03/10/2008 11:00PM

Sierra Sunset sharp for Rebel

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Sierra Sunset flew to Oaklawn Park from his Northern California base last month and turned in one of the best races of his career, finishing second to top Kentucky Derby candidate Denis of Cork in the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes. Saturday, Sierra Sunset has reason to trump that performance in the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel, the final local prep for the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

Sierra Sunset has remained at Oaklawn and trained forwardly for the Rebel, a 1 1/16-mile race in which he could start as second choice to Z Fortune following the Tuesday defection of Denis of Cork, who will run next in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial or Grade 2 Illinois Derby. As for Sierra Sunset, his connections made the call after the Southwest to keep him at Oaklawn.

"We felt like that was definitely a benefit to him, because he's acclimated to his surroundings now and you don't have to worry about the wear and tear of the trip back and forth," said Jeff Bonde, who trains Sierra Sunset. "He's come back with two very good works over the track. He worked in 59 and one, and then we breezed him an easy half-mile, and he galloped out real strong, so we feel like we're ready to go."

The five-furlong move, timed in precisely 59.20 seconds, came at Oaklawn on Feb. 29. It was the fastest of 30 works at the distance that day, and it impressed clockers, who timed the horse out six furlongs in 1:11.40.

"It was like a Smarty Jones-type work," said Jim Hamilton, state clocker at Oaklawn. "He went fast and galloped out fast."

Smarty Jones swept Oaklawn's series of two-turn stakes for 3-year-olds in 2004 before going on to capture the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The proven series, as well as the chance to run on conventional dirt, were the driving forces in Sierra Sunset shipping to Arkansas in the first place, said Bonde.

"It was a better time frame for us," he said of the races at Oaklawn.

Sierra Sunset is a two-time stakes winner, with his biggest score coming in the $125,000 California Cup Juvenile at 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita on Nov. 3. He is by the multiple Grade 1 winner Bertrando, whose biggest victories include the Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar in 1993. Sierra Sunset's dam is Toot Sweet, a winning daughter of Pirate's Bounty who was stakes-placed at 6 1/2 furlongs. Sierra Sunset races for longtime Bonde clients Philip Lebherz, Al Mariani, George Schmitt, and Carol Wirth. He was purchased at auction as a yearling in Pleasanton, Calif., for $40,000.

"I look for horses that have balance, and he had that," said Bonde. "And he had a little pedigree, and he was a good walker.

"As a racehorse, he's got a beautiful stride, and he seems to have that anaerobic air, which a good horse has to have. Lots of horses have speed, but they can't continue on. And that's the difference between the A-level and the B-level, so to speak."

Chris Emigh rode Sierra Sunset for the first time in the Southwest, and will be aboard in the Rebel.

"He's a very strong horse, and he seems like he never gets tired," said Emigh, who last year rode Kentucky Derby hopeful Reporting for Duty. "He's got that long stride. He covers so much ground, and he seems like he could just keep going and going and going.

"Now that I've ridden him once, I think I know him better. Hopefully, this will be my next big horse."

Sierra Sunset raced in third early in the Southwest, then moved to the lead in the stretch before being overtaken by late-closer Denis of Cork, who won by 2 1/4 lengths. For his effort, Sierra Sunset earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 92.

Bonde, 53, operates one of the top stables in Northern California. He said that with a good performance by Sierra Sunset on Saturday, plans are to advance to the Arkansas Derby. The last time Bonde had a 3-year-old on the Kentucky Derby trail was 1999, when Epic Honor, who was co-owned by Lebherz, won the Grade 3 Golden Gate Derby.

"This is probably our best chance for a Derby shot right now that we've had in a long time," said Bonde.