Sierra Leone vs. Dornoch in the Blue Grass

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The Road to the Kentucky Derby makes a pivotal stop at Keeneland this Saturday for the $1 million Blue Grass (G1).

Although the Blue Grass hasn't produced a Kentucky Derby winner since Street Sense in 2007, a strong field has turned out for the 2024 edition, led by two colts who rank among the current favorites for the Derby: #4 Dornoch (3-1) and #10 Sierra Leone (2-1).

Dornoch and Sierra Leone have already faced off once over the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Blue Grass. In a deep renewal of the Remsen (G2) at Aqueduct last December, Dornoch got the better of Sierra Leone by a nose. But there are reasons to believe the outcome will reverse in the Blue Grass.

In the Remsen, Dornoch had an experience advantage. He'd already started three times, finishing second in a Saratoga maiden special weight and Monmouth Park's Sapling S. before breaking his maiden at Keeneland by 6 1/2 lengths. The Remsen marked his third route race, whereas Sierra Leone was making only his second start (and his two-turn debut) after winning a one-mile maiden special weight at Aqueduct.

Furthermore, the Remsen took place over a muddy, sealed track that played strongly in favor of speed horses. Dornoch carved out the pace and enjoyed a much better setup than Sierra Leone, who trailed the 10-horse field by a dozen lengths early on. Despite this disadvantage, Sierra Leone launched a giant homestretch rally and actually led past the eighth pole before Dornoch battled back to narrowly prevail.

Dornoch and Sierra Leone have since gone their separate ways, with each winning a Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifier to kick off 2024. Dornoch led all the way to win the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park, while Sierra Leone closed from ninth to first in the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds.

At first glance, the performances seem comparable. But dig into the details, and Sierra Leone's effort becomes more impressive. Three of the favorites scratched from the Fountain of Youth, including a couple of speed horses, leaving Dornoch to cruise on an uncontested lead through fractions of :24.39, :47.14, and 1:11.43. He ultimately edged away in a drive to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Le Dom Bro and Frankie's Empire, who subsequently finished ninth and sixth in the Florida Derby (G1).

Sierra Leone, on the other hand, overcame modest fractions of :24.32, :49.67, and 1:14.74 over a sloppy track to win the Risen Star by half a length over pacesetter Track Phantom, who had previously won the Lecomte (G3) and Gun Runner S. Furthermore, Sierra Leone finished 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Smarty Jones S. winner Catching Freedom and 6 1/4 lengths clear of Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) hero Honor Marie, two talented runners who returned to finish 1-2 in the Louisiana Derby (G2). In other words, Sierra Leone overcame an unfavorable pace scenario to beat a deep field in the Risen Star.

Cementing Sierra Leone as the horse to beat in the Blue Grass is the record of his trainer, four-time Eclipse Award winner Chad Brown. When a Brown trainee shows Kentucky Derby potential at age two, he typically gives them a two-prep three-year-old campaign in which they improve sharply in their second run of the Derby year. Examples abound:

  • Normandy Invasion, beaten a nose when second in the Remsen, kicked off his three-year-old year with a fifth-place finish in the Risen Star before improving to run second by less than one length in the Wood Memorial (G1).
  • Practical Joke won the Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) at age two, but was beaten 5 3/4 lengths when starting his three-year-old season with a second in the Fountain of Youth. He ran much better next time, finishing second by only three-quarters of a length in the Blue Grass.
  • Good Magic, voted champion two-year-old male after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), was beaten to third-place when starting his sophomore campaign in the Fountain of Youth, but quickly bounced back to win the Blue Grass.
  • Highly Motivated won the Nyquist S. as a juvenile, but struggled in his three-year-old debut, finishing third in the Gotham (G3). One month later, he pushed two-time champion Essential Quality to the limit in the Blue Grass, finishing second by a neck.
  • Zandon followed a similar path to Sierra Leone. After winning his debut, he finished second by a nose in the Remsen. But Zandon could only manage a non-threatening third-place finish in the Risen Star before bouncing back to win the Blue Grass in his second start at age three.

The fact Sierra Leone conquered a strong Risen Star field in his three-year-old debut bodes well for his long-term potential. History suggests we'll see Sierra Leone move forward in the Blue Grass, setting the stage for another victory. And who knows? Normandy Invasion, Practical Joke, Good Magic, and Zandon all moved forward again in their third starts at age three, recording top-five finishes in the Kentucky Derby. A similar trajectory for Sierra Leone could land him in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.

Sierra Leone is my top pick in the Blue Grass, but I'll also give a shout-out to #2 Be You (8-1) as a midrange longshot worth considering. The son of Curlin debuted in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga last summer, finishing second by a nose against future Arkansas Derby (G1) runner-up Just Steel while coming home 3 1/2 lengths ahead of subsequent Breeders' Futurity (G1) winner Locked.

Be You subsequently finished fourth in the Hopeful (G1) and third in the American Pharoah (G1) before regressing in a couple of maiden special weight routes at Churchill Downs and Gulfstream. He appeared to be off form until he cut back in distance for a seven-furlong maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park; after settling a couple lengths off a decent pace, he charged home to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

It's possible the cutback in distance triggered Be You's rebound, but it's also possible he's finally figuring things out and moving forward in a meaningful way. Two bullet half-mile workouts at Palm Beach Downs suggest he's ready for another big run under five-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., so don't leave Be You off your tickets.

Good luck!


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contest page—there's a new challenge every week! (Please note: older contest entries can be found here.)


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back! Check out the special contest page to play along.

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.

Recent Posts

More Blogs