On 9 February, when a lockdown was unimaginable and “social distancing” a confusing phrase unless you were an early adapter, a horse named Memorable Memories won the Cole Centenary Gold Trophy in Mumbai. It is not one of the five classics of the country’s horse racing calendar,  but it was a landmark race for its sponsor.
The publishing company Cole Race Card was celebrating its hundredth year. This little handbook, published every race day, is the punter’s bible. Along with probable odds, it carries information about bend positions, jockey weights, carried weight and dividends. Until a few years earlier, commuters would know a local train was approaching Mahalaxmi station when the vendors of the Cole booklet got on board.
The Cole is in a period of transition. Its senior proprietor Vijay Adwalia, 68, took over the company when his father passed away. He’s now handing over to his son Hemin. Father and son claim to have only a passing interest in racing, having entered the business to carry on the “legacy and family tradition.”
The Adwalias’ correspondents, about half-a-dozen, still watch the races through their binoculars. Vijay used to do it himself in his early days, using a stopwatch for timings and quickly noting down margins of victory. Once or twice a week, after the last sprint at 5pm, he’d rush to the printers to get the booklets ready in time for returning commuters.
There’s no need for that level of engagement any more. “The new generation is not interested in racing,” Vijay said bluntly. “There was no TV, cell phone or computer at that time.”
Horse racing straddles the worlds of sport and gambling. It is the only sport in India with a legal sanction for betting. While gambling is not permitted in India, there are some grey areas, open to interpretation by courts and state governments. For example, cricket betting is illegal but fantasy apps, such as Dream11, are allowed to operate as games of skill. In a 1996 ruling, the Supreme Court declared that horse race betting was a game of “skill” and not “chance.”
Historically, the sport’s patrons have come from a wide cross-section of society. Royalty, business barons and millworkers have cheered the same steeds. But its existential crisis has deepened over the years. A shrinking fraternity, dwindling interest, and land politics have been chipping away at the ecosystem for several years now. The pandemic has dealt yet another body blow.
lot of horse racing’s problems have to do with its impression of exclusivity. It is, after all, a family business. “The races” can be intimidating, even alien, if you weren’t taken to the paddocks as a child holding your father’s hand. For a newcomer, it can feel as if you went to a Legally Blonde-themed party dressed as Gandalf. Nuances are hard to grasp, terms of art require regular attendance to master.
But to watch a race in flow can be a thing of wonder. As the galloping horses turn the bend towards the finish, you can feel the rafters of the century-old colonial clubhouse shake from the thumping of the hooves. You strain to see how your bet is doing, join the others in screaming encouragement. Racing can win you over, even if it is only for that adrenaline-fuelled moment of perfect communion between man and beast. Keep going back, and it might win you for good.
“The land value of racecourses have gone through the sky, and governments will get interested. We will get fucked at some stage or the other.”
This happens less these days, simply because fewer people show up to watch. “Attendance at the races is low,” said Hemin, matter-of-factly. Three decades ago, Cole used to print 7,000 booklets on race day. Now it’s down to about half that number. “We don’t see new generations coming into racing.”
The “new generation” comes up frequently in conversations with racing people. They are, of course, referring to “generations” of their own circles of owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys. Not unlike golf or European football, horse racing is typically an inherited loyalty.
“It was exclusive earlier. It was a generational setup,” the trainer Darius Byramji agreed. His now-retired father Rashid was a legendary trainer. As a child, Darius used to sit outside the Mahalaxmi racecourse, waiting for his mother Dolly Nazir, who swam at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, to bring him sandwiches from inside, because children weren’t allowed in.
Suraj Narredu, 35, had similar fond memories of Mahalaxmi. He is from a family of jockey royalty. “My early memories are of dad and uncle  winning the Indian Derby and the trophy coming home, going to the stands, seeing the cheers, the thumping of the hooves,” he said. At home, he would use a pillow as an imaginary colt. There were endless stories about owners and trainers over dinner. He had started learning to ride at an early age, naturally; by the time he decided to pursue the career, no one was in any doubt, anyway. “In Mumbai, standing on the rails, I used to feel these huge creatures running,” he remembered, “wondering how such small people manage to ride these big horses.”
