25 June 2006

Ascot’s much  feared fashion-wrecking thunderstorms stayed away this week but for fans of Australian sprint star Takeover Target, lightning also failed to strike twice. Doubling up Tuesday’s victory with success in the Golden Jubilee Stakes proved an effort too much as he finished a gallant third to the shock outsiders Les Arcs and Balthazaar’s Gift.

It was the most honourable of defeats for the little, white-nosed, hero from Queanbeyan whose Aussie winter coat was noticeably cooler in the paddock than it had been on Tuesday. Jay Ford rocketed him out of his wide draw and he soon showed the flair which has taken him from his original dust bowl to blaze across Ascot’s famous royal turf. Within a furlong Takeover Target had the legs of his field and Ford could dominate things from the favoured position along the stands’ side rail.

The speed was there but would there still be juice enough to hold off the others just four days from his photo-finish victory on the first day? After four furlongs he was still in command with most of his rivals on the stretch. But a hundred yards later Les Arcs was alongside side him and when Ford’s whip flicked up it was clear that there was nothing more to give.

“He just felt flat under me,” his jockey said afterwards. “He had jumped out and travelled well but when that other horse came to him, there was nothing extra. I will stay over for the July Cup [in two-and-a-half weeks’ time at Newmarket] and I think he will be back in peak form by then.”

The engaging young jockey and the grizzled old trainer/owner Joe Janiak have won many friends this week. “I am absolutely wrapped and so glad I came over,” said Janiak from under his distinguished topper. “I couldn’t expect much more than that beforehand. Six furlongs is still his best trip and the 1200 metres of the July Cup will suit him. He tried 110 per cent as he always does and there’s no disgrace running third in a Group 1.”

So the story of taxi-driving, caravan-dwelling Janiak will continue to illuminate our summer. It has certainly given this Royal Ascot a much-needed focus away from tedious if understandable gripes about lack of viewing space in the new “Wonderstand”. History should be made by horses, not by bricks.

Suitably enough Golden Jubilee winner Les Arcs has his own tale that almost ranks alongside Takeover Target’s rise. Last December at Lingfield he was already into the 29th race of a career which had begun with victory at Ripon in Sheikh Mohammed’s colours under the stewardship of John Gosden back in June 2003. Lingfield’s otherwise unsung Littlewood’s Betdirect Handicap on Dec 17 was Les Arcs first run for fledgling trainer Tim Pitt and it led to a six-race victory sequence which made tilting at big sprint targets like yesterday an option.

Pitt, who was set up in his present Bawtry base by colourful football agent Willie McKay in the autumn, was shaking his head in wonder afterwards.

But more at his own circumstances than that of the horse, “to think,” he said, “that a year ago I was head lad to Colin Tinkler in Berkshire looking after 40 jumpers most of whom were out in the field. But once this horse came to me it was clear he had a lot of natural speed. He had obviously had his problems in the past and he has even won over a mile and a quarter. But once we really revved him up on the all-weather he hasn’t looked back.”

Les Arcs, who started at 33-1 and got home by a neck from out-of-the-clouds 50-1 shot Balthazaar’s Gift, had actually run 11th behind Takeover Target in the five-furlong King’s Stand on Tuesday. “I felt slightly disappointed after the King’s Stand,” said Pitt. “But when I looked at the replays again he was third at the furlong pole and only beaten two lengths by the winner.”

Les Arcs will renew hostilities with Takeover Target in the July Cup, both horses’ futures, as geldings, in no way dependent on the possibilities and pressures which non-gelded animals have to bring.

In two very different ways the first two winners have their masculinity as a problem. Two-year-old winner Champlain cannot stop himself hollering and shouting like a stroppy adolescent when he walks around the paddock and the Hardwicke Stakes winner Maraahel likes to look after himself in a race like a dandy in a snowstorm.

This means that a jockey can usually persuade him to run, but only for a short while and with the minimum of encouragement. The way Richard Hills got his blinkered partner out and past the Kieren Fallon-driven Mountain High with just one left-handed flick of the whip was a masterclass of planned understatement.

Ascot closed on a high note when Ian Mongan and the Mick Channon-trained Baddam doubled up Tuesday’s two-and-a-half mile Ascot Stakes with the even longer Queen Alexandra. The racecourse’s management are very aware that they have to rectify assorted shortcomings which the baptism-by-fire of this meeting has revealed. But they were not just blessed by good weather. If you could get at it, this was once again the best racing the world can provide.

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