Churchill Downs is a long way from County Kildare, but you wouldn't have guessed it in early April when, after a long winter's rest in the lush green fields of the Irish countryside, Johannesburg, the 2-year-old champion, made his debut as a 3-year-old. Nearly 7,000 fans turned up at Curragh Racecourse, the venerable track 25 miles southwest of Dublin, and they all had a bad case of Derby fever. They were there to watch the undefeated colt compete in the Gladness Stakes, his only scheduled prep race before a rumored nip to Kentucky. The mood was festive around the track, as a clown painted children's faces and corks kept popping in the Champagne Bar, where women in fanciful hats drank flutes of Laurent-Perrier. TIME DISCLOSES ALL read the motto on the clock tower, and the words seemed to hang in the air as another moment of truth drew near.
How good is Johannesburg, really? That question was first whispered last October, when the colt proved that he could transfer his speed from grass—the favored surface in Europe—to dirt, showing a breathtaking ability to accelerate down the stretch as he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park. The whispers grew louder, and more incredulous, when his handlers brought him back to Ireland and kept him out of racing for nearly six months, bringing him back only now, four weeks before the Kentucky Derby. This seven-furlong race over grass would be his only preparation for the 1�-mile (10-furlong) Derby? Now the question became: Is Johannesburg good enough to do the impossible?
A smallish bay by Hennessy out of Myth, the colt had enjoyed a tremendous career, winning six graded or grouped stakes in four countries, including his spectacular victory in the Breeders' Cup. On paper the Gladness didn't look too challenging. True, Johannesburg would be facing older horses for the first time, but he would be going only seven eighths of a mile—he had handled a mile and a 16th at Belmont—and would have a big advantage in the handicap weights because of his age.
The gentleman farmers and parish priests could be forgiven, then, for almost trampling the bookies in their rush to back him. The odds on Johannesburg had fallen to 1-3 by the time the horses entered the saddling enclosure, where Aidan O'Brien waited for his prize colt. O'Brien was coming off a banner year in 2001, his best as a trainer. He'd produced 23 Group 1 winners (breaking the record set by D. Wayne Lukas in 1987) for Ballydoyle Racing, an arm of Coolmore Stud, the powerful Irish-based international breeding outfit. Though O'Brien is only 32, he's already risen to the top of his profession, but he still has the polite, soft-spoken manner of a choirboy. Married with four children, he's devoted to his work, avoids strong drink and is generally in bed by 9:30 every night.
While O'Brien didn't doubt Johannesburg's talent, he wasn't as blindly optimistic as the fans. He knew the Gladness, and he respected it. "The Gladness is probably the toughest race in Europe for a 3-year-old this time of year," he said. He had chosen the race precisely because of its difficulty. Since Johannesburg would be going over tacky and tiring ground, seven furlongs would be the equal of nine, O'Brien thought. The colt was a month or so behind in his fitness program, too, a result of a wet Irish winter. Further, only one favorite—Giant's Causeway, another Ballydoyle horse, in 2000—had won the Gladness in the past 17 years.
Now O'Brien ignored his Sunday clothes to kneel and inspect Johannesburg's girth. Dressed in a plain suit and a bulky overcoat that he'll probably still be wearing in 30 years, he took exceptional care with every aspect of the gear, patting the colt to quiet him. There's something calm and steely at O'Brien's core—a need to excel, perhaps, along with a touch of military precision. Often he seems more comfortable with his horses, absorbed in their being, than he does making small talk with the owners. In the parade ring he dutifully exchanged pleasantries with John Magnier, the dapper, media-shy boss of Coolmore Stud, who owns Johannesburg with his wife, Sue, and Michael Tabor, a wealthy former London bookie based in Monaco, but O'Brien didn't relax and share a laugh until Mick Kinane, Johannesburg's regular jockey, joined the group. Kinane knew the horses up close, too, and offered crucial insights after a ride, so he and O'Brien could banter freely.
Then the trainer was giving his jockey a leg up, and the field of seven passed through a gate and onto the yielding turf of the Curragh. O'Brien left the parade ring holding the hand of his oldest son, Joseph, a boy of eight whom he refers to as his "assistant trainer," and went off to watch the race. The start gave him nothing to worry about. Johannesburg broke well enough and took up a position outside Shoal Creek, his stable-mate and pacemaker, and appeared to be in control. The crowd was on edge, expecting him to step up the pace over the final furlong as usual, but that didn't happen. Instead the colt grew weary, as if the ground had turned to molasses, and Rebelline, a 4-year-old filly with Group 2 credentials, shot through on the rail and nipped him at the wire.
The loss was a shock to fans and appeared to compromise Johannesburg's chances of even going to Kentucky. He'd carried 11 pounds less than Rebelline, after all, and O'Brien had no other trial races in mind for the colt. The idea that Ballydoyle might make an assault on the Derby with such scant preparatory work had the experts across the water shaking their heads in disbelief. "The most accomplished colt of them all is preparing for the Derby in a manner doomed to failure," turf writer Andy Beyer declared in The Washington Post as Johannesburg headed to the post at the Curragh. "There is no race in the world more stressful than the Kentucky Derby; the leaders in last year's 17-horse field ran the first half-mile in a breathtaking 44[4/5] seconds. A horse needs to be ultra-fit to cope with that type of pressure."
That view was hardly unique. Conventional wisdom says a colt must undergo a hard campaign of preps to get ready, and as Beyer points out, the last horse to win the Derby without a traditional spring of racing was Canonero II, a Venezuelan import, in 1971. The customary path was the one Lukas followed when he won a Derby for Tabor in '95 with Thunder Gulch, who now stands at Ashford Stud, Coolmore's branch outside Lexington, commanding an $80,000 fee for every mare he covers.
So Tabor understood how readily a Derby win can translate into megabucks in the breeding shed, as did Magnier. On behalf of Coolmore, Magnier had paid about $60 million in a private sale for Fusaichi Pegasus, who'd won in 2000. That must have stung a bit, since Coolmore had bid on Fu Peg as a yearling at Keeneland, quitting at $3.8 million because the price seemed too steep. (The winning bid was $4 million.) Though Coolmore has lots of expensive turf sires, it needs more with dirt pedigrees such as Johannesburg's. With the right set of racing credentials—and a garland of roses from Churchill Downs would enhance them immeasurably—the colt might one day match, or even surpass, Fu Peg's lofty stud fee of $135,000.