Sierra Leone had a troubled trip to the finish line in the Kentucky Derby, veering side to side and bumping another horse three times down the stretch.

He lost to Mystik Dan by a nose. He might have won pulling away with a straightforward dash.

Never knowing what could have been, trainer Chad Brown decided to make an adjustment for the next race, experimenting with a new bit for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. The hope is the cage bit — one with a straight bar across the horse’s mouth and another under his jaw — gives new jockey Flavien Prat more control of direction.

“It’s not a severe bit, by any means,” Brown said last week. “The cage bit, or any sort of straight bit, gives you much better power steering.”

With the more traditional bit in the Derby, jockey Tyler Gaffalione wound up being fined $2,500 for touching Japanese horse Forever Young, which Brown chalked up as trying to get to his crop to the left side. Sierra Leone has been known for going off course, or “lugging,” during races, and it has become a tough problem to solve because those issues have not repeated themselves during morning training.

That has proved quite challenging and led Brown to revisit the bit situation now that the horse has some more experience.

“He’s been in some more racing,” Brown said. “He’s just a little bit more mature. And sometimes with horses, if something doesn’t work the first time, you can sort of reintroduce it later.”

He pointed to Hall of Famer and 2007 Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Curlin as a horse who had steering problems and then reacted well to a cage bit or even something bigger.

“They tinkered with equipment, with straight bits, a very famous horse, a great horse, and a well-managed horse,” Brown said. “That’s one example.”

Sierra Leone opened as the 9-5 morning line favorite in the 10-horse field at shorter odds than Mystik Dan or Preakness winner Seize the Grey.


The scene in the winner’s circle after the Preakness felt like a football pep rally to 88-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. That’s because Seize the Grey has 2,570 owners as part of MyRacehorse, a company that sells shares of thoroughbreds to members of the public.

Not all of them were at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the upset win, but the party is continuing in the Belmont at Saratoga with Seize the Grey running for a third time in five weeks, just like Mystik Dan. He won the Pat Day Mile on the Derby day undercard to the delight of all his owners, of whom Lukas has met maybe a dozen.

“It was very gratifying to see that many people get that excited. … with the cheering and throwing their fists in the air,” Lukas said. “I really liked the fact that we got that many people interested and enjoying it.”


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