Takeover Target

I love returning my mind to that time in the old days when you came back into Australia after a trip OS. Before sensibilities started to turn global. When there was no internet to keep you up to date and international phone calls still cost so much that you got the footy scores by picking up a TNT at Baker St station on Monday morning (on the way to work, or golf if you were lucky).


By the time you’d run out of dough you’d have been to Wembley (for the soccer or the greyhounds) and Salzburg (where the hills are alive) and seen the Mona Lisa. And when you got back in the plane, tired and emotional, you couldn’t believe how far it was to Australia.


When, finally, you landed in Brisbane you were surprised how flat the countryside was and how the customs officers still wore tailored shorts and long walk socks (white or fawn or occasionally blue) and you knew these were your people.


It was at that moment I was amazed (and delighted) that this nation at the end of the earth had produced sportsmen and women who had performed magnificently on the world stage. I used to think of them growing up in the middle of nowhere: Doug Walters and Evonne Goolagong, Artie Beetson and Scobie Beasley. They were good enough to take on all-comers. And they did.


Little old Australia.


How the world has changed in just two decades. And how it has stayed the same. We still love a sports story which can be spun into a good yarn. That’s memorable. Because that surely is a grand test: whether or not you can recall it. If the details remain in your mind. If you retain a connection to it, then surely it must have something.


I remember wandering down for a punt at the Carlton TAB one day, that great place where every second ring tone is the theme from The Godfather. It was Ramornie day, mid-winter in Grafton. A race meeting probably dreamed up by the local committee to catch the trainers and their horses as they were being floated home to Sydney and Melbourne after the Brisbane carnival. It had, by 2004, turned in to a prestigious sprint; the handicap conditions made it, like the Stradbroke, hard to find the winner.


I’m a mug punter. But I’m worse in the winter when footy is the main focus, and the form is not overly familiar to me. Having had my bets I returned home to settle in to an afternoon in front of SKY channel. Come the Ramornie and the caller is spruiking this outstanding new horse: the undefeated Takeover Target. From Queanbeyan. Had won five from five. But couldn’t win today. Thank goodness. I’d left him out.


From memory Takeover Target was caught wide in the big field yet just kept coming and coming to win like a very good racehorse. Six from six. Spell.


He copped more publicity when he resumed in the Salinger that Spring. And won. A Group 1. Just like that. I was there. Very impressive. Seven from seven.


By then the story was out: Joe Janiak, the rough-diamond taxi driver who lived in a caravan park, and the horse he bought for $1400. The most unlikely character in racing since Vic Rail, who we’d sadly lost to the flying fox virus, the only human victim ever (one of the few to be mentioned in the Racing Hall of Fame and at medical conferences on rare infectious diseases, and one of the few racing naes known to The Handicapper).


And so Takeover Target continued on his way, from memory having a few ordinary runs and then stringing a series of impressive performances together – whether in Brisbane or Sydney. In the autumn of 2006 he won the Lightning and the Newmarket at Flemington. This was some horse and Joe Janiak just kept being Joe Janiak. He was off to Royal Ascot and the prospect of Joe in a morning suit was absolutely delicious.


The Handicapper and I love travelling. Especially driving. Around that time we booked flights to arrive in Athens in mid-June 2006. We planned to drive around the Peloponnese. A month before we left we went into the Greek travel agents in Lonsdale St in Melbourne and asked about car hire.


The face of a Greek man who looked like he’d spent many a lunch at Stalactites turned ashen. “It is my considered opinion,” he said, in that delightful Greek-English accent, “that no man should drive in Greece. I would advise against it.”


“Really,” I said.


“You have not seen the grottos beside the roads?” he asked. “I am Greek. My partner is Greek.” (His colleague looked up and shook his head.) “Neither of us will drive the motor vehicle in Greece. The Greek driver, he is mad.”


When we got to Athens, and were staying in the Plaka, right next to St Sophia’s cathedral, the prospect of having to rely on Greek buses seemed ludicrous. So we hired a car. A Ford Festiva. Left hand drive. Manual.


“Don’t worry,” said the young Greek man blowing cigarette smoke into the air. “I tell you there is only two turns for you to get to Corinth: out the front here, which will take you onto the freeway, and left off the freeway once you pass Pireas.”


