If there is one sport in India that can compete with crunchy fans and enthusiasts, it is horse racing. While it fades compared to cricket in terms of sheer numbers, horse racing can point to a longer legacy, and its legion of enthusiasts across the country keeps it alive.
Over the decades, some horses have achieved cult status and several jockeys and horse owners have gained fame and fortune. Enthusiasts swear by the thrill of watching an 800-pound, muscle-toned animal thunder its hooves across the lawn to the winning post.
Horse racing like cricket owes its legacy in India to the British colonial past. The first racetrack was built in 1777 in Guindy in Madras (now Chennai), which is controlled by the Madras Race Club.
While Mumbai's iconic Mahalaxmi racetrack was not the original location for city races, the Bombay Turf Club was founded in 1802 by Captain G. Hall, Sir Charles Forbes, A. Campbell, P. Hadow and others. The contribution to racing in Mumbai is recognized annually by races named after them.
The club had purchased property in Byculla (a few kilometers from Mahalaxmi) for horse racing and the balcony of a clubhouse was used as a private stand for members. The races were held here for much of the 19th century until in 1883 the racetrack was relocated to 226 hectares of land known as Mahalaxmi dwellings.
This great step forward was made by the late Sir Cusrow N. Wadia, who had the vision, the money and the desire to turn a marshland into a showpiece. He provided the club with an interest-free loan to build the racetrack and grandstands, which were modeled after a Melbourne racetrack under the supervision of Major J.E. Hughes, then Secretary of the Western India Turf Club. In 1935, the name was changed to Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) after King George V, then Emperor of India, gave permission to include the prefix "Royal" in the club's name.
The Mahalaxmi Racecourse has a 2,400 meter long oval race track with the longest straight of 600 meters (from the last corner to the winner post) in the country. The beauty of the grandstands, which are designated as cultural heritage, is that the spectators can sit in one place for the entire distance of one and a half kilometers. The racetrack is now owned by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and in part by the state government.
The betting history
RWITC records show that until 1912 bets were only accepted by bookmakers. The then presidency government then abolished the bookmakers and introduced the total monopoly. The grand total is a betting system that is based on the use of totalizers managed by the association and in which the dividends are calculated according to the amount bet and not according to the offered odds. After that, the common man had easy access to place his bets, and the step on the racetrack increased.
In 1925, the Australian company Automatic Totalisators installed an electrically operated bag. This allowed the creation of the most popular form of tote bets, the jackpot pool, which was another crowd puller. The pool was an instant hit and in December 1971, Bollywood writer Rajendra Kishan won a record dividend of over £ 48 lakh, which was tax-free at that time.
The jackpot pool collection has recently increased after collections from Mumbai and Pune have been combined with collections from other centers such as Bangalore, Hyderabad and Madras. The jackpot pool hit an all-time high last February, on Derby Day in Mumbai, when RWITC added £ 1 crore to the combined collection. The total collection of the combined jackpot pool on that day rose to 2.32 crore.
The usual totalizer for betting in Mumbai-Pune was established in 1967, in which all voice prompts that can be heard in the active center are forwarded to the ghost center. Further progress was made in 1974 when pioneering efforts were made in the international betting business by accepting bets in Mumbai and Pune for the races held in Bangalore. The club is currently betting between venues with all centers in the country.
The pedigree of the horse
The “whole blood” used for races is believed to be a random progeny of the Crusades (a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims) in the 12th century. Conceptually a British invention, whole blood was of genetic Arabic origin. The knights brought these quick Arab steeds with them when they returned from the Crusades.
In the 17th century, the three ancestors of British thoroughbred – Byerly Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Arabian – were imported to the UK and mated with fast native mares to produce a brood foal that gave birth to the "founding" whole blood.
Today there are over 5,000 thoroughbreds in India. At last year's auction after the derby, a two-year-old thoroughbred foal from Poonawalla Stud raised an incredible 25 pounds.
The horse race in India was expanded on January 9, 2016 with the introduction of the evening race in India by a new chapter. This happened after the successful run-up to the evening races in April 2015, an initiative of Ram Shroff under the direction of K.N. Dhunjibhoy.
In 2016, Zavaray Poonawalla, RWITC Chairman, won the £ 1.15 crore surcharge as a sponsor of evening race title rights and held 19 evening race days in Mumbai this season. The main event of the opening day was the "Zavaray Poonawalla Evening Racing Triple Million" – a race in which £ 3m in prize money and a glittering £ 1m trophy were awarded for the winning connections. Since then, the Mahalaxmi Racecourse has been the only racing center in India where night races take place. RWITC ensures that some evening races are held every year during the Mumbai racing season.
The first Indian derby was held in 1943 and was won by a filly named Princess Beautiful, owned by the Maharaja of Baroda and ridden by the Australian jockey Edgar Britt. In 1949, Kheem Singh became the first Indian jockey to break the monopoly of foreign jockeys by winning the Indian derby on a horse called Balam.
In 1985 the race got a new avatar after the United Breweries (UB) Group decided to sponsor the mega event and it was called the McDowell Indian Derby. In 2016, after the longest alliances in Indian sport history ended, the event was again christened the Kingfisher Ultra Indian Derby. United Spirits Limited, which has been sponsoring the McDowell Indian Derby for more than 30 years, has decided to withdraw sponsorship, and United Breweries Ltd. has taken its place and has been continuing its alliance with RWITC for five years.
Among the owners, coaches and jockeys of the racing association, who won the maximum number of Indian derbies, are Dr. M.A.M. Ramaswamy with seven wins, coach Rashid R. Byramji with a record of 11 wins and Pesi Shroff, who was able to ride eight derby winners as a jockey.
The 2020 Derby is the 78th renewal of this prestigious event in the Indian racing calendar. The stake for the Kingfisher Ultra Indian Derby, which is expected to be played on Sunday, is 2.2 crore, and the winner will receive around 1.3 crore.
Geoffrey Nagpal, Chairman, Stewards of the Club, RWITC, told The Hindu: “There is very little experience comparable to owning a top racehorse. Because the horse's career depends on the owner's life for three to four years, planning and deciding where to run the horse, the right jockey, and most importantly, ultimate success is an unprecedented experience. It is unfortunate that the joy of owning a race horse has not been extended to the new generation of business people. This year's Indian derby is one of the most open in many years. Anyone from six to eight out of 20 horses can win. Good jockeyship will be a key factor. "
When asked about his first derby experience in India, Nagpal said: “I saw my first derby in 1970 when a horse named Thunder won Storm. It was a wonderful experience. A large crowd watched the mold roar down the street to win this prestigious event. "
Zinia Lawyer, chair of the RWITC marketing committee, also had experience to share. “I had an exciting experience winning the Indian derby for two years in a row as a co-owner of Enterprising 1984 and Revelation 1985. Both horses belonged to our family – my late father NMIrani, myself, my sister Bakhtawar Chenoy – and Maj PKMehra from Usha Stud. Both Enterprising and Revelation were trained by Bezan Chenoy and ridden by Jockey P.Shroff, ”she said.
Regarding the stake, Ms. Lawyer said, "This year's stake is a little over 2 crore, but we're trying to increase it and get it to about 2.5 crore by next year."