Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business

Clemson alumnus’ horse Sierra Leone will run for the roses


Talk about having a horse in the race. The entire Clemson Family will be cheering from the edges of their seats as 1989 Clemson alumnus Brook T. Smith’s horse, Sierra Leone, “runs for the roses” in the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby at storied Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 4.

Sierra Leone is a majestic three-year-old dark bay and brown colt who has been making a name on the racing circuit with wins at AqueductFair Grounds, and Keeneland. His stakes wins include wins in the 2024 Blue Grass Stakes (G1) and the 2024 Risen Star (G2). Smith owns the striking stallion with five other investors.

While attending Clemson, Smith was the manager of the cross-country and track teams and music director at WSBF FM Clemson. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in management and spent 30 years as an expert in the surety-bonding sector.

He devotes time and money to many philanthropic causes and avidly supports his alma mater. In 2021, he and his wife, Pamela (also a 1989 Clemson graduate with a degree in elementary education), became the University’s 12th Academic Cornerstone Partners with a gift of $2.5 million to fund the Brook T. Smith Launchpad in downtown Clemson. This first-of-its-kind program serves as a “catalyst and hub for all things entrepreneurship in and beyond Clemson.”

A man with shoulder-length silver hair wearing a black ball cap and a black athletic jacket smiles at large brown a horse looking out from inside a stall.
Brook Smith with Sierra Leone. (Photo courtesy of Anne M. Eberhardt – BloodHorse)

The Smiths’ generosity in 2021 also enabled the creation of the Clemson Applied Science Lab, a 2,400-square-foot area in the Allen N. Reeves Football Complex that includes a science lab and recovery area designed to perform a series of evaluations that establish baselines and track the progress of student-athlete physical and technical development.

Smith shared a few of his thoughts ahead of the big race:

  • Where does the name Sierra Leone come from?

Well, I didn’t name him my other partners did. They’re Irish and English and travel the world and are involved in all different types of things, so there’s obviously something in their fabric that relates to name “Sierra Leone.”  I need to catch up with them during Derby week and get to the bottom of it, but the name does have a ring to it. It sounds like a horse that could win the Kentucky Derby!

  • What makes this horse special?

Pedigree is the first and easiest place to start. He’s sired by this very hot sire named Gunrunner whose offspring have been winning stakes races more than any young sire. The second place is appearance – I mean he is just stunning – but the third place that we quickly discovered is you can’t handicap a horse’s heart and head. A horse can be bred to the moon and look unbelievable, but they still have to be smart about how they handle themselves and they also just need to have the heart and desire to race and run. If anything, Sierra Lone’s best attribute is he has an incredible mind and he is relentless about wanting to train and race.

  • Who’s your biggest competition in this race?

There’s a horse called Fierceness who has run incredible speed figures, a whole notch or more above all the other horses, but he’s been inconsistent. He’s won some big races, but in between he’s had some clunkers. So which horse is going to show up? There’s also a Japanese horse coming in named Forever Young that’s five-for-five that looks to be quite impressive. But then there’s a whole bunch of them that are all kind of right there. All they need is their best race and they could be in the mix. It’s a tough race to win.

  • What should someone know about the Kentucky Derby who has never watched it?

This year is the 150th running so it’s super historic. Also, it’s an unusual race because there are 20 horses in the field, and the biggest race these horses are in otherwise it’s usually 12, and sometimes only eight or ten. The thing about the Derby is – the best horse doesn’t always win. There’s a lot of luck involved.

  • How many Kentucky Derby’s have you been to? What’s your favorite Kentucky Derby tradition?

I’ve probably been to ten or twelve over the years. The whole week that leads up to the Derby is amazing. There’s a balloon race, there’s a half marathon, there’s a steamboat race on the river, there’s a parade on the Thursday before . . . it’s a festival for the entire week. And then when you go and there’s the hats and the people and all the tradition, I mean when they play “My Old Kentucky Home” when the horses are coming on the track for the post parade . . . even if you’re not from Kentucky you get goosebumps.

  • Who will be riding Sierra Leone in the Derby?

His name is Tyler Gaffalione. Based on his record he’s probably a top five jockey in the country. He knows the horse, he’s ridden the horse in the last two Stake races and he’s excited. He’s popped off the horse after a race and said to me, “This is the best horse I’ve ever ridden in my life.” He’s a very disciplined and experienced rider and I have great confidence in his ability to navigate whatever chaos there is.

  • What’s your favorite Clemson tradition?

That’s easy: When the football players run down the hill.

  • You grew up in Kentucky – what brought you to Clemson?

The first time I ever even thought about Clemson I was kid playing a neighborhood pick-up football game in a yard with some other kids, and the football actually had “Clemson” on it. I looked at it and said, “What the hell is that?” From that point on I just had some kind of curiosity about Clemson. As I went through middle and high school and it was time to think about where to go to college, the name “Clemson” was stuck in my mind. When I researched it, I just really liked everything about it. It just seemed to suit me, so I ended up there.

  • How did you get involved with horse racing?

It’s kind of an interesting story how I became partners with these iconic horse and businessmen. I made a career in a unique facet of insurance called surety, which is more like banking or bank credit. I’ve been a broker but I’ve also owned insurance companies that took risks on businesses. I invested in some younger guys that were based in London doing event, sports and entertainment insurance and were branching out into other things. One of them, Charlie Pearson, happened to be the son-in-law of John Magnier who owns Coolmore Stud in Ireland, the world’s largest breeding operation of thoroughbred horses. After working with these younger guys in London, they introduced me to John. One day he called me and said would you like to participate in a couple high-end yearlings? I knew how prolific these guys were so I jumped at the chance. In August of 2022 at the Saratoga Select sale they decided to buy two yearlings, and Sierra Leone was one of them. He got the second-highest price yearling that year at $2.3 million.

  • What’s your favorite memory from your time at Clemson?

I have so many, but meeting my wife Pam was probably the best thing. I met her my sophomore year. She had a class in a room before I had a class in it and her teacher always seemed to go long so I’d be waiting out in the hallway when she came out with one of her girlfriends. She just seemed to have a glow and a happy smile on her face all the time. One time I was at Sloan Street and she was there with her friend. I asked her friend to introduce us, and the rest is history. We’ve been married for 32 years.

  • Anything else you’d like people to know about this weekend?

It’s next to impossible to get a horse in the Kentucky Derby, much less have a legitimate chance to win it. This horse is no joke. I ask myself, “How did this happen to me? Why did I get so fortunate?” It’s this incredible moment and when you find yourself in these spots you just kind of want to digest it. It’s about looking back on where you came from and how you ended up here, and as I do that I think a lot about my time at Clemson.

A man with shoulder-length silver hair wearing a black ball cap and a black athletic jacket smiles in front of a sign that reads "Backside Learning Center."
Brook Smith in front of the Backside Learning Center at Churchill Downs. (Photo courtesy of Anne M. Eberhardt – BloodHorse)

Smith has issued a challenge to the other owners of horses running at Churchill Downs this year to donate a percent of their proceeds to The Backside Learning Center, a charity that supports track workers and their families.