Johannesburg remains unbeaten in seven starts with a huge win in the Juvenile, trainer Aidan O'Brien's first Breeders' Cup victory
In the 1970s, musician/poet Gil-Scott Heron penned a protest song against the government of South Africa that went, in part, "What's the word; Brothers, sisters have you heard; from Johannesburg." Today apartheid is a thing of the past, Nelson Mandella travels the world as one of its most respected citizens, and Thoroughbred racing has indeed heard from Johannesburg.
Johannesburg, too, is a citizen of the world, with a South African name, Irish ownership, and a huge win in the Oct. 27 Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) hosted by, fittingly, the greatest melting pot in the world, New York. And, if the scene on the racetrack that greeted the returning victor is any indication, the pubs of the Big Apple had better have laid in prodigious amounts of beer and ale for the long day's journey into night.
A joyous, snaking scrum hit the racing surface during Johannesburg's gallop out, with co-owner Michael Tabor receiving back slaps and handshakes all around as he was turned this way and that by emotional supporters. Cries of "Let's Go Ireland" rang out from the apron-dwellers as a large flag of that country was unfurled on the track. Rider Michael Kinane, to the delight of the assembled, waved a smaller version as he was led to the winner's circle.
The Irish of course are entitled to such triumphs. Since the mid-'90s Tabor has been a major player at horse auctions in Europe and North America. Rising from a clerk in a betting shop to the owner of more than 100 such shops before selling, Tabor raced champion Thunder Gulch, who in 1995 carried his colors to victory in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Much of Tabor's buying is done in concert with John Magnier, a steeplechasing scion who bought Coolmore Stud in 1975. Coolmore and partners stand stallions around the world such as Sadler's Wells, Danehill, Thunder Gulch, and Fusaichi Pegasus, and currently race Galileo and a host of other top Thoroughbreds.
Johannesburg was one of five undefeated 2-year-olds who loaded into the gate for the Juvenile, and the most accomplished given his six victories, although all were accomplished overseas in Ireland, France, and England, on turf, and at five or six furlongs. He was a daylight winner in all those outings, including a three-length score in Newmarket's Middle Park Stakes (Eng-I) earlier in October. Yet Johannesburg still had numerous questions to answer, and the betting public was not sure those replies would come in the affirmative, sending him off as the 7-1 third choice.
There was no disputing on whom favoritism would fall. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the martyred policemen and firemen that tragedy produced, any horse named Officer would have been well supported. Officer, however, was not just any horse. Since his debut in July in California, Officer was on the fast track to superstardom. And when Bob Baffert and The Thoroughbred Corp. lost their 3-year-old honcho, Point Given, to a career-ending suspensory tendon problem in late August, there was Officer to fill the void. He marched through the Del Mar summer capturing three stakes, then took New York by storm with a devastatingly easy score in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) over the Belmont strip and at the Breeders' Cup distance of 1 1/16 miles. He entered the Juvenile gate a 3-5 favorite.
The bettors settled on another California invader, Came Home, as the 5-1 second choice. The undefeated son of Gone West had proven his talent via three impressive scores, the last of which was accomplished shipping across the country to Saratoga to win the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I). Filling in an ankle kept the colt, owned by Trudy McCaffery and John Toffan, from a scheduled date in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita a month ago, but he had worked well coming up to the New York test.
The other two unbeatens included Siphonic, who was ultra-impressive earlier in the month at Keeneland, annexing the grade II Lane's End Breeders' Futurity by a front-running six lengths. The colt from the first crop of Siphon had extra petrol in his corner by virtue of being conditioned by Dave Hofmans, the West Coast's version of "the Giant Killer." Hofmans knocked off Cigar in the 1996 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) with Alphabet Soup, and also spoiled the Triple Crown bid of Silver Charm when his Touch Gold ran down the people's favorite in the Belmont Stakes a year later. Publication sported a modest two-race win streak to start his career, one coming in Northern California, the next in the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. II) in September for trainer Terry Knight. Coming into the race on the uptick as well was Kentucky Cup Juvenile (gr. III) victor Repent.
Much was made of the post position draw in the days coming up to the Juvenile, specifically Officer having drawn inside. A couple of mornings before the race, Baffert claimed "a bad draw only affects you for a half-hour." The Thoroughbred Corp.'s racing manager Richard Mulhall added that Officer could win if he started in the parking lot. But in a more serious moment, Baffert allowed that "you lose a little confidence with a bad draw. You don't want him scrambling for the first couple hundred yards. On the inside, if you don't break well, you're screwed."
Baffert proved prophetic as the gates opened and the dozen runners got under way. Officer was a half-step slow leaving as Came Home made the pace from post 11. Jockey Victor Espinoza hustled Officer back up to the leader immediately, and Siphonic was sent from the rail, giving the favorite company on both sides. Johannesburg, under regular pilot Kinane, was kept attentive to the pace in fifth position, just two lengths back as the opening quarter went in :23.61.
One half-mile into the proceedings with just :46.85 elapsed, Siphonic was guzzled back by Jerry Bailey, leaving Officer with a head advantage over Came Home and the charging Essence of Dubai, the Norfolk victor trained by Eoin Harty, who had won the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) earlier in the afternoon with Tempera. Essence of Dubai quickly retreated, however, replaced by French Assault, a stakes winner at Retama Park sent away at 61-1. Along they went up the Belmont backstretch, with Officer, Came Home, French Assault, Siphonic, and Johannesburg all within a length of each other.
For a brief moment, as they hit the looping turn, it seemed Officer would once again work his magic. The California-bred son of Bertrando tried to give them the slip, as he had in five previous afternoons without being asked by Espinoza. Here, instead of leaving his field behind, they stayed right with him and lined up perfectly even nearing the end of the bend. "By the middle of the turn I didn't have enough horse," said Espinoza. "He didn't run a winning race today. Even champs get beaten."Continued...Juvenile Chart, From Equibase