Jeff Bonde has had a few horses on the Triple Crown trail during his more than 35 years of training, but never one as legitimate as Sierra Sunset. A son of Bertrando, Sierra Sunset rose to prominence last season after finishing runner-up in the Southwest (gr. III) and rolling to a convincing three-length score in the Rebel (gr. II)—both at Oaklawn Park.
But Bonde, a leading trainer in Northern California for many years, had less than a week to dream about the roses, as his Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) hopes were dashed a few days later when Sierra Sunset was diagnosed with a hairline fracture of his left front ankle. It was devastating news.
“We didn’t think anything was wrong until they did a second x-ray—one of those hot ray x-rays—and they found a spot,” Bonde recalled. “It was heartbreaking to say the least. I’ve had horses in the Breeders’ Cup and the (Kentucky) Oaks (gr. I), but that’s as close as I’ve come to a Derby starter. There’s not much you can do about it. You just have to bite the bullet and hope he can come back to the same level he was at before.”
Sierra Sunset, who also won the Bay Meadows Juvenile and California Cup Juvenile stakes as a 2-year-old, seems to be on the verge on returning to his old form, and will take another step in proving that Aug. 15 when he takes on nine in the $300,000 Longacres Mile (gr. III) at Emerald Downs. He is the morning-line second choice, right behind Awesome Gem.
Though the injury did not require surgery, it took Sierra Sunset nearly 15 months to return to the track. The bay colt, who is out of the Pirate’s Bounty mare Toot Sweet, struggled in his 4-year-old debut while finishing ninth in the Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III) June 6 on the Hollywood Park Cushion Track, but rebounded with an impressive five-length score in the July 5 Alamedan Handicap at Pleasanton.
“He had an easy time of it in that last race,” Bonde said. “He came out of it well and is doing very nicely. He’s had a good work over the track at Emerald (Aug. 8) and comes into the race doing well.”
Bonde said it was a long road to recovery, but the patience of everyone involved paid off.
“After the x-ray we flew him to California to put him in one of those hyperbaric chambers. He ended up at Perham Ranch in Northern California, which is close to UC Davis. The doctors just kept telling us to wait, wait, wait. We eventually took him up to the owner’s ranch (co-owner George Schmitt) in Nevada for more rest. The time off has really paid off.”
Bonde’s decision to send Sierra Sunset to the Longacres Mile was due in part to the fact that the winner of the race will earn a berth in the Nov. 7 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita Park. Should he make it to that race it would be sweet vindication for the Sierra Sunset team, which also includes co-owners Philip Lebherz and Al Mariani.
“The Breeders’ Cup Mile is the goal,” said Bonde, who sent out Spain to a fourth-place finish in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). “We’re hoping for a good race this weekend and then we’ll see after that.