We had no luck in running. We were unable to take the car from behind the building onto the main road because a florist’s truck was blocking the lane and the florist’s truckdriver was most likely in one of the nearby cafes or bars. Thus the backstreet madness began.


Somehow we made it to the port and then onto the freeway which did eventually, despite a detour visited upon us by a Greek policeman, get us to Corinth and on to Epidavros and then to Nafplio. All very stressful.


We got a cheap hotel and swam in the Mediterranean, before heading out for dinner. We walked along the water’s edge where dozens of tavernas serve guests from around the world.


It was the height of the World Cup in Germany and every taverna had a couple of big screens with the games showing. Bands of nationals gathered around to get their side home. Some were very animated and even angry; some merely resigned.


We had watched Australia play Brazil in a taverna in the Plaka some days before where the owner came and watched with us and kept saying, “The big man, Viduka, very good.” He kept serving me Mythos beers, and beautiful food. Viduka wasn’t good enough that evening.


In Nafplio we drank red wine and ate exquisite, yet cheap, food and wondered why you can eat the same things over and over in Greece and never tire of them. We were sitting back in the balmy sea air, not a care in the world, having lost all track of Australian and international news, in that way the world stops when you’re travelling. No papers. An occasional internet cafe to see what’s happened to the AFL flag betting on Betfair.


Just loving the World Cup and gaining a far better understanding of the enormity of it. We were even a little disappointed one of the matches had finished.


But hang on a sec, I see on the big screen in the adjacent taverna, horses cantering in the home straight. I recognize the red, black and white. “Ascot,” I said to The Handicapper. “That’s Takeover Target.”


I’d completely forgotten. And seeing the champion sent a shot of warmth through me. Like when I saw a bloke in a Hawthorn jumper at the British Open at Sandwich the year G. Norman won it.


The Handicapper was considerably underwhelmed but I loved that Joe Janiak’s horse from Queanbeyan was taking on the best the sheiks and lords had to offer and that we were sitting in Greece watching it. He won of course: the King’s Stand Stakes. And he would win again.


On Saturday I was watching Fitzroy play Prahran at the Brunswick St Oval (every bit as significant as the amphitheatre at Epidavros) when my phone beeped. I had been so engrossed in the D Section ammos clash, the first time Fitzroy have played for premiership points at Brunswick St since 1966 (Bulldog Murray made a beautiful speech at the lunch) that I’d forgotten about the T.J. Smith. The text message was from Almanacker Chris Riordan: “Takeover Target was a sit and steer.” The news was making its way through the crowd. Chris Tehan, opening bowler for the Eccentrics CC, made his way over. He was in one sense surprised by the win, in another sense, not. But he loved it.


I have since seen the run. Magnificent. A champion in full flight. And I have listened to the response of people. This is a great horse. He’s won around the world.


I forgot to listen to him run in a suburb of Melbourne, near the end of the earth.


But I do know he’s one of ours.



About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au. He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. John, it was a breathtaking display. I wondered if Jay Ford was loading the pressure on Nash with the “sit and steer” prediction and grimaced even more at the incredible odds, crack field notwithstanding.But, in a seminal racing moment perhaps, he was just calling it true.

  2. JTH, your taverna moment, forever linking Takeover Target with the Pelepponesse, triggered my memory.
    Mention Vatican City and my most vivid recollection is of seeing an English language newspaper to the side of St Peter’s Square heralding The Shark’s British Open triumph.Praise the Lord!

  3. Mark Freeman says

    JTH, I reckon never before, outside of the Grafton Daily Examiner, has the Ramornie Handicap featured in a colour yarn. It’s the remotest corner of the racing calendar, a spot visited only by punting desperates like me. It’s the feature race that makes you think about your future when you’ve snuck out of the office to check it out at the tote. You never give it s second thought down there when you’re checking out the Thousand Guineas or the Bendigo Cup, but sneaking out of the office to get on the Ramornie gives pause for reflection. I expect to be reflecting again shortly…

    And on Takeover, a great pity he copped the high temp and is out of the Golden Jubilee tonight. Let’s hope Joe has him right for another trip over there next year.

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