Sierra Leone – Kentucky Derby Context

April 22nd, 2024

Long and physically imposing, Sierra Leone will bring a dynamic closing kick to the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby (G1). The dark bay exits a superb win in the Blue Grass (G1) over an inside and speed-favoring oval at Keeneland, flying past rivals to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths after launching his bid from far back and powering wide into the stretch. Sierra Leone has raced against the track flow in all three stakes starts, displaying immense talent while still raw at times, and his rider commented after the Blue Grass, “He has so much ability and he does things so easily. We haven’t even got close to the bottom of him yet.” Sierra Leone will need to work out a trip from off the pace in a 20-horse field and after balking at the starting gate of the Blue Grass, he needs to handle the loading process better at Churchill Downs.

Owner: Sierra Leone races for Derrick Smith, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, Westerberg Limited (Michael Kuessner), Brook T. Smith & Peter Brant. Tabor is best known for his involvement in Coolmore-affiliated partnerships, but as a sole owner, he won with his first Kentucky Derby starter, Thunder Gulch in 1995. Overall, he’s compiled a 20-1-1-0 record in the Derby. Brant co-owned 1984 Kentucky Derby winner Swale and is unplaced from three other starters. Magnier (0-for-13), Derrick Smith (0-for-12), and Westerberg (0-for-1) have prior experience, and this will be the first starter for Brook Smith.

Trainer: Chad Brown finished fourth with his initial Kentucky Derby starter, Normandy Invasion in 2013, and the 45-year-old conditioner from upstate New York has compiled a 7-0-1-1 record in the Run for the Roses, finishing second (Good Magic in 2018) and third (Zandon in 2022) with two of his last three starters. An 18-time Breeders’ Cup race winner, Brown has saddled Preakness (G1) winners Cloud Computing (2017) and Early Voting (2022) and earned four Eclipse Awards for leading trainer. He also will be represented by Tampa Bay Derby (G3) winner Domestic Product.

Jockey: An 11-time leading jockey at Churchill Downs, Tyler Gaffalione will seek his first Kentucky Derby victory. The 29-year-old Florida native is unplaced from six previous starts, the best finish being a seventh by War of Will (2019), whom Gaffalione piloted to a Preakness (G1) win two weeks later, and Gaffalione earned his first Breeders’ Cup race wins in 2022. Named champion apprentice jockey of 2015, Gaffalione picked up the mount upon Sierra Leone this year, guiding the colt to eye-catching wins in the Risen Star (G2) and Blue Grass.

Breeder/Sales: Bred in Kentucky by Debby Oxley, Sierra Leone was purchased for a sale-topping $2.3 million as a yearling at the 2022 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga August sale. Oxley is married to John Oxley, and the Oxleys campaigned 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos. They also own Darling My Darling, the second maternal dam for Sierra Leone and unbeaten Japanese star Forever Young. Sierra Leone will be their second Kentucky Derby starter as a breeder, with Pyramid Peak finishing 17th in 1995.

Sire: Sierra Leone is from the third crop of Gun Runner, who counted champion Echo Zulu and Preakness winner Early Voting among six Grade 1 winners from his first crop. The record-breaking freshman sire stands at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., and Gun Runner has had three Kentucky Derby starters from his first two crops, Disarm’s fourth last year the best result. Third in the 2016 Kentucky Derby, Gun Runner was named Horse of the Year as a four-year-old and retired with six Grade 1 triumphs and more than $15.9 million in earnings. Gun Runner is by renowned sire Candy Ride, an Argentinean-bred son of Ride the Rails.

Dam: Sierra Leone is the first stakes winner from the Grade 1-winning Heavenly Love, a daughter of Malibu Moon. Best known for siring 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Malibu Moon has been represented by 2021 Preakness runner-up Midnight Bourbon as a broodmare sire, and he’s by the great sire A.P. Indy. Heavenly Love is out of multiple stakes winner and Grade 1 runner-up Darling My Darling, a daughter of Deputy Minister, the broodmare sire of 2007 Preakness winner Curlin and Belmont (G1) winners Jazil (2006), Rags to Riches (2007), and Sarava (2002).

Top Brisnet Speed: 101
Top Brisnet Late Pace: 99