03/07/2002 1:00AM

Johannesburg picks up the pace


NEW ORLEANS - The unbeaten , last year's champion 2-year-old colt, has begun more serious training in Ireland in preparation for a potential trip to the United States for the Kentucky Derby, trainer Aidan O'Brien said Thursday.

O'Brien, who spoke from his Ballydoyle training center in County Tipperary, said Johannesburg had had "several pieces of work" in recent weeks.

"It's what you would call works, or breezes," O'Brien said.

O'Brien said no firm race commitments had yet been made for Johannesburg, but said a prep race like the Curragh's seven-furlong Gladness Stakes on April 7 - as well as the subsequent Kentucky Derby - were "definite possibilities." That is phraseology often used by O'Brien.

Co-owner Michael Tabor recently offered a firmer commitment to a trip to Kentucky for Johannesburg.

"The next couple of weeks will be kind of vital," O'Brien said. O'Brien said training had been difficult in recent weeks in Ireland because of the weather.

"It's very wet here," he said. "The ground is not good. We're getting along. We're hanging in there."

O'Brien, Magnier, and Tabor have kept open every conceivable option with Johannesburg. In addition to nominating the colt to the Triple Crown, Johannesburg is nominated to England's Epsom Derby at Epsom Downs, a race the men won last year with Galileo. No horse has ever captured both the Kentucky Derby and Epsom Derby. The Epsom Derby is run this year on June 8, the same day as this country's Belmont Stakes.

The English 2000 Guineas is run at Newmarket the same day as the Kentucky Derby, on May 4. But the 2000 Guineas is at a mile, as opposed to the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles.

Johannesburg won all seven of his starts last year, and finished his brilliant campaign with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park. The 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile was his only race beyond six furlongs, and his only race on dirt. He has yet to race around two turns. Johannesburg is by Hennessy, a sire whose offspring are not usually proficient at classic distances.

Tabor also owns potential Kentucky Derby prospects in Mayakovsky and Nokoma, both of whom are based in this country. Mayakovsky is scheduled to run in the March 17 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, and Nokoma is scheduled to run in the March 16 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.

Tabor also recently acquired Smooth Jazz, who is expected to make his next start in Gulfstream's Swale Stakes on the Florida Derby undercard. Tabor won the Kentucky Derby with Thunder Gulch in 1995.