Special Derby Report: Johannesburg Returning to America on a Wing and a Prayer

Special Derby Report: Johannesburg Returning to America on a Wing and a Prayer
Photo: Mike Corrado
"Being realistic, I think it's going to very difficult, really," trainer Aidan O'Brien said of Johannesburg's chances of winning the Derby.
Johannesburg will supply the wing and trainer Aidan O'Brien the prayer. The Coolmore trainer said the keyword is hope in their quest to get last year's champion 2-year-old to the Kentucky Derby.

The abysmal weather in Ireland this winter just won't quit, and as spring approaches, firm ground has become a distant memory. With his Who's Who stable of horses itching to break out of the winter doldrums and begin their assault on the classics, O'Brien can only plan his strategy and hope his horses emerge from rain-soaked Ballydoyle fit enough to tackle the big races ahead.

The one horse on his mind all winter has been Johannesburg, the undefeated phenom who took America by storm last fall, winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile for his fourth consecutive group or grade I victory, all in a different country. His remarkable string of victories came in the Phoenix Stakes in Ireland, the Prix Morny in France, the Middle Park Stakes in England, and the BC Juvenile in America. His two group III stakes scores and maiden victory prior to that add up to a seven-for-seven campaign.

Although racing fans all over America and Europe have been craving for tidal waves of news to come pouring out of Ballydoyle, only an occasional drop has trickled out, and a good deal of that has come from owner Michael Tabor. First came the announcement that Johannesburg would have only a run in the 7-furlong Gladness Stakes on April 23 prior to the Derby. Now comes word that the colt will run in a proposed one-mile dirt race at Lingfield on April 6. Regardless where he does show up, O'Brien is well aware of the uphill battle they are fighting.

"This winter has been very bad," O'Brien said. "It's been extremely wet, and difficult to get work into the horses. The Lingfield race is a definite possibility, and the Gladness Stakes also is still possible. But if the weather continues the way it has, the ground is going to be bottomless, and it wouldn't pay to run him in those kind of (soft turf) races. It's just been a difficult time, and our horses are probably a little more behind than we'd like. But we just have to keep trying.

"Johannesburg has developed really well, and if you saw him, you'd be very happy with him. He kept developing all through last year, and as well as growing up, he grew out. To look at him, you'd say he's done all the right things. He's a fine, well-balanced, proper 3-year-old at the moment. There's no doubt he's done well over the winter."

That said, just how optimistic is O'Brien that he can get Johannesburg to the Derby in top shape and with a legitimate shot to win the Run for the Roses? "Being realistic, I think it's going to very difficult, really," he said candidly. "We just hope we'll be able to get him there in some kind of shape that he'll do himself justice. You know how difficult it is. It's not as if you're going into any ordinary race. It's even a more difficult task when you're in a different part of the world altogether and the weather and the ground are so bad. I'll be very happy if he gets there and runs a good race, and we learn a bit from the experience. I think that would be great; just to be a part of it.. Really, we're just hoping."

You can be sure, however, that O'Brien will do everything in his power to get Johannesburg as fit and sharp as possible. If he does run in the Lingfield race, O'Brien will enter another horse, or horses, to make sure the son of Hennessy gets as much out of the race as possible.

"We'll wait until closer to the race to see who we want to go with him," he said. "All of our horses at this time are kind of at the same stage. We'll look at the entries, but I'm sure we'll have more than one entered in the race. I realize it's very important that he has somewhat of a competitive race."

O'Brien also realizes that for Johannesburg to be competitive going a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May, he must train him accordingly. "Obviously, we'll keep him as relaxed as we can, because there has to be a big doubt whether he'll get a mile and a quarter," he said. "If he can settle in the race, he'll have a chance, but we really won't know whether he can until he goes out there and shows it. He's an exceptionally fast horse, and all his fractions in his works are fast. As you could tell from the Breeders' Cup, he's a horse who travels very strong."

So, there really is nothing anyone can do for now but wait. O'Brien hasn't been exactly prolific in his progress reports because there hasn't been much to report. But he says he is well aware of the interest in the colt in America, and does not mind the constant request for updates. "I realize everyone there has their job to do, and I'm sure they appreciate that we have a job to do as well," he said. "It's a small world, and we all have to do the best we can for each other."

Most Popular Stories