On a dark and stormy evening, SIERRA LEONE came from far back and wide to win the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds, picking up five points on the way to the 150th Kentucky Derby (G1). Like his sire Gun Runner did when he was racing, Sierra Leone captured the big stepping-stone stake for the Louisiana Derby (G2) on March 23.

A strong card at Fair Grounds and an impressive field for the Risen Star lost some lustre as heavy rain rendered the track very sloppy throughout the day. Certainly some horses in the graded stakes races in the slop or on the soft turf didn’t have a fair shot (Canadian-bred PENNICK, previously undefeated in two sprints for Al and Bill Ulwelling, had an awkward start in the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra and wound up being eased) but a few others relished the goo.

With a slow pace stacked against him, Sierra Leone produced strong, wide late rally to run down Track Phantom and win the 52nd running of the Risen Star for Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, Westerberg, Brooke Smith and Peter Brant. The dark bay raced 1 1/8 miles in 1:52.13 under the cover of darkness.

Trained by Chad Brown, the $2.3 million yearling purchase made his first appearance with blinkers. The colt, who doesn’t have the prettiest way of going (he paddles noticeably with his left fore) was leaning in as he passed chasing Freedom, the Smarty Jones Stakes winner, and then caught speedy Track Phantom.

Sierra Leone maneuvered through the mix of 11 three-year-old foes in the hands of Tyler Gaffalione.

“I told Tyler to keep him out of trouble,” Brown said. “He had a minor stumble but was able to get him into the race and in the clear off the rail. I told him to stay outside and keep him straight. Given the track conditions and slow pace and that he hasn’t run since the Remsen, I thought he showed a lot to run down a pretty good horse who was in form and fit and didn’t have to ship. This proved a lot to me today.”

Breaking from the eleventh gate, the Lecomte and Gun Runner winner Track Phantom moved easily to the front. With Cardinale and Resilience positioned behind him, Track Phantom dolled out the opening fractions in :24.32 and a glacial :49.67. Settling back in ninth and off the rail, Sierra Leone set to move in the far turn, sweeping widest of all at the top of the stretch. With Cardinale dropping out, Catching Freedom rallied to engage Resilience at the 1/8th pole, but Track Phantom still held a 1 1/2-length advantage. Cutting back inside in the homestretch and moving with purpose, Sierra Leone picked off both Catching Freedom and Resilience, then rolled past Track Phantom in the final stages. Track Phantom kept with him but could get no closer than a half-length back. Catching Freedom beat Resilience home, as those two finished third and fourth respectively. Honor Marie rallied to get fifth after dropping back to a distant eleventh in the early running.

“The blinkers really helped (Sierra Leone) focus today,” Gaffalione said. “He broke alertly and we hoped going into this race there would be more speed. He got a comfortable trip up the backside and relaxed for me. When he took the lead in the stretch I could feel beneath me he is only going to want to go longer after this. He is an incredible horse and Chad Brown and his team have done an incredible job with him. You always keep dreaming of the big races like the derby and horses like this help you keep the dream alive.”

Having followed up his debut win with a second-place finish in the Remsen (G3) to close out his two-year-old campaign, Sierra Leone’s record stands at 3-2-1-0. With $240,000 for the win in the Risen Star, his bankroll grows to $336,750. With the 50 he earned in the Risen Star, Sierra Leone now has 55 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, co-leading all other three-year-olds together with Track Phantom, who added 25 to the 10 and 20 he earned in his previous Derby prep victories.

“What we had planned on win or lose – but assuming a good race – is to use the Blue Grass as our Kentucky Derby prep,” Brown said about plans for Sierra Leone’s next start. “So things went well today and we’ll stick to that, but having the points is a nice-to-have in case there’s a rough trip or something doesn’t go according to plan in the Blue Grass.”

PEDIGREE – Gun Runner was not only a sensational racehorse but the son of Candy Ride (Arg) and has had a remarkable beginning to his stud career. Sierra Leone is his 27th stakes winner, 20th graded winner, from his first three crops to race. He’s also a superior sire of mud-loving runners. SIERRA LEONE is the second foal to race of Grade 1 winner HEAVENLY LOVE (Malibu Moon), who was trained by Mark Casse for Debby Oxley and who won the Alcibiades Stakes as a two-year-old in 2017. Heavenly Love’s dam, stakes winner Darling My Darling (by Deputy Minister), is also the dam of Grade 2 winner Forever Darling.

The Risen Star winner’s 32rd dam is multiple graded stakes winner Roamin Rachel, by Mining.

~ with files from Fair Grounds media

More Quotes:

Joel Rosario, jockey on Track Phantom (second-place): “He ran a great race but ended up just being second best. He tries hard every time and keeps getting better. He did everything right, but just too bad he got beat. I think he ran well on the (sloppy sealed) surface.”

Dennis Albaugh, owner of Catching Freedom (third-place): “We got third today but we keep getting points for the first Saturday in May which is always important. I think this race today was a good effort and should set him up well moving forward.”

Johnny Velazquez, jockey of Resilience (fourth-place): “The distance was good. I think he’s still just very green though. It was very hard for him to pass the horses. When the horse came out on him a little bit, he didn’t know what to do. But he’s a good one, that’s for sure.”

Whit Beckman, trainer of Honor Marie (fifth-place): “It was a great starting point for his three-year-old year. He can only move forward after this and I think if we get a fast track next time he will improve even more.”

Ricardo Santana Jr., jockey on Hall of Fame (seventh-place): “I got a good trip. I thought he was going to finish well. I don’t know if it was the track or not, but all I know is this horse can run.”