Sierra Leone takes 100th Blue Grass

Keeneland stakes recap by the track’s publicity department (Coady Media/Renee Torbit photo of Sierra Leone early in the Blue Grass amid a shower of dirt)

LEXINGTON, KY (April 6, 2024) – Peter Brant, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Westerberg Limited and Brook T. Smith’s Sierra Leone made a five-wide move at the top of the stretch and roared to the front before the sixteenth pole to post a 1½-length victory in the 100th running of the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass (G1).

Video: Trainer Chad Brown

The victory secured a spot in the starting gate for the 150th running of the $5 million Kentucky Derby (G1) Presented by Woodford Reserve to be run at Churchill Downs on May 4.

Meanwhile, several Keeneland wagering records fell on Toyota Blue Grass Day. All-sources handle for the 11-race card totaled $29,261,346, eclipsing the previous single-day wagering record of $28,137,728 set in 2022. Single-race win/place/show wagering of $2,576,663 in the Toyota Blue Grass shattered the 2019 record of $2,068,046. The All Stakes Pick 5 ending with the Toyota Blue Grass handled $1,696,981, breaking the 2022 record of $1,539,098.

Video: Owners Peter Brant and Brook T. Smith

Trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, Sierra Leone completed the 1 1/8 miles on a fast main track in 1:50.08. It is the third victory in the race for Brown, who won with Good Magic in 2018 and Zandon in 2022.

Video: Tyler Gaffalione

With the victory, Sierra Leone earned 100 points toward the Kentucky Derby and enough to earn a spot in the race that is limited to the top 20 point earners and invitees on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Sierra Leone has 155 points.

Also locking up a spot by picking up 50 points for second was Just a Touch to give him 75 points.

Other horses earning points from the Toyota Blue Grass were Epic Ride with 25 for third, Dornoch with 15 for fourth and Mugatu with 10 for fifth. Only Dornoch (75 points) of those three is safely in the top 20.

Sierra Leone delayed the start of the race by being reluctant to load. Once the race began, he dropped back to the rear of the field.

Up front, Top Conor raced off to an uncontested lead with Just a Touch and Epic in closest pursuit through fractions of :23.15, :46.48 and 1:10.83. On the far turn, Sierra Leone began to pick off horses and was running in the clear when the field hit the top of the stretch.

At that point, Top Conor was in retreat as Just a Touch took over with Epic Ride racing second. The top two stayed that way to midstretch but Sierra Leone had all the momentum and surged past Just a Touch before the 16th pole and coasted to victory.

Sierra Leone is a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Gun Runner out of the Malibu Moon mare Heavenly Love. Winner of the Risen Star (G2) in his most recent start, Sierra Leone owns a record of 4-3-1-0 with earnings of $918,000 that includes Saturday’s $581,250 check.

Sent off as the favorite in the field 10, Sierra Leone returned $5.32, $3.28 and $3.06. Just a Touch, ridden by Florent Geroux, returned $4.24 and $3.74 and finished 3¾ lengths in front of Epic Ride, who paid $9.12 to show under Adam Beschizza.

It was another 1¼ lengths back to Dornoch, who was followed in order by Mugatu, Top Conor, Seize the Grey, Be You, Lat Long and Good Money.

Quotes for the 100th Running of the $1 Million Toyota Blue Grass (G1)

Click here for a replay of the race and the post-race interview with winning connections.

Chad Brown (winning trainer of Sierra Leone)

On Sierra Leone’s reluctance to enter the starting gate

“He hesitates a touch here and there, but really the outside post with the wonderful, large crowd we have at Keeneland today got him just a little bit stirred up, (jockey) Tyler (Gaffalione) said. Probably from just the outside post. But we’ll do plenty of gate schooling before the (Kentucky) Derby, and I don’t anticipate that being a problem for him.”

“He’s just a natural athlete. I’m so lucky, so appreciative of the ownership group. Of course, Peter (Brant) and Brook (Smith) are here, and the (Mrs. John) Magnier family and all their wonderful partners: (Michael) Tabor, (Derrick) Smith, Westerberg (Limited of Michael Kuessner). They couldn’t make it today. But I’m really just so fortunate.”

“I mean, look, (Sierra Leone’s) been a star since he’s been born. The (John and Debby) Oxleys are here, who bred the horse. Tyler did such a great job. I have a great team. We’re just trying to maintain pretty much the way he’s been his whole life, a special horse. I don’t know if they ever fully figure it out, but he’s only had a handful of starts. But there’s such good chemistry with Tyler and Sierra Leone his last two starts. You can see he wants to lean in a little bit, but it’s never too bad. He’s still polishing off his experience and his skills, and I just think a mile-and-a-quarter won’t be a problem going forward. We’re looking forward to it.”

