Updated on 09/16/2011 8:11AM

Johannesburg and stablemate Derby bound


Weeks of trying to read tea leaves, consulting tarot cards, and visitations with psychics ended on Wednesday, when trainer Aidan O'Brien announced from Ireland that champion Johannesburg, and stablemate Castle Gandolfo, would head to the 128th Kentucky Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs.

The status of Johannesburg had fueled rampant debate in recent weeks, with many left guessing as to the intentions of O'Brien, and owners Michael Tabor and John and Susan Magnier. They had always left open the possibility of coming to the Derby, and O'Brien said Wednesday they are indeed headed this way.

"It looks likely we'll be coming," O'Brien said from his Ballydoyle training center in Ireland. He elaborated further, "Both horses will be going. We have Mick Kinane and Jerry Bailey booked for the two horses."

Kinane, the contract rider for O'Brien, Magnier, and Tabor, was aboard Johannesburg for his unbeaten 2-year-old season last year, including a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park. Bailey will ride Castle Gandolfo, his consolation prize after Siphonic and Repent were injured, and Blue Burner finished fifth in Saturday's Wood Memorial.

"It just goes to show that you can never have too many," Bailey said last week, before the Wood. "They're very fragile. But at least I can go and get another mount. It's much more devastating," Bailey said, referring to injuries to Repent and Siphonic, "to the owner and trainer."

Johannesburg, who was 7-for-7 last year, has had just one start this year. He suffered his first career loss, when facing older horses, in the seven-furlong Gladness Stakes at The Curragh. He will go into the Derby with just that one prep race at age 3. He also has yet to race around two turns, or farther than 1 1/16 miles. And the 1 1/4-mile Derby will be only his second start on dirt. It is a tall order, and one O'Brien does not take lightly.

"It's a very difficult thing to do," he acknowledged. "We're hopeful. We hope they both run good races."

Castle Gandolfo has won three times and finished second twice in five starts. He won his lone start this year, on an all-weather surface at Lingfield that mirrors an American dirt course. He finished second in a pair of Group 1 races last year in France and Great Britain, including one race at 1 1/4 miles.

O'Brien said both Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo had breezes on Tuesday at Ballydoyle.

"The horse are doing well at the moment," he said. "That's the main thing - they're both in good form."

Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo will fly from Ireland to the United States about one week before the Derby, O'Brien said. That gives them a chance to have another breeze or two in Ireland before departing.

Because there is no quarantine facility at Churchill Downs, both Johannesburg and Castle Gandolfo will have to stay in a United States Department of Agriculture facility adjacent to Keeneland after first arriving. They will be released in less than 48 hours, once their blood work is given the all-clear by a USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa. The two-day quarantine is standard for all horses arriving from Europe. Once they are free to leave that facility, they will be sent by van 75 miles to Churchill Downs, train for a few days there, then race.

O'Brien said he was unsure when he would come to the United States. The English 2,000 Guineas is the same day as the Kentucky Derby, and O'Brien has several possible runners for that race, including the highly regarded Hawk Wing. "There's a lot happening here at the moment," he said.