Updated on 09/15/2011 2:24PM

Johannesburg doesn't fit profile of Derby winners


NEW YORK - In today's world of racing, one word that you can't throw around too cavalierly is "can't."

For example, "Johannesburg can't stretch out from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles in a spot like the Breeders' Cup Juvenile." He did, of course. Or, "Fantastic Light can't be as effective at 1 1/2 miles in the Turf." He certainly was. And, "Sakhee can't win a race like the Classic the way he trained on dirt." He very nearly did.

Soon, we will all start thinking about this one: "A 3-year-old who preps in Dubai can't win the Kentucky Derby."

Well, to paraphrase trainer Eoin Harty after he sent out Tempera and Imperial Gesture to finish one-two in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, if an American horse can travel to Dubai and win the World Cup (which has happened three times in the six-year history of that event), why can't a Dubai horse come to America and win the Derby?

So, as the time draws near to think seriously about the 2002 Kentucky Derby, I can tell you that, with the results of the Breeders' Cup still fresh in mind, I won't be throwing around the word "can't" too often. I may even take once- and twice-prepped Dubai horses more seriously. Still, there is one instance where I am already very tempted to employ the term "can't," and that has to do with Johannesburg's chances in the next Kentucky Derby.

I understand this position so early on leaves me with very little to gain and a lot to lose. However, since Johannesburg is a lock to be named Europe's champion 2-year-old and very likely to be voted the same divisional title in this country, he will be the reference point from which all analysis of the 2002 Derby originates. Surely, he has already taken more than his share of action in future book Derby bets. What I'm suggesting is, it makes sense to look elsewhere. Without taking anything away from what Johannesburg has accomplished, he just doesn't have the feel of a Kentucky Derby winner.

First off, being by Hennesey out of an Ogygian mare, Johannesburg doesn't exactly have a pedigree that screams 1 1/4 miles. Secondly, he doesn't fit the 2-year-old profile of the modern Derby winner, which calls for either a late-developing colt whose spots have been carefully picked, or a colt who demonstrated genuine talent, if not brilliance, during an abbreviated campaign. Johannesburg developed early and, especially by European standards, had an extended campaign of seven races from late May through late October, during which time he maintained peak form.

Then, if Johannesburg does receive an Eclipse Award as expected, he will have on his shoulders the onus of attempting to become the first 2-year-old champion since Spectacular Bid in 1979 to win the Derby. No offense to Johannesburg, but he's no Spectacular Bid. In fact, I doubt he's in the same league as several subsequent 2-year-old champs.

Finally, there's that Breeders' Cup Juvenile jinx. None of the 17 previous winners of the Juvenile were successful in the Derby. In fact, of the 12 Kentucky Derby winners since 1990, only one even started in the Juvenile, that being Sea Hero, who was a dull seventh at less than 5-2 in 1992. The last nine Derby winners were all absent from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which underscores the fact that there is simply no correlation between success going 1 1/16 miles in late October or early November, and success going 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May.

Eventually, a Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner will win the Kentucky Derby, but he will be the aberration. He will also have to be a very good one, and even in recognition of Johannesburg's visually impressive victory, it is fair to wonder just how good this year's Juvenile really was.

For one, the time of the Juvenile was significantly slower than the one posted by females at the same distance in the Juvenile Fillies. A 42-1 shot ran second and a 103-1 shot ran fourth. The 3-5 favorite, Officer, was a weary fifth and while he is capable of better, he has distance questions of his own. Less than six lengths separated Johannesburg from the eighth-place finisher.

Frankly, only Siphonic, who was third in the Juvenile, beaten just 2 1/2 lengths after being buried on the profoundly dead rail every step of the way, piqued the interest in terms of genuine upside potential. But, when you remember that Point Given was beaten a nose in the 2000 Juvenile at Churchill Downs and then could manage only a fifth as the favorite in this year's Derby, you realize that as good as Siphonic may become, he also has a tough road ahead, Derby-wise.

We all should appreciate what Johannesburg accomplished in the Breeders' Cup. But, there is a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon between that and winning the Kentucky Derby, and I don't think Johannesburg is the one to bridge that gap. Now, I have probably made Johannesburg a stronger sentimental favorite for the Derby than a future book favorite. You're welcome, Mr. Tabor and Mr. O'Brien, and please notice I said everything else but "can't."