Johannesburg eases down but his status soars

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The Independent Online

Aidan O'Brien wins Group One races so frequently that at times it can seem almost humdrum, but there was certainly nothing ordinary about the turn of foot which seized the Independent Waterford Wedgwood Phoenix Stakes at Leopardstown for his colt Johannesburg yesterday.

Johannesburg travelled like a good horse and then quickened like an exceptional one to sprint away from his 10 rivals in the season's first Group One for juveniles. He is clear, too, in the betting for next year's 2,000 Guineas, and likely to remain so for weeks, perhaps months, to come.

O'Brien had already won the Group One Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville, with King Charlemagne, when the field went to post for the Phoenix Stakes at Leopardstown yesterday, and the punters were in no doubt that an across-the-card double was a formality.

Johannesburg, who runs in the colours of Michael Tabor, opened at 4-7 but was supported down to 2-5 by the off, and though the bookies had 10 horses running for them, the payout was never in doubt. Johannesburg cruised along at little more than a canter as Line Rider, a stablemate, performed his pacemaking duties, and when Mick Kinane shook the reins, the response was both willing and ruthless.

The race was over in half-a-dozen strides, the winning margin of five lengths recorded while easing down after a hands-and-heels ride.

For O'Brien, this was a fourth consecutive success in the Phoenix Stakes, and while the subsequent careers of the previous three – Lavery, Fasliyev and Minardi – have often been marked by ill-fortune or under-achievement, the bookmakers seem in little doubt that Johannesburg will arrive at Newmarket on 2,000 Guineas day next year as the horse to beat.

William Hill cut him to 6-1 clear favourite (from 16-1) for the Classic after yesterday's success, while 8-1 is available with Coral. The Tote offer 12-1 (from 25-1), though that may soon be a distant memory. The Tote then bet: 16-1 Naheef, 20-1 Dubai Destination and Meshaheer, 25-1 others.

"Johannesburg has brilliant acceleration and has never been extended," O'Brien said afterwards. "Michael was very confident on him and I think the horse will have no problem getting seven furlongs this year."

The Prix Morny at Deauville in two weeks' time – won by Fasliyev two years ago – and the Middle Park Stakes, in which Minardi followed up his Phoenix Stakes success last year, are likely targets for the colt, along with the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket in October.

Minardi could finish only sixth in the Prix Maurice du Gheest at Deauville yesterday, but his stablemate, King Charlemagne, secured the prize with a late rally to beat Godolphin's Three Points.

Michael Jarvis and John Gosden took third and fourth, with Kier Park and Mount Abu respectively, while the only home-trained challenger, Danger Over, was fifth.

"We have always rated this horse highly and the drop back in distance today [to six-and-a-half furlongs] was not a problem," O'Brien said. "He has plenty of pace."

King Charlemagne, ridden by Jamie Spencer yesterday, may now step back a little further still, for the six-furlong Stanley Leisure Sprint Cup at Haydock on 8 September.

Pat Eddery, the rider of Three Points, said that he was "Sure we had it won a furlong out but the winner found a real surge."

Godolphin's principal jockey, Frankie Dettori, also failed to lift what has generally been a disappointing season for the operation, finishing in last place on Mutafaweq in the eight-runner Credit Suisse Private Banking Pokal, a 12-furlong, Group One contest in Cologne.

The 1999 St Leger winner started favourite for the Group One event, and moved into third place turning for home, but dropped right away as Subianco, the locally-trained second-favourite, went on to lift the prize.

"He hated the patchy ground," Dettori said afterwards, "but there is nothing wrong with the horse."

The only foreign success for a British yard yesterday was claimed by David Nicholls's Bahamian Pirate, who beat One Won One by a short-head in the Group Three Phoenix Sprint Stakes at Leopardstown. Munjiz, trained by Barry Hills, was close behind in third.

The Nunthorpe Stakes at York, in which Nicholls dead-heated for first place with Ya Malak in 1997, may be the winner's next appointment.