05/23/2009 12:00AM

Sierra Sunset makes long-awaited return


Trainer Jeff Bonde knew that when Sierra Sunset returned to racing, he would receive a stern test. Bonde was correct.

Sierra Sunset, 4, makes his first start in 14 months - since he won the Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn Park last year - against nine rivals in Monday's Grade 3, $100,000 Berkeley Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile race on the Tapeta at Golden Gate Fields.

Among his rivals are Bold Chieftain, who was a strong third in the Grade 2 San Francisco Mile last month; Medzendeekron, a stakes winner earlier this year; Unusual Suspect, who won the opening day Silveyville at this meet; Unusual Smoke, coming off a stakes win at Hollywood Park; and Awesome Gem, a runner-up in the Grade 3 All American here last fall.

Sierra Sunset was sidelined after his Rebel win by a small fracture in his left front ankle. Bonde expected the colt to recover soon enough to run last fall because the fracture line was so small. Despite being placed in a hyperbaric chamber, where highly pressurized oxygen is used to promote healing, Sierra Sunset took much longer to heal than Bonde and co-owner George Schmidt expected.

Now, Bonde says, the colt is ready to roll.

"We fell into this time frame," said Bonde. "The last month he's been finishing his works much stronger."

Russell Baze will be aboard Sierra Sunset. Baze won with Sierra Sunset at 2 in the Cal Cup Juvenile, and has been aboard for recent works.

"It's good when a rider knows a horse's tendencies," Bonde said. "They have more confidence then."

Sierra Sunset is meeting older horses for the first time, including Bold Chieftain, who showed improvement with his third in the San Francisco Mile. Bold Chieftain had not shown his usual spark in his first two races this year.

"He's going into this just as good and maybe a tad better," trainer Bill Morey Jr. said, referring to Bold Chieftain's San Francisco Mile effort. "The horse seems to have picked it up even in his training."

Now all Bold Chieftain needs is a good trip, which Morey is hoping he can get from post 9.

"I'm a firm believer in trips," Morey said. "Trips put you in the winner's circle."