Home » Sports » The 150th Kentucky Derby: A Fierce Approach Needed to Stay Ahead of Sierra Leone

The 150th Kentucky Derby: A Fierce Approach Needed to Stay Ahead of Sierra Leone

April 29, 2024 11:26 AM | Sports

By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)

Presented by:

Assiniboia Downs

Breeders' Cup

Fierceness wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. (BREEDERS’ CUP / HANDOUT)

When the 150th Run for the Roses goes to post this Saturday at 5:57 p.m. CDT, all eyes will be on Fierceness and Sierra Leone.

There will be 20 horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby field and yet it’s still likely to be a two-horse race. Even though Sierra Leone will break from the two-hole while Fierceness will be way outside in the No. 17 spot.

“This is going to be one of the strongest Kentucky Derbies in years,” said Assiniboia Downs’ CEO Darren Dunn. “When I say that I mean, there are about five standout horses with two right at the top: Sierra Leone and Fierceness. Flip the coin, take your pick. These are a couple of extremely elite thoroughbreds that will lead the way in that 20-horse field on Saturday.

“I think people are going to be more excited about this race than in recent years because of the sheer talent in this race and the horses that are going to try and take those Top 2 thoroughbreds down. This will be a great horse race.”

This Saturday, Assiniboia Downs will celebrate the 150th running of the Derby with plenty of draws for Kentucky Derby merchandise. There will also be free Kentucky Derby programs and copies of the Daily Racing Form and you will receive a free Kentucky Derby 150 glass with the purchase of a Raz Derby Lemonade for $9.95.

In the meantime, the race itself should be sensational.

The favourite, Fierceness, is a Kentucky-bred, three-year-old colt sired by City of Light out of the Stay Thirsty mare Nonna Bella. He is trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher and is ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, the 52-year-old veteran who won the Derby in 2011, 2017 and 2020 and has won 15 Breeders’ Cup and six Triple Crown races.
Fierceness has raced at Belmont at Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita and Saratoga and has wins at Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita and Saratoga. His stakes wins include the 2024 Florida Derby (G1), and the 2023 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

Fierceness is a magnificent bay colt who has already earned $1.7 million. He was Juvenile Horse of the Year in 2023 and won the 2024 Florida Derby at Gulfstream this spring by a record 13 ½ lengths.

Meanwhile, the second favourite on the morning line for Saturday’s Derby is Sierra Leone, a three-year-old colt sired by Gun Runner out of the Malibu Moon mare Heavenly Love. Trained by Chad C. Brown and ridden by Tyler Gaffalione, who has won 17 major stakes races in the last two years and won the Preakness on War of Will in 2019. Sierra Leone has raced at Aqueduct, Fair Grounds and Keeneland and has wins at all three tracks. His stakes wins include the 2024 Blue Grass Stakes (G1), and the 2024 Risen Star (G2).

Experts say Sierra Leone was destined to run under the Twin Spires on the first Saturday in May.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone came from eight lengths back at the top of the turn to win the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland. (BREEDERS’ CUP / HANDOUT)

“This is really just a gifted horse,” said trainer Chad Brown. “Look, you don’t go to the Saratoga yearling sale and command more than $2 million unless you’re the man. But I’m proud of the horse. He’s backed it up.

“He just seems to have all the tools to get to the mile and a quarter the right way. It’s exciting to have a real chance going into the Derby.”

It’s expected that the toughest competition for Fierceness (5-2) and Sierra Leone (3-1) will come from Catching Freedom (8-1), Just a Touch (10-1) and Forever Young (10-1).

“It’s interesting, I was just talking to Eddie O. (Olczyk, NBC Sports Thoroughbred Racing Analyst and former Winnipeg Jets winger), about this the other day — he was in town for the Seattle Kraken game — and he likes Catching Freedom,” said Dunn. “He’s a very, very interesting closer who won the Louisiana Derby. Now, that’s a Grade II as opposed to the Grade 1 Blue Grass that Sierra Leone won or the Grade 1 Florida Derby that Fierceness won, but Catching Freedom is a very interesting horse and Eddie has an ability to smoke out longshots like few can.

“I will say this, one thing about Sierra Leone, watching his last race, and believe me, I loved him going into the race and he’s a closer from the clouds, and that can work well in the Kentucky Derby. It’s just so congested out there with 20 horses, there will be a lot of battles going into the first turn and you could have five across the track, so the strategy of staying back and watching the action up front can be, generally speaking, the best way to go – stay out of trouble and let everybody melt down out in front of you. I think that will happen and I think Sierra Leone will be an enormous handful in the stretch.

“I don’t like to pick favourites, but I’m having difficulty getting away from this horse. However, there are so many ways to lose a race before it even starts and at the Blue Grass, that horse had so much difficulty loading into the gate. They had such difficulty loading him, he was so agitated by the crowd that he’s never seen – one of the biggest days of the year at Keeneland – it took them so long to get this horse into the gate, I thought they were going to scratch him (the replay is available on YouTube and it’s uncomfortable watching him try to load).

“So, I thought, this horse is going to be terrible now. He’s got nothing left. They had to literally wrestle him into the gate, but they got him in and oh, my gawd! This horse came flying from off the pace to win easily after running a race within a race before the race even began. He mowed them all down. The trainer guaranteed that difficulty to load won’t happen again and I thought if that horse even loads smoothly, I don’t how they will be able to handle him.”

Remember, you can watch and wager on the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby at 5:57 p.m. CDT at Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs.

2024 Kentucky Derby position, jockey, trainer odds:

1. Dornoch, Danny Gargan, Luis Saez, 20-1
2. Sierra Leone, Chad Brown, Tyler Gaffalione, 3-1
3. Mystik Dan, Kenny McPeek, Brian Hernandez Jr., 20-1
4. Catching Freedom, Brad Cox, Flavien Prat, 8-1
5. Catalytic, Saffie Joseph Jr., Jose Ortiz, 30-1
6. Just Steel, D. Wayne Lukas, Keith Asmussen, 20-1
7. Honor Marie, Whit Beckman, Ben Curtis, 20-1
8. Just a Touch, Brad Cox, Florent Geroux, 10-1
9. Encino, Brad Cox, Axel Concepcion, 20-1
10. T O Password, Daisuke Takayanagi, Kazushi Kimura, 30-1
11. Forever Young, Yoshito Yahagi, Ryusei Sakai, 10-1
12. Track Phantom, Steve Asmussen, Joel Rosario, 20-1
13. West Saratoga, Larry Demeritte, Jesus Castanon, 50-1
14. Endlessly, Michael McCarthy, Umberto Rispoli, 30-1
15. Domestic Product, Chad Brown, Irad Ortiz Jr., 30-1
16. Grand Mo the First, Victor Barboza Jr., Emisael Jaramillo, 50-1
17. Fierceness, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 5-2
18. Stronghold, Phil D’Amato, Antonio Fresu, 20-1
19. Resilience, Bill Mott, Junior Alvarado, 20-1
20. Society Man, Danny Gargan, Frankie Dettori, 50-1