By John Manley
There’s a lot to gain by winning the Kentucky Derby, but for trainer Aidan O’Brien the biggest prize to be won this Saturday is respect. He returns to the U.S. with Johannesburg for the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs, but last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile may as well have been run in a dense fog where the media is concerned.
A long list of Johannesburg’s supposed shortcomings, not the least of which is the manner in which O’Brien has prepped the colt for the race, has more than 20 rivals yearning to line up in the Churchill Downs starting gate.
Undefeated when he won the Juvenile by drawing away from a pretty good field at Belmont Park last October, Johannesburg’s preparation for the Derby has occurred mostly at Ballydoyle, with just one race at The Curragh. In that outing, on April 7, he finished a nose behind Rebelline, a 4-year-old filly, while getting 11 pounds from her. That race was run over yielding ground over seven furlongs, three-eighths of a mile shorter than the Derby distance.
Much has been made of the fact that a pantheon of Derby winners had several prep races before taking their respective turns around the Twin Spires. That O’Brien dare send his charge out with so little seasoning has most pundits scoffing at his chances.
Johannesburg’s breeding has also been called into question. His sire, Hennessy, has had but a few crops to reach the races, so a fair evaluation may be years away. The naysayers, however, are adamant that the Hennessys lack the stamina to go 10 furlongs, while overlooking the fact that the grandsire, Storm Cat, has been one of the most prolific sires of classics winners in our time.
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The upside? How about the way Johannesburg took to the dirt, tracked a spirited pace, then swung wide to split rivals and draw away for a decisive victory in the Juvenile? Fast early fractions are practically assured on Saturday and the colt’s ability to rate is a boost to his chances. Positioning will be critical, though.
Jockey Michael Kinane picked up a suspension at Newmarket in April and has booked passage to Germany for the Manchester United match on Saturday, leaving the riding chores to either of Jerry Bailey or Gary Stevens. The odd man out has the ride on Castle Gandolfo, O’Brien’s other runner.
Castle Gandolfo may be more suited to the task breedingwise, as he is out of a Northern Dancer mare, but he, too, has just one race on his ledger this year, that a facile tally at Lingfield, England over a dirt strip in April. He placed in a pair of Group 2 races in England and France last year.
The Derby represents a homecoming of sorts for both Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo, as both were foaled in Kentucky. The lone Irish-bred in the field is Ocean Sound. This son of Mujadil issued a mediocre account of himself in Europe last summer, but impressed trainer Jim Cassidy, who imported him to California.
Ocean Sound lost by a nose in his American debut, a turf sprint at Santa Anita in February, but was disqualified for drifting in. Since then, he has earned minor shares in graded dirt stakes, most recently a non-threatening third in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. He has but one lifetime win in 12 career starts and will go off at a price. His breeder is Terence McDonald.
Lest we forget, Essence of Dubai comes to Louisville with S’ed bin Suroor calling the shots, but Eoin Harty had a lot to do with this colt’s development. Harty conditions the Godolphin 2-year-olds and got this guy to last year’s Juvenile, where Johannesburg handed him his head. But Essence of Dubai has one accomplishment of which no rival can brag — a win at 10 furlongs, in his case, the United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai in March.
But maybe seven furlongs over a boggy Curragh sod, not to mention any other devices O’Brien may have employed at Ballydoyle, are equal to nine or 10 furlongs elsewhere.