Thursday, December 16, 2010


An Unforgettable Race

I was lazily surfing channels on my TV on Sunday afternoon (12th of December 2010) when I suddenly chanced upon a live telecast of the Indian 1000 Guineas from the Mahalaxmi Race Course in Mumbai. I was quite surprised since the channel was ET NOW, which generally deals with the stock market and financial matters, but then it was a happy surprise as I settled down with a cup of tea to watch an afternoon of racing. I must say that the programme, called Sport of Kings, was so engrossing owing to its excellent production values and superb commentary that I remained glued till the very end and enjoyed a day at the races after a long time.
Yes, it’s been a long time since I visited the race course to watch horse racing, the King of Sport and the Sport of Kings. But watching the live telecast of the first classic of the season at the Mahalakshmi Race Course, the Indian 1000 Guineas, and other exciting races of the day, evoked in me exciting memories of my very first day at the races, Sunday the 3rd of February 1980, to witness the crème de la crème of horse races in India – The Indian Derby, run on the first Sunday of February every year since 1943.
I still have vivid memories of that wonderful afternoon, though more than 30 years have passed since that delightful Derby day. 
I was working in Mumbai then and a number of my colleagues were avid punters, as race-goers are called. The excitement started on Wednesday when the declarations appeared in the newspapers and the conversations were abuzz with heated discussions as to would win the Indian Derby – Aristocrat or Everynsky?

Well, Aristocrat and Everynsky were both favourites to win the Derby and each had their passionate followers. But there were other good horses in the fray too, notably a horse called Mohawk.

By Friday the papers, both the newspapers and the race tabloids, were full of predictions, and both Aristocrat and Everynsky had top following, but Mohawk too was tipped to win by a few tipsters.

Come Saturday evening and the Cole Race Books were duly picked up from the bookstall at Churchgate and my punter friends were in a frenzy, calculating, computing, what they were going to wager – in the Derby, and in the other races too, at the bookmakers and at the tote, for the jackpot, the treble and the tanala.

The topic of conversation during our Sunday morning walk on the Marine Drive was the Indian Derby, with “expert opinions” being freely aired. After a brunch of Kheema Pav and Chai at our favourite Stadium Restaurant next to Churchgate Railway Station we took off by local train to Mahalakshmi. We made it a point to purchase “return tickets” in case we had a bad day!

Almost everyone got off at Mahalakshmi and the atmosphere in the race course was electrifying. The air was festive, like a carnival, with there were so many two-legged birds in the most fashionable dresses and exotic hats that I wondered whether I should focus on the horses or the beauties.

To a novice like me the whole process was mind-boggling – first see the horses parade in the paddock, then rush to the bookmakers rings, which was surcharged with excitement, look at the odds, look at your own calculations in your Cole, listen to tips, run once more to the paddock to see the jockeys mount and the horses being led off to the starting dates, and then rush back to the bookmakers betting ring to place your bet.

For me it was fun to watch this spectacle because I was only placing modest bets of five and ten rupees on the tote and had decided to just place one bet in the Indian Derby race of a hundred rupees for a win at the bookmakers, though I had not decided on the horse yet – but it was going to be either Aristocrat or Everynsky, whoever offered better odds.

Just before the Indian Derby, as I watched the horses parade in the paddock, I got a premonition, and following my sixth sense I placed my win bet on Mohawk. Most of my punter friends were betting heavily on Everynsky (it seems they had got a last minute “tip”) and the die-hards were backing Aristocrat, those two were the favourites to win, but there was a frenzy of betting on all horses, Mohawk too, as the odds fluctuated wildly.

In the betting ring I observed a pretty young lady observing me as I place my bet and suddenly she asked me, “Who do you like?”

I wanted to say that I liked her, but true to racing form I said, “I like Mohawk,” so she bet on Mohawk too.

It was a fantastic race. All eyes were on Aristocrat, Jagdish astride, who had a stable-mate as pacemaker, and I think it was the famous Vasant Shinde who was riding Everynsky, but Wally Swinburn magnificently steered Mohawk to victory causing a stunning upset as the Mohawk won the race from a fast finishing Everynsky with Aristocrat left far behind out of the reckoning.

My punter colleagues, most of whom had backed Everynsky and a few Arsistocrat, were quite surprised at my win, and as I went to collect my win dividends, I noticed the pretty young girl looking at me and smiling with joy as if we shared some secret. She was delighted that she had outwitted her dad, a dyed-in-the-wool punter, who had bet on Aristocrat. Before she said bye and walked towards the members’ enclosure, she hoped I would be coming to races next Sunday and looked forward to some “expert” tips from me. And that was the beginning of a long and lovely friendship for I was punctually there at the Mahalaxmi Race Course on every Sunday afternoon for the rest of the season. What happened to our beautiful “punters’ romance” – well, that’s another story.

Soon I would have to move out of Mumbai, but whenever I was in Mumbai, I never missed the Indian Derby or any of the other classics. I have enjoyed the races at the magnificent race course at Kolkata, where lady luck favoured me greatly, at Bangalore, where too I was quite lucky, and at Mysore, the most picturesque race course nestling under the Chamundi Hills, and, of course, at the cute little race course at Pune, my home town.

I witnessed many memorable derby races, at Mumbai and elsewhere, but the most extraordinary Indian Derby I remember was in 2003 when a relatively unknown horse called Noble Eagle who was supposed to be a pacemaker flew off from the starting gates, kept galloping at top speed and won the race start to finish causing the biggest upset ever in the Indian Derby. 

Guess what – the pretty young lady, who had metamorphosed into a beautiful woman, thanked me once again for the “tip” and this time her winnings were quite a bit. I wonder why I liked Noble Eagle. I looked at the horses parading in the paddock and while they were being led off to the starter gates, suddenly it was a sixth sense that made me wager a place bet on Noble Eagle, though, like my beautiful friend, who seemed to have more confidence in me that I myself had, I wish I had been more daring and placed a win bet and made a small fortune. 

But sixth sense doesn’t always work, so it is better to follow the conventional way – do your homework, listen to tips and advice, have a look at the horses in the paddock parade, and observe the goings-on in the betting rings, and the make your own judgement before you get on with your punting.

I love going to the races. There is so much to enjoy – the thrill of punting, the air of excitement, the festive atmosphere, the strong, swift and handsome horses, the beautiful people in their Sunday best and the delicious snacks in between the races.

Why do I like to go for the races?

Well, I’ll end with a quote from my favourite philosophical book The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang:

“If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live”

See you at the next Indian Derby.

Happy Punting!


Copyright © Vikram Karve 2010
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.   

© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

VIKRAM KARVE educated at IIT Delhi, ITBHU, The Lawrence School Lovedale, and Bishop's School Pune, is an Electronics and Communications Engineer by profession, a Human Resource Manager and Trainer by occupation, a Teacher by vocation, a Creative Writer by inclination and a Foodie by passion. An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories and creative non-fiction articles in magazines and journals for many years before the advent of blogging. His delicious foodie blogs have been compiled in a book "Appetite for a Stroll". Vikram lives in Pune with his family and pet Doberman girl Sherry, with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts.
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