This is the kind of thing racing doesn’t see much of any more. Many of Darius Byramji’s contemporaries, belonging to storied racing families, have distanced themselves. They may dabble in betting and administration, but stay away from ownership and training, he said. By unofficial estimates, attendance in Mumbai has gone down by 50-60% in the last three decades. While about 20,000 people showed up for the Indian Derby in February this year, down by 20% from the previous edition, other classics get roughly 5,000-10,000.
It’s not the easiest sport to understand. “If you don’t know what fine-leg is,” a race regular told me, “you would still appreciate cricket, because all you need to know is that the person is standing there to stop the ball. If you don’t understand the fine-leg equivalent of racing, you would not get it at all.” There’s no one to explain the action, no one who teaches you how to bet. “Plus there is a taboo, so no promotion or advertising is possible,” he pointed out. “Before I got married, I couldn’t tell my fiancée’s parents that I went to the races.”
In an email, Vivek Jain wrote that the biggest obstacle to racing’s growth is the stigma associated with gambling. Jain is a former chairman of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC), which conducts racing in Mumbai and Pune. “There are so many negatives that surround the public perception of the sport,” he explained, that “controversies only strengthen the impression that racing is a mug’s game.”
egbir Brar, owner of the Dashmesh Stud Farm in Punjab’s Mukatsar, gets meagre returns on his business, compared to that of breeders in France, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and the US. Abroad, a $100,000 price tag (about ₹73 lakh) for a thoroughbred is routine. Here, a sale of ₹20-30 lakh is considered a good one.
Brar, full or part-owner of 30-odd racehorses, calls himself a farmer and breeding an inherited occupation. He’s one of the more outspoken voices in the business. Brar was the one who told me that the number of racehorses registered to race in Mumbai has come down to about 900—a 40% decrease over the last five years. Other centres aren’t doing better: Bengaluru, 700; Hyderabad, 500; Kolkata and Chennai; 400 each. Import numbers have also dropped significantly, Brar said. From a peak of 150-200 mares a decade ago, breeders bring in only 30-40 annually now. Imported stallions are even fewer: no more than four or five.
Most people I spoke to blamed administration, though they did not want to be identified because of this. Some of the things they said suggest that the guardians may be out of touch with the times. Descriptions included “A bunch of old codgers with no marketing sense”; “This needs to be run like a professional football team, not a personal fiefdom”; “The older gentlemen who run managing committees are incapable of sending an email.”
One grouse that cuts across the fraternity is the 28% goods and services tax (GST) on tickets. GST has affected betting revenue because fewer people think it reasonable to play the stakes. Cyrus Madan, a racing commentator with a clipped accent who’s also a steward at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, told me dramatically: “That is not just killing the sport. It has already killed it.”
In 2016-17, the year before the tax was implemented, the totalisator—the betting revenue—collection nationally was ₹3940 crore. In 2018-19, it was down by more than half to ₹1930 crore. “Footfall hadn’t reduced by as much, which meant the government was losing on taxes (because fewer bets were being placed). We are getting murdered but they are also getting hit,” Madan said. “In sports betting, racing is small change. In a single cricket one-day or T20, when India is playing, talk is that it is well over ₹2000-3000 crore (in bets).”
Land sharks pose another problem. Most racecourses occupy large tracts of land in the heart of their cities. The Royal Calcutta Turf Club flanks the Maidan, the Victoria Memorial and Fort William; the Bangalore Race Course’s neighbours within a four-kilometre radius include the Vidhana Soudha, Cubbon Park and the Bangalore Palace.
In Mumbai, real estate brokers, politicians and the municipal corporation have long eyed the Mahalaxmi course, built in 1883 over 225 acres facing the Arabian Sea. The land is protected by heritage and Coastal Regulation Zone rules, but few would wager against the government stepping in to take over.
The Shiv Sena, elected to power in 2019, has a long-standing demand to convert the race course to a theme park. RWITC’s 99-year lease of the land—co-owned by the Maharashtra state government and the municipal corporation—expired in 2013 and hasn’t been renewed since. A year ago, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray suggested the race course as a possible site for a multi-level aquarium.
