Sunday Break, another Japanese-owned Derby contender for Neil Drysdale.

Sunday Break, another Japanese-owned Derby contender for Neil Drysdale.

Benoit & Associates

Steve Haskin's Derby Report (2/25): Deja Vu-saichi

Yes, we have been here before. Two years ago, Japanese-owned Fusaichi Pegasus, trained by Neil Drysdale, broke his maiden sprinting in January, then won a 1 1/16-mile allowance race in February as a springboard to victories in the San Felipe, Wood Memorial, and the Kentucky Derby. Now, we have Japanese- owned Sunday Break, trained by Neil Drysdale, breaking his maiden sprinting in January, then winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance race in February.

The all-important question is, will this be a similar springboard? Fusaichi won his allowance race by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:42 3/5. Sunday Break won by 2 lengths in 1:43, close enough. The son of Forty Niner, who actually was bred in Japan, has been a horse many people have been keying on since his impressive maiden score. Now that he's won going two turns and is ready for stakes competition, having defeated a solid group of horses on Friday, he no doubt will catapult into the top 5 or 10 on most everyone's Kentucky Derby lists.

Before anyone gets any false impressions of this race, Sunday Break was not pulling away from Raven Power at the end. It was Raven Power who was tiring. The equation here is pretty simple. While Sunday Break was opening up two lengths on Raven Power, Azillion, who had already fired his best shot, was making up two lengths on Raven Power, which basically says both he and Sunday Break were simply running at the same speed, and it was Raven Power tiring that made it appear as if both horses were accelerating. You have to remember that the final sixteenth in :06 4/5 was not very fast.

With that said, while Sunday Break didn't dominate the way Fusaichi Pegasus dominated his allowance field, this was an excellent step in the right direction. And the fact that Sunday Break was able to sit right off Raven Power through a third quarter in about :24, then out-battle him through another quarter in :24 4/5 was impressive enough to open the door for continued improvement in the races to come. He is an attractive colt and seems very professional. Add Drysdale and Gary Stevens to the mix, and you've got another colt to get excited about.

Azillion looks like a colt who is improving with experience, and should become more effective the farther they go. He has a major stamina influence in broodmare sire Ela-Man-Mou and is inbred to Somethingroyal, not through Secretariat, but Sir Gaylord. He might be a little better off if he could take back farther off the pace and make one run, instead of trying to close from a stalking position. He still had a lot to learn when trainer Bob Hess took over his training, and this was another step in the learning process.

Nokoma back on track

Nokoma had to work hard for his victory in Saturday's mile and 70-yard allowance race at Gulfstream, but this was a huge race for the son of Pulpit, as it erased his poor performance in the Holy Bull and put him right back in the thick of the Derby picture. Although he'll be facing much tougher opposition in the Florida Derby, there were a lot of things to like about his effort. He appeared ready for action in the post parade, bouncing along on his toes. Racing over a drying out track, he was stuck in behind horses all the way to the quarter pole, while not appearing to care for the surface. At the five-sixteenths pole, it looked as if his road to Churchill Downs was pretty much at an end, as he was going nowhere. Jockey John Velazquez was helpless and couldn't do much except just sit there and wait for something to happen.

That something happened when a hole opened between Doc Wild and the tiring Tis Magical. Velazquez threw a big cross on Nokoma and went to a right-handed whip. Nokoma responded, pinning his ears way back and thrusting out his neck. By now, there were three horses – Doc Wild, Puck, and Hutcheson runner-up Monthir -- battling for the lead. Nokoma stormed up inside them, his ears still pinned back, and began edging away in the final sixteenth to win by three-quarters of a length. Even as he was rallying up the rail, he still didn't look like he was happy over the surface, which makes his performance even more encouraging.

For anyone who might have any doubts about his stamina potential, his female family has produced two winners of the two-mile Melbourne Cup, the winner of the 1 1/4-mile Japan Cup Dirt, as well as the winners of the Australian and New Zealand St. Leger, New Zealand Oaks, Adelaide Cup, and in America, Vanity and Milady winner Brought to Mind and budding 3-year-old filly star Bella Bellucci.

Judgment in Johannesburg

Aidan O'Brien, trainer of Johannesburg, confirmed last Friday that the 2-year-old champ would in fact make his one and only start before the Kentucky Derby in the 7-furlong Gladness Stakes, as owner Michael Tabor had reported several days earlier.

O'Brien told a Coolmore representative that the statement was correct, but had nothing to add. The Gladness Stakes will be run at the Curragh on April 7, which certainly would rule out Johannesburg running between then and the Derby.

Now comes the inevitable question: can Johannesburg win the Kentucky Derby off only one seven-furlong race in seven months, having never been two turns, having never been farther than 1 1/16 miles, and having a pedigree that doesn't exactly shout out mile and a quarter? Let's just say that Tabor's comment that this route to the Derby was "not ideal" may be the understatement of the year.

We suspect Johannesburg will be given several long, race- simulated gallops before departing. But will that be enough? If you look at this move logically, search all the history books, and take all other factors into account, the only conclusion that can be made is that two things need to be true for him to be successful in the Derby. First, he needs to be the greatest horse of all time, and, second, Aidan O'Brien needs to be the greatest trainer of all time. Well, let's not get too carried away; let's say one of the top three greatest horses and trainers of all time. If that is indeed the case, then, yes, Johannesburg can win the Derby.

We say that in all sincerity, for if Johannesburg defies every bit of logic that has been stored up over the last century and winds up in the winner's circle on the first Saturday in May, then he and O'Brien will be placed upon a pedestal that no horse nor trainer has been placed upon before. There would be nothing this colt couldn't accomplish. He would be odds-on to sweep the Triple Crown. His value would soar into an unprecedented nine-figure category. Irish, English, and Americans would unite in wild celebration. The tourism industry in Johannesburg would triple. The world of Thoroughbred racing as we know it would be changed forever.

Arazi made a similar attempt at immortality 10 years ago, and he had already been two turns and was coming off a mile prep. For a brief moment it appeared as if the gates to the pantheon were about to open for him, but they shut abruptly in his face about five-sixteenths of a mile from the finish.

In short, if Johannesburg pulls this off, horse racing on an international scale will have a hero the likes of which has never been seen before. Will it happen? Can it happen? How can any student of history or handicapping answer yes?