For all you Johannesburg fans who have been picturing the son of Hennessy hibernating for the winter in a den somewhere in the bowels of Ballydoyle, fear not. Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and likely 2-year-old champion has been cantering and doing as well as can be expected at this time of the year.
"It won't be until the end of February that we'll have any feel for how he's doing," trainer Aidan O'Brien said. "The weather has been bad here and we really haven't been doing too much. We'll wait until the spring and good weather before we make any decisions as to what our plans are. There are several options that will have to be discussed."
Last fall, following Left Bank's victory in the Cigar Mile, NYRA's Terry Meyocks made push to co-owner Michael Tabor, in whose colors both Left Bank and Johannesburg run, that the Wood Memorial would be a great final prep for the Derby, especially considering the last two winners of the Run for the Roses came out of the nine-furlong race. Tabor and his bloodstock adviser Demi O'byrne both seemed keen on the idea, but said the decision was strictly up to O'Brien. Anyway, that's about as close to a possible scenario as there is at the moment.
For the next month and a half, Johannesburg will remain a king without a kingdom, as others fight to sit upon his throne, knowing all the while it may only be a temporary reign. Whether Johannesburg will journey back across the sea to reclaim his throne is anyone's guess right now. In any event, while new heroes emerge in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, and Arkansas, the aura of Johannesburg will still hover over the Derby picture.
And why not? This is an undefeated horse who has won four consecutive group or grade I stakes in four different countries, an unprecedented feat for a 2-year-old. Never having run farther than six furlongs and never having run on the dirt, he came to America and delivered a stunning knockout punch, decking the best 2-year-olds in the country. To sit behind horses the way he did and accelerate with such lightning quickness in the stretch strongly suggests we're dealing with an extraordinarily gifted athlete.
Johannesburg's pedigree is a bit of an enigma, as we don't know enough about Hennessy yet to determine how far his offspring want to run. He never got the chance to prove it as a racehorse. Neither did Johannesburg's broodmare sire Ogygian, in our opinion a main source of the colt's brilliance. Ogygian is a son of Damascus who was the talk of racing back in 1986 following a string a sensational victories. A winner of seven of his first eight starts, Ogygian blew his opposition away in Belmont's Futurity, his seven furlongs in a sharp 1:22 3/5. In his second start at 3, he showed the same push-button acceleration as Johannesburg, winning a 7-furlong allowance race at Belmont in a blistering 1:20 3/5. He followed that up with victories in the Riva Ridge, Dwyer, and Jerome Handicap, but his career was cut short, ending after his first start at 4.
Johannesburg's female family is an illustrious one, inundated with major stakes winners from the U.S. and Europe, but they predominantly were mile to mile and an eighth-type horses. One female family member, Pulpit, however, was injured in the Kentucky Derby and we'll never know how far he would have been able to carry his speed.
If you're looking for anything in Johannesburg's pedigree to hint there's brilliant 1 1/4-mile blood, note that two stallions in his female family are Damascus and Honest Pleasure. It was Damascus who equaled the track record winning the 1967 Travers Stakes, and it was Honest Pleasure who broke the track record winning the 1976 Travers Stakes. Damascus, of course, also won the Belmont Stakes and 2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, and it was Honest Pleasure, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, who was on the short end of Forego's epic head victory in the 1976 Marlboro Cup, run at 1 1/4 miles.