Tyler Gaffalione (winning rider)

On Sierra Leone’s reluctance to enter the starting gate

“I think it was just the crowd. We break right in front of them here. Everybody’s lined up against the rail and he was the last horse going in, so I think it just kind of got to him – got him a little nervous.”

On his trip

“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. 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.”

“I can’t thank the ownership group (Peter Brant, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael B. Tabor, Derrick Smith, Westerberg Limited of Michael Kuessner and Brook T. Smith) enough. (Trainer) Chad Brown and his team did a great job. I’m just so thankful to be part of this.”

“He made it way too easy today. I actually got there a little quicker than I thought I would. I actually tapped on him a little bit at the five-sixteenths to slow down, because he was really wanting to get going. He has so much ability and he does things so easily. We haven’t even got close to the bottom of him yet.”

Peter Brant (winning co-owner)

“I am so proud to be an owner of this horse with this great group of friends, the ownership group (also including Mrs. John Magnier, Michael B. Tabor, Derrick Smith, Westerberg Limited of Michael Kuessner and Brook T. Smith). This is a great race, a great prep for the Kentucky Derby. It’s always been a great prep, but I think this year it’s especially strong. I think three or four of the nicest horses in this crop were in this field.”

“It’s a wonderful day for us, and I just want to thank the partners and (trainer) Chad (Brown). He’s done a great job with this horse and been with him all the time. He called me in September and said, ‘This is a special horse. I think this is the best 2-year-old I have.’  He was right. It’s hard to predict that but he was right. I’m just delighted and very proud to be out here on this wonderful day and win a classic like this.”

Brook Smith (winning co-owner)

“How can anyone be ready for something like this? To have a horse that runs like this, to have the connections, the purity of the training, the jockey, planning up to it, taking the time. Each race makes your heart drop. He’s a deep closer and that’s a lot to watch, but come on – being from (Louisville) Kentucky and to be in this spot? Speechless. The first Saturday in May can get interesting. There’s a lot of nice horses that are headed that direction, but I think we’re pretty happy with the one we have.”

Florent Geroux (rider of runner-up Just a Touch)

“He ran great, had a great trip. The pace was a bit quicker than I thought it would be. Turning for home, I thought I had it but was just taken down by Sierra Leone. My horse had a good finish to be second. He ran a good race and against really good horses, maybe the (Kentucky) Derby favorite. But we are in the Derby and he’s a real good horse and I have hope for him. I really think he’s going to blossom and be great.” 

Brad Cox (trainer of Just a Touch)

“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. I knew Sierra Leone would be hard to hold off. Derby is still under consideration. I’m proud of the effort today. (We’ll probably ship to Churchill Downs tomorrow.)”

Adam Beschizza (rider of third-place finisher Epic Ride)

“I was very happy with the trip. I mean we were sort of on the wing of the field there and we could go whenever we wanted to. He gave a very good account, it was nice to pull some (Kentucky) Derby points there. With luck, we could get the owners to the first weekend in May.”

John Ennis (trainer of Epic Ride)

“Super, super proud of the horse. Great ride. I think the winner is a very, very good horse. Probably entitled to be the Derby favorite. We’re just delighted. We’ll see how he come out it (of the race), but I would love if we could get into the Derby because I think he’s entitled to have a shot. Let’s see what happens. He’s a lovely horse and he’s going to be a nice horse later in the year.”

Luis Saez (rider of fourth-place finisher Dornoch)

“Good, perfect trip. It wasn’t the trip we were excepting; we didn’t get there. We had a clean trip.”

Danny Gargan (trainer of Dornoch)

“He went really well. He got in there behind. It’s his first time really getting a lot of dirt like that, he resented it a little bit early, (jockey) Luis (Saez) said. He said he kind of ran away from the horses. (He was) a little bit stuck in there. Next time, we’ll break him out of (the starting gate on the lead) and keep his face clean, and he’ll run better next time.

“There’s no pressure now. We’re going to go over there (to Churchill) and have fun. We’re going to have two horses (Dornoch and Society Man, second in today’s Wood Memorial-G2 Presented by Resorts World Casino) in the race and try and enjoy ourselves, and hopefully get lucky and win that day.”

Jennie Rees is a communications and advocacy specialist in the horse industry who spent 32 years covering horse racing for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal before taking a corporate buyout. In addition to handling communications for the Kentucky HBPA, Rees is Kentucky Downs’ publicity director, manages in-season racing publicity for Ellis Park and serves as a consultant to the National HBPA. Other projects include the Preakness Stakes, Indiana Grand’s Indiana Derby Week and work for various HBPA affiliates and horsemen’s associations.