughbred racing. The morning after watching Grade I winner Sierra Leone come up a nose short of Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan during a thrilling three-horse finish on the wire, the four-time Eclipse Award winning conditioner was introspective as he sorted out the gamut of emotions running through him after his classic near-miss.

Brown checked on Sierra Leone firsthand Sunday morning, reporting that the son of Gun Runner was tired but all good following his achingly close runner-up finish in the first leg of the Triple Crown. After showing off the colt to co-owner Derrick Smith, who was on hand to also admire his gritty charge, Brown discussed what might be next for the Blue Grass Stakes (GI) victor after running a winning race that didn’t yield the result to match.

“He’s good, but he’s not going to the Preakness,” Brown said of Sierra Leone. “I’m going to take him to Saratoga tomorrow and he’s going to train there for the Belmont (Stakes). He’s a little tired. He’s a real laid back horse but when we brought him he out, was a little more tired than he normally is after his races. I think giving him the five weeks to the Belmont is definitely the right thing to do.”

Sierra Leone indeed expended tremendous energy in the Kentucky Derby as he rallied from 18th early on, made a wide, sweeping move off the far turn, traded bumps with third-place finisher Forever Young (JPN) in the lane and still only came up inches short. Brown said Sierra Leone does have a tendency to lean in and that jockey Tyler Gaffalione was trying to keep the colt straight in tight quarters with Forever Young without accidentally striking that rival with his stick. 

Blue Grass (GI) winner Sierra Leone worked a half-mile in :48.80 Saturday morning at Keeneland. He’s scheduled to arrive at Churchill Downs in the coming days. (Courtney Snow/Past The Wire)
Blue Grass (GI) winner Sierra Leone worked a half-mile in :48.80 Saturday morning at Keeneland before shipping to Churchill Downs. (Courtney Snow/Past The Wire)

“There was so much bumping going on there,” Brown said. “When horses are fatigued, they have a tendency to lean in a bit like he did with his last two wins and it’s going to be more exaggerated when they’re more tired. He had so much to do and by the time he got to the eighth pole, he was leaning in a bit.

“What Tyler was attempting to do is make room for his left stick, which the horse really respects, and keep him straight. And he was looking for sort of a pathway to use his left stick. But with the bumping, the tight duel between those two horses, it disarmed him with the stick. All he had was a rein to pull on and it really hurt his momentum. He couldn’t use it because he had no room to use his left stick without hitting his horse. He didn’t want to do that either. So he was trying create a path no only to straighten out my horse who really respects that, he was trying not to foul the other horse with the stick.”

Given the amount of ground Sierra Leone had to make up and the traffic he had to work his way through, Brown believes his protege ran the kind of race that further validates his belief that he brought the best horse into the 10-furlong classic.

“I’m very proud of the horse. I’m disappointed with the result, but I’m so proud of the horse, Brown said. “In my mind, he ran the best race. That’s no disrespect to the winner. It’s just, it’s a hard race to win, everything has to go right. With the winner, the horse showed up and was prepared right and he ran terrific. You have to have a trip where everything goes right. 

“It’s not (Mystik Dan’s) fault the doors opened for him, I wish that would have happened for me. But I don’t think lesser of the winner’s performance. It’s just an example of two trips. But that’s what has to happen here. For us, I don’t think we had a bad trip. But our horse was very far back on a track that favors speed and he had to go around a lot of horses and he had a ton of ground to make up. To almost get there despite all that, I really feel he ran the best race. We’ll see going forward the rest of the year where he stacks up with the entire body of work.”

Sierra Leone works outside of Domestic Spending for Chad Brown. (Jenny Doyle/Past The Wire)
Sierra Leone works outside of Domestic Spending for Chad Brown. (Jenny Doyle/Past The Wire)

Brown added that his other Kentucky Derby starter, Domestic Product, emerged from his 13th-place run having lost a shoe and grabbed a quarter. 

“Domestic Product lost a shoe leaving the gate and grabbed his quarter pretty good,” Brown said. “Then he was a bit keen down the backside. Irad (Ortiz Jr.) was trying to tuck in, and he was pulling and stuff like that. He was just never happy, he never really relaxed. I’m going to throw that race out. I do like that horse and hopefully he comes back good.”

From Brown, Sierra Leone’s defeat marked the third time he has sent out a horse who finished in the top three of the Derby. Brown saddled champion Good Magic to a runner-up finish behind eventual Triple Crown winner Justify in 2018 and had Zandon come home third to long shot winner Rich Strike in 2022. 

“I really felt I had the best horse,” Brown said of Sierra Leone. “Nobody was really going to convince me otherwise. I wasn’t going to broadcast it, but I knew what I had. But I also went in prepared for the worse because it’s such a hard race to win. Little things can change fate. It can be brutal dealing with the agony of defeat sometimes.”

Have to give out Props to @jonathanstettin for yesterday winners sure did help me have a big day 👌🏻$

Mike @tout1horse View testimonials

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