04/24/2002 11:00PM

Derby journey a handsome prospect

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The decision to run Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Johannesburg in the Kentucky Derby is a sporting adventure for owners Michael Tabor and Susan Magnier. Whether their second overseas expedition with the colt is successful or not, Johannesburg has proven himself among the top-class athletes of his crop, and he is a fitting representative for his sire, Hennessy, his grandsire Ogygian, and his outstanding female family.

Hennessy, probably the handsomest and most conformationally correct son of Storm Cat, was nearly the champion juvenile of his crop, winning the Hopeful and finishing second to Unbridled's Song in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile of 1995. Had that decision gone the other way, Hennessy might well have taken down an Eclipse Award. In a close division, however, Maria's Mon won the trophy because of his better overall record and his victory in the Champagne, beating both Unbridled's Song and Hennessy.

Although he stayed a mile really well, Hennessy never raced after his juvenile season. Several recurrent problems kept the handsome colt off the track until well into his 3-year-old season, when he was sold to Coolmore for stud duty.

A very good-looking son of the most commercially accepted stallion in the world, Hennessy was eminently popular with breeders during his first seasons at Ashford Stud. He covered large books of more than 100 mares each year and shuttled to the southern hemisphere as well. Hennessy spent the 2001 northern hemisphere breeding season at the East Stud in Japan, then returned to America late last year after his Australian sojourn. Following Johannesburg's Breeders' Cup victory and international championships, Hennessy is standing for $45,000 live foal.

Clearly, Hennessy appeals to breeders, both for the commercial prospects of his offspring and for the speed and athleticism the stallion possesses.

Wayne Lyster, who bred Johannesburg in partnership with the Jayeff B Stable of Rich Santulli and George Prussin, said, "We bought Johannesburg's dam, Myth, at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale. She was in foal to Hennessy, and I really liked him. Her half-brother Tale of the Cat had already won a stakes and was coming on.

"So with Pulpit already proven under the next dam" - Pulpit is out of a full sister to the dam of Tale of the Cat and Myth and would be shown under Myth's second dam on catalog pages - "this was a really active family that you'd like to have a piece of. Both Hennessy and Tale of the Cat being sons of Storm Cat made it that much more interesting."

Lyster and Jayeff B weren't the only ones interested. Myth, carrying her first foal, brought $350,000. Lyster recalled that "we got a really gorgeous foal out of her, but it had a cleft palate. Whenever it would try to nurse, it would lose the milk, and we ended up having to euthanize it."

This left the partners in quite a dilemma. Should they go back to Hennessy and try for another gorgeous foal, or avoid a mating that had produced a malformed colt?

"I checked with vets at New Bolton and the Gluck Center about whether that condition could be hereditary, their conclusion was 'no,' and we sent the mare back to Hennessy," Lyster said.

The result was Johannesburg.

After producing this handsome bay colt, Myth had not gotten back in foal, and both mother and son were consigned to the Keeneland November sale in 1999. Coolmore, which had acquired the stallion rights to Tale of the Cat, bought Myth for $250,000 and was the underbidder on her colt at $240,000.

When I saw Myth at the November sale, I most noted her quality and the strength of her physique. She has good length through the body, and she has a good shoulder and hip. Lyster said, "She was a medium-sized to smallish mare but very well balanced and attractive."

She is just the American type of mare who tends to produce speedy, hardy racehorses, and apparently the type runs pretty well in Europe, too.

Johannesburg was unbeaten in seven starts at 2, all in Europe over turf courses except for the Juvenile. The colt lost his 3-year-old debut, and that loss probably cost him a chance to be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby in two weeks.

Lyster recounted how the colt changed hands: "Coolmore was the underbidder on the colt. Michael Byrne from Canada bought him as a weanling for $240,000. The present owners bought him in September for $200,000."

Although he was a February foal, Johannesburg wasn't an immense weanling. He was average or a bit smaller but a very appealing type of racing prospect.

Lyster recalled that "he was a dark bay but had tremendous presence, and I guess that's made him what he is today."