Racing: Greatness of O'Brien's prodigy just a memory

Admittedly it may have been clouded by what the old-time sportswriters would consider unprofessional partisanship, but an outstanding memory of 2001 was Johannesburg eating alive America's finest in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont.

It was a race which had everything. Johannesburg won like only great horses do, cruising in behind the best company and then delivering a viper strike. In the process, the Irish colt hacked through the thick root of a beanstalk still being negotiated by the supposed American "monster", Officer.

In the immediate aftermath there was bold talk of a return to the running fields of the United States and success in the Kentucky Derby. It all seemed so easy at the time.

Yet what we enjoyed that October day has proved not a genesis, but rather the climax of a career. Johannesburg is not the horse he was after three straight defeats this season, and it seems we may never see the prodigy again following Saturday's demise in the Golden Jubilee Stakes on the fifth and final day of Royal Ascot.

It may be embarrassing to admit so, but perhaps it must be accepted, as trainers are keen to tell us, that we should enjoy each individual performance from a supposed wonderhorse. We cannot predict where the next one is coming from.

Johannesburg had to run in the Kentucky Derby and attempt to defy the evidence of his running style and chromosomes which suggested the 10-furlong journey would be beyond him. He had to try to cheat nature. Nothing else was available.

Yet it now appears the race has been an assassin on his competitive instincts. Johannesburg probably hurt himself as he strained to be competitive in Louisville, and his handlers understand that he is unlikely to approach the pain barrier with even a telephone call again.

Now, like Galileo before him, he will retire to Coolmore Stud a partly tarnished figure, which will further stoke John Magnier's belief that great achievers should be rehoused in the breeding sheds just after they have been hosed down at the scene of their highest triumphs.

Coolmore cannot be accused of rushing Johannesburg off to stud, but his promotional literature will lean heavily on the magnificence of his juvenile career. "Failed to train on in his Classic year" and "became poisoned by racing", are not lines we can expect to see on the glossy pages.

It will almost be a relief to see him go, as each run this year has sliced a knife down the great tapestry of achievement he built in his first season.

Soon, though, there will be another Ballydoyle runner to continue the good fight, but we are still waiting for the leader to emerge from the throng. Statue Of Liberty did his bit in the Coventry Stakes, but there were failures in Marino Marini, Ontario and Tomahawk, all American-breds supposedly predisposed to running on fast ground. However, all their nurturing has been on soft-going gallops and exposure to something firmer proved too much.

Further reason for downfall may have been forwarded at Longchamp yesterday, when Aidan O'Brien withdrew all three of his runners following tests which revealed an abnormal blood count.

All this made Statue Of Liberty's win the more meritorious and, as his breeding suggests he will be suited by middle distances, he is, for now at least, the head of the first-form class.

There were interim awards to be handed out, not least the Royal meeting's trainers' prize, which went to Mark Johnston for his four winners. This was a pleasant diversion from the usual arm wrestle between Ballydoyle and Godolphin, and while the superpowers are virtually certain to fill the forecast at the end of the season, this was proof that the Middleham man can now be best of the rest.

Johnny Murtagh became the champion jockey at the meeting for the second consecutive year. He can now book ahead for 2003: a place on Royal Rebel in the winners' enclosure after the Gold Cup and a place in the sun the following week for when the winning ride brings suspension yet again.

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