“We are on the last legs,” said trainer Arjun Mangalorkar. “The land value of racecourses have gone through the sky, and governments will get interested. We will get fucked at some stage or the other. Since independence, India opened only one racecourse—in Hyderabad.”
In Bengaluru, the expanding city swallowed up stud farms that were once on the outskirts, 40-50km from the city centre. After the city’s real estate prices hit the roof in the late 1990s, breeders could hardly hold out against builders. From a dozen stud farms in the not-so-distant past, Bengaluru is down to just one or two, he added.
According to Lynn Deas, author of Horse Racing in India: A Royal Legacy, India once had about 150 racecourses, including in places such as Coimbatore and Barrackpore. There are now nine, managed by six turf authorities.
“A generation of farmers took the money and educated their children. They never got back into breeding,” said Arjun, whose father MB Mangalorkar was a trainer himself. In hushed tones, some bemoaned the absence of a flamboyant benefactor, one who sponsored and jazzed up the Indian Derby for a few years. But Vijay Mallya, former chairman of United Spirits, is now in England with a slew of legal cases snapping at his heels.
s with so much else, racing arrived in India with the East India Company. It was originally a soldier’s hobby.
“The army was instrumental in spreading this, for the army was mounted in those days. When they had open flat land, they would race. So, they built a course,” Lynne Deas said.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Indian princes had taken to the sport with vigour, adding the touch of glamour that continues to remain integral to race culture. The RWITC even has a section titled “Importance of being a member” on its website: “It is a privilege to be a Member of the Royal Western India Turf Club, Ltd. as being part of the premier institution is considered a status symbol.”
A competitive racing culture had already been established by the last years of British rule. The first Indian Classics were held in 1942-43. According to Deas, the Indian Stud Book, to maintain breeding records, was published in 1942. That first edition contained information about foalings from 1935-41. The Stud Book continues to operate out of Pune.
After 1947, “owning a thoroughbred was as much a status symbol, proclamation of wealth and confirmation of class as it was a symbol for passion,” Deas wrote. Yet, post-independence governments “did not look at it favourably,” she told me. “There has been an endless desire to take it over only for property. If we have shut down 140 race courses, it says it all.”
“When we had mills in Mahalaxmi, you could not see a single blade of grass on the lawns,” Deas continued. “We have 10,000 people attending now. It used to reach 80,000 with all enclosures packed.”
The closure of Central Mumbai’s textile mills in the 1980s meant that the nearby racecourse lost a substantial chunk of its audiences. The races were a favourite afternoon pastime for workers and owners alike. Even today, races in Mumbai are typically held on Thursdays, traditionally a half working day for the old millworkers.
Ownership figures are lopsided, as one might expect. About 10% of all owners own about half the runners in the fray. These include individuals such as Vijay Shirke (promoter of BG Shirke Construction Tech), Khushroo Dhunjibhoy (managing director of Five Stars Shipping Company and owner of Nanoli Stud Farm) and Shapoor Mistry (chairman of the Shapoorji Pallonji group and owner of Manjri Stud Farm). They are able to purchase the most sought-after horses, leaving the others to pick up the stragglers.
“When we had mills in Mahalaxmi, you could not see a single blade of grass on the lawns.”
Maintaining a horse costs anywhere between ₹30,000 to ₹50,000 a month. A steed’s prize winnings average out to about ₹4-5 lakh. Lower stakes and prize money have disincentivised small-time owners. It also made it difficult for them to survive during the pandemic. “The horse eats and exercises, behaves exactly like it would when the show was fully on,” said Silva Storai, an Italian-born jockey, co-founder of Bengaluru’s Embassy International Riding School and the only woman to have won two Derbies, both in India. “It’s not like a computer you can shut down.”
Money is no object. Many old-time racers and buyers compete for ego, and end up winning a large proportion of races among themselves. “In the long run, it will seem like races happen for seven or eight people,” said Shiven Surendranath, who first won the Indian Derby with the co-owned Velvet Rope in 2006. “If you take away any two big owners, racing will come to a stop. Between two people, there could be 60-80 horses. That’s disastrous.”
