There are other factors that are equally as important as fitness when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. Not only must a horse be fit, he must be sharp and battle-tested over a distance of ground, and have a pedigree with enough pure stamina to at least suggest he can get a mile and a quarter in early May. Johannesburg will not be sharp by our standards, will not be battle-tested over a distance of ground, and his pedigree does not exactly shout mile and a quarter. Yes, Johannesburg probably will be a fit horse on Derby Day, but he'll be European fit, which is to say he'll be fit enough to win the 2,000 Guineas. There is only so much a trainer, even O'Brien, can do when he's way behind in his training and has no suitable prep race in which to run.The big question is: can Johannesburg overcome all this and still win the Derby? Every basic rule of handicapping the Derby, and every ounce of logic says not a chance. With that said, however, we feel that if O'Brien is totally convinced this horse is fit enough and talented enough to tackle this seemingly insurmountable task without embarrassing himself, then he should come. The Derby needs Johannesburg to return, just as any major event needs a true star who has the potential to transcend his sport. We imagine Coolmore has plenty of ammunition for the 2,000 Guineas, and if they truly feel Johannesburg is a horse for the ages who can accomplish something no horse in this country would even attempt, then they should give him his chance to re-write the history books. If he fails miserably, which certainly is possible, there's always the one-mile St. James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot a month later to get back on the track to reality. European superstars have a way of disappearing before they reach the age of 4. So, for now, let's welcome an attempt at immortality before we have to sing those sad lines, Joltin' 'Jo' has left and gone away.Siphonic to head small field in San FelipeAs of now, there are only five definite starters for the San Felipe Stakes next Sunday. The heavy favorite will be Siphonic, who tries to establish himself as a legitimate Derby favorite, something only a victory will do, even though he's coming off a two-month layoff and a series of setbacks, and could be excused if he needs another race to get back in peak form. Siphonic's most accomplished foe will be USS Tinosa, and he's coming off a victory in a restricted stakes. But he did turn in an explosive move in the stretch to leave his opponents for dead. Second choice likely will be the much-hyped Sunday Break from the Neil Drysdale barn. A victory by the Japanese-bred son of Forty Niner, and he'll take another step in in the hoofprints of Drysdale's Fusaichi Pegasus. Rounding out the field will be two longshots, trained by Derby gurus Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, as they take one last desperate shot at landing a Derby contender. Baffert will saddle Sham Stakes runner-up Puerto Banus, who is eligible to improve, while Lukas will send out Shah Jehan, who will try to rebound from a dismal U.S. debut in the Sham.Continued
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer no doubt had mixed feelings after the race, as he saw his big horse, Cappuchino, finish 8th as the 5-2 second choice. While the first two finishers both ran good races, you have to take into consideration the last two fractions were run in a rather pedestrian :26 1/5 and :06 4/5. It's now a big, big step up in class, regardless of where they go. Danthebluegrassman no doubt is a tough, consistent colt, but when he starts facing tougher opponents, he'll have to learn to settle a bit more and not be so hungry for the lead.Saturday's nonwinners of two (other than) allowance race at Gulfstream did not turn out to be the breakout race that some had hoped for. Although one of the two choices, Changeintheweather emerged victorious, he prevailed by a head in a four-horse blanket finish, with a 17-1 shot second and a 25-1 shot third. The latter, Fuzzy Star, hadn't raced since last October in a Delaware Park allowance race. The favorite, American Style, finished a disappointing fifth. Although he was beaten only 2 1/2 lengths, while racing 4-wide most of the way, he did have every chance to win down the stretch, but tired. While Changeintheweather can claim a right to continue on the Derby trail, he'll have to improve dramatically when he faces much better horses. We're always suspect when it comes to four-horse photos, especially when the entire field is separated by only 2 3/4 lengths. If there's one thing the winner has in his favor it is a dynamite female family that is loaded with stamina.Although Pletcher and owner Peachtree Stable didn't learn as much about Charioteer as they had hoped to, they did find another possible gem the day before when Wild Horses broke his maiden by 10 lengths going a mile and forty yards in the slop. The son of Saint Ballado had finished a well-beaten second in his previous start, but that was to a 4-year-old.Can Johannesburg win the Kentucky Derby?We've been reading a good deal of comments recently about whether Johannesburg will be fit enough for the Kentucky Derby off one 7-furlong race. There seems to be a diversity of opinion, with some feeling if Aidan O'Brien sends him, he will indeed be fit enough to get the mile and a quarter.Because this seems to be a hot topic, we'll toss our two cents in. As a close follower of European racing for the past 30 years, it is our firm belief that in this case, it really doesn't matter how talented a trainer is at getting a horse fit. Training in Europe, despite its inclination toward stamina, is so totally different to our training. Their training simulates their racing, which is to go off very slow and kick home in the final two furlongs. That's all good and well, until they come here for a race like the Derby, and instead of plodding along in :53 or :54 seconds for the half, they're forced to keep up with a :45 or :46, or even a :47 half. By having to do that, it negates whatever closing kick they possess. Yes, Johannesburg was able to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but that was coming off five straight stakes victories, the last three in grade I's -- not coming off one minor 7-furlong race in more than six months. And this time, he'll be going almost a quarter of a mile farther, around two brutal turns –one known for its bumping and jostling, and the other known for its wave of tired horses backing up into the faces of the closers. Johannesburg has never been around any turn in his entire career.All successful European raids to this country have come in the fall or summer, by fit, battle-tested horses coming off group I or group II stakes. The only European to make an impact on the Derby was Bold Arrangement, who finished a close third in the Blue Grass Stakes after having run in a mile race in England. He also was a seasoned 2-year-old, with several big efforts at a mile and 7 furlongs. Many think Arazi failed to sustain his monster move in the Derby because he wasn't bred to go 1 1/4 miles. That is pure nonsense. Arazi was bred to run all day. He ran into a brick wall in the Derby for the simple reason that he was dead-short for the race, having come off one stroll in the park at Saint-Cloud. What made it even worse was that he had to run farther than a mile and quarter, racing eight-wide most of the way. And remember, unlike Johannesburg, Arazi had won the one-mile Grand Criterium at 2, and his Breeders' Cup Juvenile score was around two turns, and at Churchill Downs. Regardless of his knee surgery, which we admit couldn't have helped, he simply was not prepared to win the Derby. And don't think for a moment that his trainer Francois Boutin didn't realize it.