Updated on 09/16/2011 8:06AM

Another Johannesburg option


ARCADIA, Calif. - Improving weather in recent days in Ireland has caused trainer Aidan O'Brien to reconsider where Johannesburg will make his first start of the year this weekend. Instead of running on an all-weather surface at Lingfield in Great Britain on Saturday, Johannesburg may instead run Sunday at The Curragh in Ireland.

"Our first preference is run at The Curragh," O'Brien said Tuesday in a conference call from Ireland, where he is based. "Lingfield is a good alternative. Last week we said there was no doubt he would run at Lingfield, because the weather had been poor. But it has dried up, so he could go at The Curragh."

The two races are quite different. The race at The Curragh is the Gladness Stakes, a seven-furlong Group 3 race on turf, in which Johannesburg would face older horses. The race at Lingfield, strictly for 3-year-olds, is an allowance race dubbed the Foster's International Trial, at one-mile on an all-weather surface, the closest approximation Europeans have to American dirt courses. O'Brien said a decision would be made Thursday night, "because we have to declare for both races on Friday."

If Johannesburg comes to the United States for the May 4 Kentucky Derby, this weekend's race will be his only prep race.

The Gladness Stakes had first been mentioned in February by Michael Tabor, who co-owns Johannesburg with Susan Magnier, as the likely lone Derby prep for Johannesburg. But in recent weeks, because of the poor weather in Ireland, O'Brien was leaning toward the Lingfield race. He sent Johannesburg to Lingfield for a strong workout there two weeks ago. "The last couple of months, it's rained a bunch here," he said.

O'Brien said that Castle Gandolfo, another well-regarded colt owned by Magnier and Tabor, would run in whichever race Johannesburg does not go in. Jockey Mick Kinane will be aboard both colts this weekend.

While O'Brien said he "couldn't be happier at this stage" with the progress of Johannesburg, the circumspect trainer gave a reasoned, sobering analysis of what Johannesburg is facing if he indeed continues on and comes to the Kentucky Derby.

"It's a huge step," O'Brien said. "All we can do is try. He was a freak as a 2-year-old. Every step of the way he won. No challenge was too big. We're hoping he'll be a freak at 3. Last year, he looked like a nailed-on miler. Asking him to go a mile and a quarter is a huge step. We are going into the unknown. He looks like he has made improvement, but we won't know until we race."

If Johannesburg does not come to the Kentucky Derby, his likely option would be the English 2000 Guineas, a Group 1 race at Newmarket on May 4, the same day as the Kentucky Derby.