08/01/2002 11:00PM

Coolmore's eyes bigger than stars' abilities

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NEW YORK - The retirement of Johannesburg on Thursday should not have come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his declining fortunes.

Having failed in the Gladness Stakes, the Kentucky Derby, and the Golden Jubilee Stakes, Johannesburg had been painted into a corner by trainer Aidan O'Brien and his bosses at Coolmore Stud.

There was simply nowhere for him to go. Not after his championship juvenile year, winning Group or Grade 1 races in four different countries.

Always penciled in to stand at stud for Coolmore, Johannesburg has been whisked away by John Magnier for duty next year at Coolmore's Kentucky branch, Ashford Stud.

Sadly, we will never know what Johannesburg might have shown us as a 3-year-old, for the simple reason that he was improperly placed in all three of his races this year.

In Coolmore's official retirement announcement, O'Brien said all of the correct things concerning the wet Irish spring, which, he claims, hampered Johannesburg's Kentucky Derby preparations.

But Coolmore had its sights set on Churchill Downs, so it was to Churchill Downs that Johannesburg went, even though there had always been grave reservations about his ability to stay 10 furlongs. After his Derby flop, he was summarily dropped down to a six-furlong Group 1 at Royal Ascot, where he was beaten by 10 lengths.

Johannesburg's 3-year-old campaign must rank as one of the worst managed in the history of horse racing. How could one of the world's top outfits so completely foul up one of the most brilliant 2-year-olds in history?

The answer may lie in Coolmore's policy to display the merits of their best horses on the racetrack at as many distances and on as many surfaces as possible in an effort to increase their stud value. This was evident last year when O'Brien dropped Galileo back from 1 1/2 miles to 1 1/4 miles, in spite of the fact that Galileo had won the Epsom Derby, the Irish Derby, and the King George at the longer distance. Defeated in the Irish Champion Stakes, he was routed when switched to dirt for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Galileo's mismanaged autumn campaign may have been the result of the success Coolmore had had with Giant's Causeway a year earlier. Giant's Causeway, the winner of five straight Group 1 races in Europe, was switched to dirt for the Breeders' Cup Classic in which he finished second, thus increasing his stud fee by $25,000.

But Giant's Causeway had already won two 1 1/4-mile Group 1 races on turf. Moreover, as he is by Storm Cat out of Mariah's Storm, there was a strong indication that he would run well on dirt.

That was not the case with Galileo, who is by Sadler's Wells, a sire who has never been known to produce dirt runners. So wouldn't it have been wiser to run Galileo in the Arc and the Breeders' Cup Turf? Not if you want to attract the attention of American breeders it isn't.

With Galileo, O'Brien seemed to be laying down the groundwork for a Coolmore marketing campaign designed to make people think that their best horses are world-beaters at whatever distance or surface O'Brien wishes to run them.

After Galileo had won the Epsom Derby, O'Brien said that he might run him at a mile during the summer. He opined that Galileo "could gallop on water," a hyperbolic statement if ever there was one. His statements were noticed around the world, but his claims proved unfounded.

The same is true of Johannesburg. During the run-up to the Derby, O'Brien claimed that Johannesburg was so fast he might go sprinting this summer. That is exactly what he did do, but he failed in that as completely as he had at 1 1/4 miles on dirt.

Johannesburg was probably a miler at heart. Yet he was never given the opportunity to run at that distance on turf.

Now O'Brien is threatening to follow the same misguided Coolmore policy with the wonderful Rock of Gibraltar. After a sixth consecutive Group 1 victory - four of which have come at a mile - in the Sussex Stakes on Wednesday, O'Brien announced that Rock of Gibraltar's next race could be either the five-furlong Nunthorpe Stakes or the 1 1/4-mile, 85-yard Juddmonte International.

"All grounds, all trips come alike to him," O'Brien boasted after the Sussex in his best Madison Avenue accent.

Running Rock of Gibraltar at any distance save a mile may be foolhardy at this time. Timeform wrote, he "stays one mile, not sure to get further." A step up to 10 furlongs or a drop back to five might be wise in Hong Kong in December, or next year, but not now.

But we should not expect to see Rock of Gibraltar next year, as running him at 4 would cut into Coolmore's breeding profits. Galileo and Johannesburg were sacrificed to that end. Let us hope that Coolmore does right by Rock of Gibraltar and keeps him at a mile.

As for O'Brien, he should remember that he is training Thoroughbreds, and not one of that breed has ever been seen galloping on water.