Updated on 09/16/2011 7:07AM

Unorthodox path wrong way to Derby

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WASHINGTON - As the leading candidates for the Kentucky Derby run their final prep races this weekend or next, the most accomplished colt of them all of is preparing for the Derby in a manner doomed to failure.

Johannesburg - the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and a champion 2-year-old on both sides of the Atlantic - will make his 3-year-old debut in a seven-furlong turf race Sunday at The Curragh in Ireland. This will be his only prep race before going to Churchill Downs and he is unlikely to be fit enough to beat rivals battle-tested in two or three tough distance races this year.

It would be easy to question his trainer's judgment if Aidan O'Brien had not proved himself a sensationally successful international horseman. Last year O'Brien, 32, won classic races with 3-year-olds in England, France, and Ireland besides developing Johannesburg, who captured Grade 1 stakes in all three of those nations. Bringing Johannesburg to the Breeders' Cup appeared to be a longshot, since the colt had never raced on dirt nor beyond six furlongs, but he got a perfect trip at Belmont Park - sitting behind a speed duel that took a toll on the contenders - and rallied to win. After that victory, he was almost committed to taking a shot at the Derby.

"He had a tough campaign at 2," O'Brien said. "He needed a rest - a nice long rest." The trainer felt he couldn't give his colt a sufficient rest and rev him up for an American-style series of prep races. With such a regimen, O'Brien said, "he'd go backward rather than forward."

O'Brien's operation is based at the famous Irish training center, Ballydoyle, where, he said, "We have special gallops [training courses] for cantering and walking; there are a lot of facilities to get a horse ready. Johannesburg has had a lot of trial gallops, and his works have been very good."

This is the way Europeans typically prepare for a major objective. Horses have won the 1 1/2-mile English Derby without a single prep race as a 3-year-old. But there is a significant difference between training a horse for races on grass and those on dirt. In the early stage of turf races, the field usually lopes along at a leisurely pace, making such events less taxing and easier to prepare for than dirt races that are run all-out from the start. There is no race in the world more stressful than the Kentucky Derby; the leaders in last year's 17-horse field ran the first half-mile in a breathtaking 44.80 seconds. A horse needs to be ultra-fit to cope with that type of pressure.

Johannesburg is trying to do just what Arazi attempted in 1992. Arazi had been Europe's top 2-year-old before coming to the United States to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and earn acclaim as the sport's great new superstar. As a 3-year-old he had a single one-mile prep race in France to get ready for the Derby, in which he was the odds-on favorite. Arazi launched what seemed to be a winning move at Churchill Downs but ran out of gas in the stretch and finished eighth.

In recent years, horses owned by Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum have tried to win the Derby after a single prep race in Dubai, with dismal results; the talented colt Express Tour tried it last year and was trounced.

Horses win the Kentucky Derby by following a conventional route to Churchill Downs; the last winner with unorthodox preparation was Canonero II, the implausible invader from Venezuela in 1971. Accordingly, handicappers looking for the Derby winner should focus their attention on two key prep races Saturday:

* The Santa Anita Derby has produced three of the last six Kentucky Derby winners, and its field contains the colt who is arguably the most talented of his generation: Came Home. But Came Home's pedigree and stamina are suspect, and they will be put to a significant test when he goes 1 1/8 miles for the first time while facing another formidable speedster, Mayakovsky.

* Repent has the stretch-running style that is ideal for Churchill Downs, and he has won both of his starts as a 3-year-old, but he didn't dazzle anybody with those narrow victories against mediocre competition in Louisiana. He gets his final pre-Kentucky tune-up in the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park, and if he can win it impressively he will establish himself as a prime contender.

These key preps will be followed by three important races next Saturday - the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. If history is a guide, the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner will come from one of these familiar events, not from a seven-furlong turf race on the other side of the Atlantic.

(c)2002, The Washington Post