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The neigh sayers
Horse racing in India dates back to the 1700s but what does the future hold for the sport?
Like his father before him, horse trainer Magansingh Jodha reaches the racecourse every morning at 5. 30am. He and his son, Adhirajsingh - also a trainer - then supervise the exercise, grooming, massaging and feeding of the 90 horses in their care at either the Mumbai or Pune racecourse, depending on the time of the year. "Every morning when I look at my horse I can make out if he is up to the mark or looking dull if his coat doesn't have the same shine, " says Jodha, who has been a trainer for 30 years. Not only does he know each animal by name, Jodha claims to be able to rattle off the name of its sire and grandsire without a moment's hesitation. "Our connection with the horse, " he explains, "starts from the buying of the mare in Kentucky, USA, importing it into India, seeing the birth of the foal, watching it grow and putting it into training. "
There are many families like the Jodhas for whom training, breeding and racing horses is a way of life. For instance, Zeyn Mirza, CEO of Vijay Mallya's United Racing and Bloodstock Breeders, is a fifth generation horse owner. Breeders Cyrus and Zavaray Poonawalla were bitten by the racing bug after their father started the Poona Stud Farm in 1945. "We (my brother and I) started racing when we were ten years of age. We used to sit on the banyan trees outside the racecourse and watch the races, " recalled Zavaray Poonawalla.
The country's horse racing industry, which includes breeders, owners, trainers, grooms and jockeys, will suffer a huge setback if Mumbai's municipal authorities and state government refuse to renew the Mahalaxmi racecourse's 99-year-lease, which lapsed on May 31. The BMC and state government have not decided whether to let the racecourse remain or create a public garden, memorial or amusement park in its stead.
The government has also been contemplating moving the course to the outskirts of the city. However, racing enthusiasts are opposed to this scheme because of the challenge of shifting so many horses, the immense cost and the lack of such a large open space even in the suburbs. "Bombay is the best racing track in India, " says Marthand Singh Mahindra, owner of Broadacres Stud Farm. "Shutting it will be a death knell for the industry. "
Most breeders, trainers and jockeys share Mahindra's pessimistic outlook. "The Bombay racecourse absorbs 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the horses produced annually by breeders, " says Mirza. "What will happen to all the stud farms that are breeding them and employing people?" he says. PS Chouhan, president of the Jockeys Association of India, voiced similar concerns about the 150-odd jockeys who will be unemployed if the Mahalaxmi racecourse were to shut down. An average jockey earns about Rs 35, 000 per month and has usually only studied till Class X, says Chouhan, so they don't have too many options.
The 130-year-old Mumbai course isn't the only facility in danger of being snatched away from the racing community. The Karnataka government has been eyeing the Bangalore Turf Club's land ever since its lease expired in 2008. According to Mirza, a steward of the Bangalore club, the land was a gift from the late Maharaja of Mysore. However, the government made the club sign a lease. "The matter is pending in the Supreme Court as of now, " said Mirza. "Our contention is that it was a grant in perpetuity (as long as racing is being conducted) and the agreement was signed in error. "
Rather than discouraging the sport by grabbing racecourse land, the government could increase its revenue from betting by reducing taxes, suggests Mirza. "When people bet on a totalizator (computerised betting system), a percentage of the revenue goes to the government, " he explained. "If the taxation on that is high, people will bet with illegal bookmakers with the government not benefiting in any way. " Mirza pointed out that in France there are no legal bookmakers and all betting is conducted on the tote. "The money generated is the second largest contributor to the French economy, " he says.
Racing also employs a large number of people. According to a study jointly commissioned by the Turf Authorities and the National Horse Breeding Society of India (NHBSI), the different clubs employ approximately 17, 595 people at a cost of Rs 75 crore. "This figure does not include indirect or secondary employment such as trainers, grooms, feed and saddlery suppliers and so forth, and is, therefore, an underestimate of the real employment impact, " explains Dr Farrokh Wadia, NHBSI president.
This isn't the first time that horse racing - which can be traced back to race meetings held in British cantonments in the 18th century - has come across opposition from the government. After independence, the government of Bombay Presidency, led by Morarji Desai, decided to ban racing as it promoted gambling. Madras Presidency soon followed suit. After much petitioning from the NHBSI, the sport was granted a six-year reprieve during which it was supposed to wrap-up all operations. Owners and breeders handed over their animals to the police or army, sent them to stud farms in England or euthanised them, while waiting for the axe to fall. "From a top price (cost of the best horse in an auction) of Rs 91, 000 in Bombay in 1946, the top price in the '50s came down to Rs 27, 000, " recalls Wadia.
The sport was saved only when horse breeders approached Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. "He wrote to these two chief ministers saying, 'What you are doing is destroying a perfectly good livestock industry and you should reconsider your decisions, '" says Wadia.
The industry took 20 to 25 years to recover from the losses suffered in the six years after 1947. This was partially because of the shortage of foreign exchange, which led to strict restrictions on the import of high pedigree horses. "At one stage only four to five stallions were allowed in annually, with individual values limited to £2, 500 including freight. Consequently, Indian breeding was starved of good-quality infusions of bloodstock when it most needed them, " states a book published by the NHBSI in 1995.
In the last ten years, thanks to economic liberalisation, the horse breeding industry has received a huge impetus from the import of high quality blood stock but Indian-bred horses are still not good enough to export abroad on a large scale. According to Khushroo N Dhunjibhoy, Royal Western India Turf Club chairman, one of the ways in which the government can stimulate the industry is by reducing the 35 % import duty on every incoming stallion or broodmare. "That money could be ploughed back into buying a better quality horse, " he said.
While the racing circuit is divided over whether the popularity of the sport has spiked or plummeted in recent years, they all agree that horse racing is seeing a lot of competition from other forms of entertainment. Mirza believes night racing is the best way to tackle this challenge. Dhunjibhoy, on the other hand, believes that the best way to draw a crowd is by bringing other forms of entertainment to the racecourse such as a piano bar or a petting zoo. Online marketing can also do wonders. Last year, more than 30, 000 people attended the derby because it was heavily promoted online by United Breweries.
In Mumbai, the BJP and Shiv Sena have branded racing an elitist sport. However, both Dhunjibhoy and Wadia dismiss this claim. "Without betting revenue, you cannot run a racecourse and that is why the common man comes, " said Wadia. "He is the one who is really the supporter ultimately. " But for some racing enthusiasts, the thrill of breeding the perfect race horse and training it to beat the competition is far more addictive than gambling. "When you plan a mating, the foal is born, you watch it grow and you see it win a race, " says Mirza, "it is like watching your child winning the Olympics. "
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