A decent horse, with a fair shot at winning, costs between ₹8-12 lakh, depending on its pedigree. If it’s good looking, it’s worth more, said a breeder. At age four,  it gets one chance to run the Indian Derby. The star horses must subsidize both the protégés and the ones past their prime. For every champion like War Hammer that does about ₹3 crore at stake money,  there are five horses feeding off it.
There have been slow changes in regulations and attitude. The sport is opening up to owners and trainers from the “outside.” Racing clubs would break an arm and a leg to get newcomers, said Vivek Jain, whether as owners, sponsors or just as attendees.
“It’s a perception (of insularity) and I don’t know why it’s there,” said trainer Parvati Byramji. Married to Darius, Parvati is a former polo player who learned to ride at the Amateur Riding Club in Mahalaxmi. She’s also one of the few female trainers in the business. Her greatest moment so far came with winning the Indian 1000 Guineas with Gift of Grace last year, only the second woman trainer to win a classic.
“If you start winning and do well, horses talk for you,” Parvati said. Then she added, “I am, maybe, sheltered, being Rashid’s daughter-in-law and Darius’s wife.”
A few years ago, the Turf Authority of India, an association of the six race clubs, allowed the formation of ‘syndicates’ of 10 or fewer individuals to reduce costs and democratise ownership. Shiven Surendranath was one of the beneficiaries of this rule change. As a boy, he would attend the races with his father. But once boarding school and a career in advertising took over, racing receded to the background. Several years ago, he was at the Delhi Gymkhana when he heard snatches of racing commentary. It rekindled a forgotten curiosity.
Along with some friends, he bought ownership stakes worth ₹10-11 lakh in a few horses. One of these was Velvet Rope. The horse had a poor start to its career, losing the first set of races. The Derby win in 2006 changed everything. “I was hooked forever,” he said.
Surendranath admitted to feeling intimidated in the members’ enclosure the first time, conscious of the dress code and the clubby familiarity among regulars. “But after the next few times, I figured it’s all bullshit,” he said. “You can scream and run and no one will notice.”
he world of racing seems seductive, but a lot of the work takes place when no one is watching. On early mornings at the Mahalaxmi racecourse, regular walkers must deftly avoid hundreds of horses being exercised by their jockeys as trainers watch from the sidelines. Before motorists crowd the adjoining road leading up to Haji Ali, the chirping birds are drowned out by thundering hooves.
In this world, appearances really do carry their weight. Suraj Narredu, the second-generation jockey, was concerned about his weight gain in the dreary months of lockdown—he’d gone from 54kgs to 58kgs. “I could not keep my diet in control,” Narredu said. “I did control it for a long time, but eventually the body gave up. Sleeping late, waking late––the entire process went for a toss.”
There is a kind of drastic shedding jockeys, like wrestlers, undergo frequently. A single kilogramme can make a world of difference. That is why jockeys spend their active years eating peas and peanuts. Narredu’s pre-race ritual is to sweat it out by immersing himself in a tub of hot water, or getting on the treadmill in a layer of clothes or a plastic suit. On race day, jockeys don’t eat or drink anything before the race—the idea is not to put on even a gram.
The health risks of weight fluctuation is only one aspect of how dangerous racing can be. When lithe jockeys hurtle down a dust track on the back of 450-500kg animals at over 60kmph, jostling with competitors, things can go terribly wrong. In 2007, jockey Anand Gawande died when he fell off a horse he was exercising. Mumbai Mirror reported that he had not eaten for some days, in order to reduce his weight. Five years earlier, a 21-year-old jockey named Sawai Singh Bhati was killed in a similar accident. When DK Ashish died after falling off during a race in Kolkata in 2015, it brought back traumatic memories of Karl Umrigar being thrown off the filly Vasudha in Mumbai in 1979.
When I asked Parvati Byramji if race-goers are intimidated by the trappings of a race day, she said: “You should ask me if I felt intimidated. Hell yes, when you look at the public. When I was new, I was wondering what I should wear to the course. Someone said invest in a good pair of sunglasses. I was like, so I could look good? No, he said, so that they can’t see the fear in your eyes.”
