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Undefeated Johannesburg Limited to One Prep Race

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

In England, it’s nigh impossible to upstage the Grand National steeplechase, a race first run in 1839, but Saturday a track not far from London and a beer sponsor from Australia will try to do just that. Lingfield Park is running the Foster’s International Trial Stakes, a race that has been created to prepare the undefeated Johannesburg to run in the Kentucky Derby on May 4.

Johannesburg, having already won major stakes in Ireland, France and England, came to the U.S. last fall and won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park for his seventh consecutive victory. That was enough for Eclipse Award voters to elect Johannesburg the best 2-year-old male to race in North America in 2001, but the Irish-based, Kentucky-bred colt hasn’t run since.

Aidan O’Brien, the 32-year-old trainer who has dominated Irish racing for almost a decade, plans to run Johannesburg in the one-mile race at Lingfield, then bring him to Kentucky and train him up to the Derby.

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Bold Venture ran only once as a 3-year-old before he won the Derby in 1936, but more recent winners have had at least three or four prep races in the years they’ve won the race. The last Derby winner with fewer than three preps as a 3-year-old was Sunny’s Halo, who used a two-race foundation to win at Churchill Downs in 1983.

Besides bucking that Derby tradition, O’Brien has chosen a curious place for Johannesburg’s only pre-Churchill race. Johannesburg’s only dirt race has been in the Breeders’ Cup, and Lingfield’s layout is neither grass nor true dirt--it’s an all-weather, Polytrack surface that is not similar to what’s waiting for the colt in Louisville.

“There’s no kickback at Lingfield, and horses have trouble coming from behind to win there,” said Richard Duggan, a California bloodstock agent who bought Hanuman Highway off a win at Lingfield in 1997 and then watched him finish seventh in the 1998 Kentucky Derby. “Johannesburg won’t experience the kickback of dirt in his face from other horses, so I don’t see how this race will help him at Churchill, where he’s bound to get a lot of dirt in his face. Maybe they think the horse got enough experience with dirt in the Breeders’ Cup.”

O’Brien used the Lingfield track to prepare Johannesburg, Galileo and Giant’s Causeway for Breeders’ Cup dirt races. Giant’s Causeway lost by a neck to Tiznow in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill and Galileo was sixth in last year’s Classic.

Johannesburg already has worked over the Lingfield course this year.

“The rumors I hear is that the horse is not doing that particularly well,” Duggan said. “Now I know there are a lot of rumors around the racetrack, but this is what I heard when I was trying to buy some horses over there recently. And where there’s a lot of smoke, there just might be some fire.”

One of Johannesburg’s owners is Michael Tabor, a native Londoner who lives in Monte Carlo. Tabor won the Kentucky Derby with Thunder Gulch in 1995. Besides Johannesburg, Tabor has two and perhaps even three Derby prospects this year: Mayakovsky, winner of the Gotham at Aqueduct on March 17, is expected to be the second betting choice, behind Came Home, in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby; Nokoma, a disappointing seventh in the Florida Derby, will get another chance in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 13; and Castle Gandolfo, a stablemate of Johannesburg’s, is also scheduled to run at Lingfield Saturday.

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Patrick Biancone, who trains Mayakovsky, said Sunday that Pat Valenzuela will ride the colt in the Santa Anita Derby. Edgar Prado, who has ridden the colt in all three of his races, has a commitment Saturday to ride Bowman’s Band in the Oaklawn Handicap in Arkansas.

Valenzuela was 17 when he won the 1980 Santa Anita Derby with Codex, and he won the race again in 1989 with Sunday Silence, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby. In and out of drug rehabilitation in recent years, Valenzuela hasn’t ridden in the Santa Anita Derby since 1994, but he won a race for Biancone Sunday and with 27 winners ranks sixth in the meet standings.

“I see him as a force at rest,” Biancone said. “I mean to say, since he has come back, he’s riding like he’s 22 years old again. He’s like a rookie with experience.”

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