18 June 2006

Success for former cripple Takeover Target would cap a rags-to-riches story for Australian team

Please, please, don’t patronise. When Joe Janiak saddles up Takeover Target to tilt for the five furlong King’s Stand Stakes on Tuesday at Royal Ascot don’t just chuckle smuggly at the tale of how the caravan-dwelling New South Wales taxi driver took his dog-meat priced runner from bush track to big time. This might well be the greatest training performance of them all.

It is the sort of story that makes “Sea Biscuit” or “Red Rum” something of an undersell and it is impossible to exaggerate the horse-conditioning achievement of the chunky, laconic, silver-haired figure who was born on the boat when his parents emigrated from Poland in 1947. Sea Biscuit may have lost his way and Red Rum have had a foot problem but both were stars compared to the already broken-down three-year-old that Janiak got at a reject sale in July 2003 for, in that most direct of Aussie phrases “the dogger’s price” of $1,250 (less than £500).

“Three times he had been readied for barrier trials (public workouts),” Janiak said as his son Ben led Takeover Target at Newmarket on Thursday morning. “Three times he had broken down, his knees were terrible. I thought I had bought a dud and chucked him out in the field for six months. When we got him back, we fiddled about with him, adjusted his shoeing a bit and got him ready for a run.”

So it was that on April 23 2004 that this spectacular journey began. Queanbeyan is a little city near Canberra and of the 25 meetings held on its race tracks each year, a quarter are not even for thoroughbreds. The trek from that dusty Queanbeyan maiden race to Tuesday’s King’s Stand at the glittering new Royal Ascot is Timbuktu to Tower Bridge. “Takeover Target won easy,” said his 20-year-old jockey Jay Ford cheerily on Thursday, “but it was only a Queanbeyan maiden. We just hoped he might go up a grade.”

Up he went, but not that far. Next stop was Wagga Wagga (birthplace of cricketer Geoff Lawson and jockey legend Scobie Breasley). Another easy win. Same thing happened at Kensington and Rosehill before aiming for a Listed race at Gosford and on to another bigger one at Grafton, 100 miles from Sydney. It was the coveted Ramornie Handicap. Takeover Target was drawn out wide but the result was the same. Six races, six wins for the equivalent of £83,000 in just 11 weeks. “We knew then,” said Ford with the happiest of understatements, “that we were on to something.”

Quite how much even he and Janiak did not fully realise, for next time out they were winning the £137,000 Grade I Salinger Stakes, premier sprint of the October Melbourne Cup meeting. They had climbed to the top of the tree but in assessing the Queanbeyan to Ascot journey it is the six winless races over the next 12 months which are important. True, he was only twice out of the money, but both trainer and jockey didn’t think Takeover Target was quite perfect as he showed when coming back to a terrific four-victory Australian summer and autumn campaign culminating in their biggest sprint, the Newmarket Handicap at Flemington last time out.

“The thing about him,” said Janiak of the horse he sat and slept beside on the long flight across the timezones, “is his will to win. Even in track work if you gallop him with another horse he doesn’t want to get beaten. In a race he can look beaten but then he finds that extra bit of heart. But because he tries so hard he is apt to strain himself. We have held him together and I think he is in as good a shape as we have had him.”

The centre of our attention is the massive sprinter’s quarters which half an hour earlier had spun Ford rapidly up Newmarket’s Al Bahathri Polytrack gallop. “He feels very strong and powerful underneath you,” said Ford, “and there’s always that tremendous will to win.”

Sometimes he can try too hard. On his penultimate start Takeover Target strained his back and neck muscles on a wet track at Caulfield and it was the attentions of another witness on Thursday that once again were needed. “Joe is not a dill,” pointed out Gary Christou, equine chiropractor, would-be trotting driver and long-time friend of Janiak. “Yes, he’s portrayed as a battler living in a caravan at Queanbeyan. But he knows about horses, and that

On Tuesday and, all being well, again on Saturday for the furlong-longer Golden Jubilee Stakes that track will be Ascot. Three years ago the double was achieved by Takeover Target’s countryman Choisir. “Our bloke would be rated above him,” said Ford prevention is better than cure. I’ve got to know the horse and his medical history. Sometimes I check him and there’s nothing wrong. Other times he might have a few nagging pains. I’m like the mechanic in the workshop who keeps the Ferrari going on the track.”

, who never rode a racehorse until he was 16. “I walked the course and it looked fantastic and I think he will take both trips the same. It’s such an exciting prospect, and for Janiak and the team to get him here, is something no one could have dreamed of.”

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