When they line up for Hong Kong's International Day of racing Dec. 10, Australian trainer Joe Janiak will not be wearing a top hat and tails. He did of course do just that when in England earlier this year with his potential movie star horse Takeover Target. After Takeover Target won the King's Stand (Eng-II) Stakes at Ascot, people wanted to know who these unlikely stars were.
Parts of his history were reported and sent to various media outlets. But the truth of it all is that Janiak never thought he'd ever wear a top hat. When he arrived in England his listed profession was taxi driver. He drove taxis for a living while all the time residing in a caravan. True.
He was perpetually broke, loved a drink and to make a bet. And, oh, on the side, if any spare money allowed it, he trained a race horse as a hobby.
This is how life was for Janiak for many years and was still this way up until 10 months ago.
So how did he get from that scenario to being the trainer of one of the best sprinters in the world, the same horse who will race in Hong Kong over six furlongs for $2.5 million in prize money?
"Lucky, or fate, I guess," he reasoned. "Don't ask me if I ever dreamed this would happen to me because I didn't. Who would ever dream of taking a racehorse all over the world, running for millions of dollars when all you ever were was a cab driver living in a caravan park? No, I never dreamed I would be here...but I'm glad I am."
Janiak's rise has been greater in many ways than the story behind Seabiscuit. Someone should write a movie about this bloke and his horse, too.
"We've gone from Queanbeyan (a small country town in Australia) to Royal Ascot in England to Tokyo and we've won everywhere. Now we're hoping to top it all off in Hong Kong," Janiak said.
Since winning the King's Stand and placing third in the Golden Jubilee (Eng-I) at Ascot, Takeover Target shipped to Japan for a second in the Centaur Stakes. In his next start in the Sprinters Stakes (Jpn-I), he beat Asia's best, including the wonder sprinter Silent Witness who carried the same weight as Takeover Target. He drew wide, covered ground, but negotiated the bend and raced away to win by three lengths.
The 7-year-old has won 13 of 23 career starts, with earnings of $2,701,596. He is miles clear in the Global Sprint Challenge points table and will net a $1 million bonus with a victory at Sha Tin.
Not that money now drives a philosophical Janiak. "I'm just hoping he can be competitive in Hong Kong, and that he does himself justice. If the bonus happens, then that's great. But the horse owes us nothing. It's just fantastic to be in Hong Kong with a chance to win such an important race."
Racing history is littered with similar stories of horses and trainers who rise from obscurity. Seabiscuit's story is world famous. Soon Takeover Target's will be also.
I some ways, his story is unbelievable. For 30 years Janiak trained a few horses as a hobby. He had very little success, but hobby trainers like pottering around doing their best with livestock that cost nothing, or are old and infirmed or just plain slow. These are the types Janiak put a bridle on.
In 2003 the quality of horse in his barn changed. On a sunny day, Janiak went to a tried stock sale and bought an unwanted, unraced, knock-kneed 4-year-old with ordinary breeding who, he had been told, had bad knees and wouldn't run around a bend. This of course was going to restrict him dramatically, but Janiak liked him and paid just $1,100 for him.
Janiak nicknamed him Archie and that horse, who races as Takeover Target (Celtic Swing-Shady Stream by Archregent), has changed his life.
In Australia racing is on turf and is different to other jurisdictions. You race either in the country areas (for about $7,000 a race) or the provincial areas (for about $13,000 a race) or in the city area if you are good enough (about $55,000 a race). Obviously, the city races are harder to win and the races there, like anywhere, can offer large prize money for the black type races.
Janiak had never trained a city winner in 30 years of hobby training. His horses raced in the country areas. But then he found Takeover Target.
"He won his first two starts in the country area by a combined total of about 15 lengths and I saw no signs of any knee problems. He got around the bends fine so I said to myself, 'why not give him a start in the city.' It was at Randwick in Sydney and he bolted in by three lengths. Leading all the way. I knew I had something special then."
That was back in the middle of 2004. Janiak had a good horse but very little money. Still, he knew he had a fast horse and his whole ambition was to keep him injury free. A month later at start number four, again in the city, he led throughout to win at Rosehill by six lengths. Janiak decided it was time to take on the big boys.
In his seventh career start, and his first running a straight course down Flemington's famous straight six furlongs, he won at group I level. Seven starts, seven easy wins. Janiak was no longer poor.
Two years forward to 2006 and the 7-year-old Takeover Target is even better than ever.
"It's been pretty hectic, for sure," Janiak said of his run in 2006. "It's been a big learning experience since we left Australia in May on this world quest to win everything and the horse has definitely coped better than me. We have had a real adventure."
Success has its privileges for Janiak and his son, Ben, who share in the ownership of Takeover Target.
"Yeah, something like that. The money Archie has won has helped buy a new training set-up at Coffs Harbour in New South Wales and we'll start there from the beginning of next year."
While in Europe, he also paid a first visit to Poland and the city of Krakow, home of his parents who immigrated to Australia some 60 years ago.
Janiak had never been there before and now hasn't been home for three months. The last time he was back it was to collect an award for Takeover Target being named "Country Horse of the Year" for the third time.
He did venture back, as all Aussies do, to sort out some affairs and take in the Melbourne Cup (Aus-I). His son and Takeover Target's co-owner, Ben, has looked after the world's fastest horse in the trainer's absence.
Takeover Target has been at Sha Tin for five weeks and will be ready to rumble come race time Dec. 10. "He lost about 10 kilos on the flight but that has come back..." claimed Janiak. "He is as good as he has ever been. He's been working like a champ in the morning and he's one cool dude in his stable."
Janiak said he believes Sha Tin will be kind to Takeover Target's legs. "It will suit him just the same as Nakayama did. He found the European tracks tougher. I was surprised how easy he got to the front in Japan from a wide gate and the faster ground you'd expect at this Hong Kong meeting will also help."
And on exposed form it does appear the HK Sprint is at his mercy. "The way the Global Sprint Challenge is set up, it's very difficult for a horse to win the million-dollar bonus," Janiak explained. "I mean, to race in Australia, England, Japan, and Hong Kong and then to have to win three group one races in three countries -- they don't make it easy for you. But I'm just happy and proud that we're here in one piece and in with a chance of winning another big race."
Takeover Target and the Janiak's will return home after Hong Kong and will race in Australia from March again, looking to replicate everything they have achieved in 2006.
The only disappointing aspect to this whole grandiose adventure is that Takeover Target is a gelding.