Kentucky Derby 2002: The Return of Johannesburg
Photo: Mike Corrado
Johannesburg, winning the 2001 Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Michael Tabor and his bloodstock agent and adviser Demi O'Byrne had a lot to cheer about at Aqueduct on November 24. Their big moment came in the Cigar Mile when Left Bank drew off to a brilliant victory in 1:33 1/5. Two days earlier, Yonaguska carried topweight of 131 pounds to win the Fall Highweight Handicap. But the talk always seemed to return to the 3-year-olds.

Tabor and O'Byrne were thrilled by the performance of Nokoma, who came off a maiden victory to finish a sharp second in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes. Everything about this son of Pulpit shouts classics, from his looks, his professionalism, and most of all, his natural ability. While it was frustrating for Tabor and O'Byrne to see Nokoma run a winning race only to get nailed on the wire, they at least were glad it was Saarland who did it. A short while later, they were glued to the TV monitor, and were delighted to see Repent overcome a horrendous trip, yet still win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs going away.

The reason they felt good about Repent and Saarland winning major stakes can be explained in one word: Johannesburg. The undefeated son of Hennessy is the horse who occupies most of their attention these days, and two of the horses he defeated in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile were Repent (second) and Saarland (eighth). So, now they at least have a gauge in determining the quality of the field Johannesburg beat at Belmont Park. And that's always good to know when it comes decision time next year.

Right now, the plan is simple: Johannesburg will point for the Kentucky Derby. The only question is how to go about doing it. "The Kentucky Derby is what we're thinking of," Tabor said. "We'll dream about it over the winter. My guess, knowing Aidan (trainer O'Brien), is that he won't come here for a run before the Derby. But there will be many hours of discussion over a glass of red wine."

No sooner had Tabor opened the door than NYRA president and chief operating officer Terry Meyocks leaped in. After attracting eventual Kentucky Derby winners Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos to the Wood Memorial in the last two years, Meyocks began to hone in on another box office star like a shark to blood. "I can work on (Aidan)," he so graciously volunteered. "The horse can quarantine at Belmont, and he knows Belmont."

That got Tabor's and O'Byrne's wheels turning, at least in the context of casual conversation. "I think that would be the way to go," O'Byrne said. "But I'm not the trainer." Meyocks offered to make his sales pitch to O'Brien, but was hoping to have some backing going in. "There's nothing wrong with you calling," O'Byrne said. "Tell him all the options. It's a six-hour flight from Shannon and he's in New York. He's in the barn. Then, the day after the race he's back home. It'll take nothing out of him. If he won or ran well, and they were happy with him, then you can say, 'OK, let's go to Kentucky in three weeks.' If you change your mind, let that be your prep for the Two Thousand Guineas. One thing about Aqueduct is that you're running on a lovely track. If you run him here, whichever way he ran, you'll have him back from it."

As for returning to Ireland after the Wood, Tabor at first questioned whether that was at all in the realm of possibility. "Would Aidan want to make those two trips?" he asked. No sooner had those words come out that he answered his own question: "He wouldn't want to leave him. He definitely wouldn't leave him."

What really impressed us about this whole conversation were Tabor's and O'Byrne's constant references to what Aidan O'Brien wanted. It was obvious that they wouldn't even think of interfering or telling him what to do. That is Step Number One in winning the Kentucky Derby; a step many American owners refuse to follow.

The talk turned to how the colt might prepare in Europe, and the best way of getting enough foundation and toughness into him for the arduous task. "There really isn't anything in Europe to toughen him up in," O'Byrne said. And, yes, there was talk about Johannesburg staying the mile and a quarter. But all this was strictly chit-chat, and in no way reflected any plans for Johannesburg.

The bottom line basically is how good Johannesburg really is. He hasn't been beaten, he demonstrated an exhilarating turn of foot in the Breeders' Cup, and he looked like a horse who wanted to keep going. And perhaps most important, he showed the patience and professionalism you want to see in a Derby horse. "That's the way he ran every one of his races," O'Byrne said. "He just sits behind the leaders and explodes. He always changes leads perfectly, and does everything like an older horse."

And speaking of staying a mile and a quarter, just how does Johannesburg stack up on pedigree? First off, being by Hennessy, it's too early to tell whether the son of Storm Cat will sire horses who want to go a mile and a quarter. Hennessy's broodmare sire is the distance-loving grass champion Hawaii, so he certainly has every right to. Johannesburg's broodmare sire, Ogygian, is the biggest enigma. Ogygian has sired mostly fast horses who want to go short, even though he is by Damascus. Which brings us to the Damascus Derby curse. This line has been represented by a number of top-class horses at Churchill Downs, several of them favorites. But every one has come up short. The list includes Fly So Free, Skip Away, Mister Frisky, Private Terms, Judger, Technology, Desert Wine, Dixieland Heat, Sea Cadet, Diabolo, Corporate Account, and others. Johanessburg does sneak in within the guidelines with a 3.67 dosage index, so there really is no way to say for sure if he is capable of getting a mile and a quarter. The one thing that's sure is that he better be plenty fit on Derby Day, with a good deal of bottom under him.

That's where we presently stand with Johannesburg. Don't expect too much news coming out of the O'Brien camp over the next couple of months, as there still are a lot of ideas to be exchanged. What we gathered is that they won't make the same mistake Arazi's connections did, as far as sending a horse here who is not prepared to go a mile and quarter on the first Saturday in May under the grueling conditions of the Derby. Now, whether or not it is possible to accomplish this in Europe without running in top company is another matter. Whatever they decide to do, it should make for an interesting winter and spring, with plenty of stimulating conversation on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another interesting question is what happens if Nokoma, trained by Todd Pletcher, develops into one of the leading 3-year-olds? Our guess is that, being he and Johannesburg have different trainers, what one does will not affect the other. If O'Brien wants to run in the Derby, we can't imagine Tabor standing in his way, regardless of what Nokoma accomplishes.

And from what we saw in the Remsen, Nokoma will accomplish plenty. This is an attractive gray, who was a picture in the paddock, bouncing along on his toes, with his neck slightly arched. He rated beautifully behind the leaders, had no hesitation coming between horses in the stretch, and closed strongly, while keeping a straight path to the wire. Coming off only two starts and six-week layoff, this was a huge effort, especially considering he's a May 28 foal and several months behind most of the others.

"We really wanted to run him in an allowance race a few weeks ago, but it didn't fill," Pletcher said. "We were this race short of being dead-on. If the allowance race had filled, who knows? But this was a big step for him and he ran a helluva race. We've always been very high on him."

Continued. . .

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