04/04/2002 12:00AM

Irish turf prep for Johannesburg

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FETHARD, Ireland - Johannesburg, the 2001 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and strongly backed Kentucky Derby hopeful, will make his debut as a 3-year-old on Sunday at the Curragh Race Course in the seven-furlong Gladness Stakes, Aidan O'Brien said Thursday at his Ballydoyle training center.

O'Brien's decision leaves Saturday's Fosters-International Trial Stakes at Lingfield Park near London without its marquee attraction, despite the fact that the race was created specifically to be Johannesburg's prep for the Kentucky Derby. O'Brien said he will run Irish stakes winner Castle Gandolfo, also a possibility for the Kentucky Derby, in the Lingfield event.

"Obviously, we're disappointed," said Lingfield representative Kate Hills. "Johannesburg's presence was going to be the center of a great day. But we're very happy to be getting Castle Gandolfo, and we're grateful for all of the publicity we received because of Johannesburg."

As recently as one week ago, O'Brien had his sights set on Lingfield for Johannesburg's first race since his victory at Belmont Park in the Breeders' Cup, last Oct. 27. On March 19, the colt was flown from Shannon Airport in western Ireland for a work over Lingfield's all-weather Polytrak surface. Then the weather turned.

"The Gladness always was our first preference," O'Brien said. "The question was the ground. It had been so wet in Ireland, that the idea of a race on the all-weather surface at Lingfield seemed the way to go. Now, the ground here has begun to dry out. The forecast is good through the weekend. So we'll stay closer to home instead."

Johannesburg, a son of Hennessy owned by Susan Magnier and Michael Tabor, will carry a 7-for-7 record into the Gladness Stakes. In his only appearance at The Curragh, Johannesburg won the Group 3 Anglesey Stakes by four lengths last July in the third start of his career.