Racing: Taxi driver takes the long route to Ascot

Chris McGrath on the Australian cabbie who has turned a written-off racehorse into one of the world's top sprinters
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The Independent Online

Royal Ascot moves into a dazzling 21st century environment next week and there could be no better moment to shed the pompous nonsense that racing is a Sport of Kings. For the new racecourse may well conclude a second great romance in what might sooner be known as the Sport of Taxi Drivers.

Thirty years after a Southport cabbie named Ginger McCain was training Red Rum on the beach, a still more quixotic saga threatens to crown what has already been an extraordinary Flat season. A 16,000-guinea yearling has won the Derby, and another Classic, the 1,000 Guineas, was won by a Fenland farmer. Now the princes of the breed - the quickest animals in Europe - are in danger of being usurped by a still humbler animal, a true pauper among thoroughbreds.

There are already Australians who boast of once having had that Joe Janiak in the front of their cab. His craggy, rather glum features and unceremonious demeanour have become so cherished in his homeland that his approaching purgatory in morning coat and top hat has caused nationwide glee. Janiak may not grin, but he will certainly bear it if Takeover Target should emulate Choisir here three years ago, when he whipped the best sprinters in Europe twice in five days. And as Takeover Target's young jockey, Jay Ford, put it yesterday: "Our bloke's credentials are a lot better than his were."

Yet when Janiak first came across him, in the same year, Takeover Target was a dilapidated gelding with brittle knees, barely qualified to stagger round the local dustbowl at Queanbeyan, a town lost in the hills behind Canberra. His previous trainer had despaired of him and Janiak, a divorced cab driver living in a caravan, was able to buy him for AUS$1,250 - the equivalent of £450.

He took a chance only because he was ignorant of the horse's history. When he took him home, Janiak discovered that Takeover Target had been patched together by three knee operations. A vet told him he would never stand training. "They had decided to cash him in, not to lose any more money," Janiak said yesterday. "When I heard about all his problems I thought to myself: 'Jeez, I wish I'd kept my mouth shut now'."

Janiak, 59, turned him out in a field with a shrug. Life had taught him to concentrate on avoiding thorns, rather than bother looking for a rose. Born on a boat from Poland, he had only ever kept one or two horses as distraction from a mundane life. For years he had worked in a bakery, until an injury demanded that he find more sedentary work. And so he drove a taxi for 30 years. Last week, indeed, he renewed his licence. "Just in case," he said. "I have 10 horses now, and that's as many as I'd ever want. I know I'm not going to find anything like this one again. It's like winning the lottery."

After six months, he decided to see if the cripple might cope with some cautious work after all. Meeting no discouragement, he tried him in a race at Queanbeyan. Takeover Target won by seven lengths, and promptly repeated the performance against a better field at Wagga Wagga. After a third win, he was offered AUS$1m for the horse. He declined, gave up the taxi and extended the horse's unbeaten run to seven, right through to a Group One sprint in Melbourne. He has now won 10 of his 18 races and AUS$1.87m in prize-money, and arrives here - accompanied by two compatriots, Falkirk and Glamour Puss - as favourite for both the King's Stand Stakes and Golden Jubilee Stakes. He is due to tackle both in search of a $1m bonus in the Global Sprint Challenge.

"I suppose I didn't gallop him as much, and I also gave him time to mature," Janiak said. "I've been around horses for 30 years, a lot of them very slow. But this one just doesn't like getting beat. As soon as another horse comes to him, he puts in."

The fact that Takeover Target cannot go to stud spares Janiak too cruel a financial test of their peculiar kinship, which has an irresistible flavour of the understanding achieved by Seabiscuit and his trainer - another depleted, reticent man - during the American Depression.

As the heat of the day ebbs away, Janiak often sits outside his caravan with a beer and Takeover Target wanders over. "And he'll give me a nod of the head, as if to say: 'Give us a bit of that'." Janiak pours some on to the ground. The horse laps it up, sways off for some grass and comes back 10 minutes later to share another beer.

Now that really would be a contemporary flourish in the new Ascot's democratic pageant: an icebox in the unsaddling enclosure, not for the winning trainer, but for his horse. After all, he has dismantled every other precedent.

Hyperion's Selections

UTTOXETER: 6.45 Hiawatha 7.15 Meltonian 7.45 Schinken 8.15 Rob The Five 8.45 Late Claim 9.15 That's My Charlie

Chris McGrath

Nap: Royal Citadel

(Newbury 4.30)

NB: Risk Runner

(Newbury 5.05)