Parvati had to go through three exams to officially become a trainer. But a textbook can’t teach you everything, she said. “Horses can’t tell you what’s wrong with them. Sometimes, I push here or ease back here, try a different feed. It’s so instinctive. If you don’t have the feel for it, you will fail, because each horse is an individual.”
he racing correspondent of the Indian Express in Mumbai and Pune was a man named JV Shukla. He wrote under the poetic pseudonym of Ashwamitra—horse’s friend. In the late 1990s, he would passionately make a case for his sport in a newsroom besotted by the exploits of Tendulkar, Paes and Pillay. He was staunchly against betting. No one has ever won money at the races, he would insist.
The late Ashwamitra would have less reason to be optimistic about his sport’s popularity today. Healthy television deals for franchise-based leagues mean that sports like kabaddi and badminton have far overtaken racing in eyeballs. Administrators have made a few attempts to attract a wider audience: night racing, proactively seeking press coverage, and allowing off-course betting—on a race in Mysore from Mumbai, for instance. In July, the Karnataka government gave its approval to the Bangalore Turf Club for online betting.
“I took the good-looking one—turned out to be the slowest bloody animal I have ever seen.”
RWITC’s winter season kicked-off on 27 November in Pune—without punters, and behind closed doors. Enthusiasts could livestream the action after buying an online ticket. The former chairman Vivek Jain took a glass-half-full view of the future. “I always maintain the sport is blessed with a magic wand that makes it overcome its most serious crisis,” he said. “I don’t see halcyon days but neither do I see it disappearing from the map.”
Does racing have to survive, at all? For those who depend on it for a living, there’s a strong case to be made. It supports about a hundred thousand jobs in the country—from trainers, jockeys, groomers, workers at courses and farms, many of them unskilled. If Tegbir Brar’s breeding business does poorly, he may not need all of the roughly 200 people he employs.
According to FF Wadia of the National Horse Breeding Society of India, agro-based stud farm activity in India covers 5,800 acres in 10 states. Fifty-six registered stud farms host about half the total thoroughbred population of the country. All this means a multi-crore investment in land and bloodstock, and a contribution of 3.3 million man-days of direct primary employment, mainly in the rural sector.
Cole’s Hemin Adwalia said that they will be around as long as racing continues. They’ve made some concessions to the digital world, but the Cole’s primary customers, old school racing regulars, remain wedded to print. They would rather touch and feel the blue-and-white booklet than squint at numbers on a smartphone screen.
Once hand-cut and folded, the Cole is now offset-printed, but it hasn’t altered much over the last century. The cover design, according to the senior Adwalia, has only changed twice—once when Queen Elizabeth II visited in February 1961, and then on their fiftieth anniversary in 1970. There is no secret formula to their survival, Hemin said. “We are holding our fort because we are 100% sure of our data.”
As I found out over the course of reporting this story, it takes conversations with members of the fraternity to get a sense of the anecdotally rich history of the sport. Like filmmaker Raj Kapoor shelling out a then-princely sum of ₹1 lakh for a horse he named Sangam, or of the day the lyricist Rajendra Krishan won an all-time record jackpot of ₹48 lakh in 1971.
Darius and Parvati Byramji told me one particular oft-repeated story. It is about Elusive Pimpernel, winner of the 1995 Indian Derby and arguably the best thoroughbred Indian racing has seen. Elusive was the free one in a buy one-get one offer after Rashid Byramji confronted the breeder about why he was selling “such a donkey” to his owner Deepak Khaitan. “He was like two postcards stuck together,” Darius said.
Darius further recalled this “ugly-looking chestnut.” “He was ghastly, gangly, in two separate halves—front and back. I took the good-looking one—turned out to be the slowest bloody animal I have ever seen. This other piece of shit went on to become Elusive Pimpernel. He blossomed into a machine that never failed to win.”
Others have their own way of identifying winning machines. I liked the betting advice I was given by an old-timer. He told me to take a walk around the paddocks and see all the horses for myself. Then, I must pick the one I like the look of, the one that looks straight back at me.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based independent journalist.