Did you know that Mahalaxmi racecourse, today viewed as ‘Mumbai’s lungs’, was once called a “featureless, dreary and dusty” piece of land? That’s true. In 1883, when racing was shifted from Byculla to Mahalaxmi, that’s precisely how a newspaper report described it.
But it was the zeal and vision of Sir C N Wadia, founder of Bombay Dyeing and a prominent club member, that transformed that land into the most picturesque 220 acres in the city today. The Derby has created a new record this year for stakes money. The total stakes have crossed a figure of Rs three crore, making it the richest sporting event in the country.
Since the oval-shaped Mahalaxmi racetrack measures exactly 2,400 meters, the Derby runners have to traverse one complete round to log in the Derby trip of 2,400 meters. You will therefore see the starting gates placed close to the winning post, bang opposite the Members’ Stand. 17 horses will jump out at the when the starter flags them off, and the starting-gates-on-wheels will be quickly pulled off from the racetrack, with the help of a jeep, well before the horses complete a clockwise round and return to the winning post to decide the champion four-year-old horse.
The maximum number of Indian Derby winners produced by a stallion is five. The feat stands in the name of Grey Gaston, a stallion that was the proud property of Usha Stud. He sired Manitou (1978), Track Lightning (1981), Nelston (1983), Enterprising (1984) and Revelation (1985). Among Bollywood personalities who dabbled in racing as horse owners, Sanjay Khan (better known today as father-in-law of film star Hrithik Roshan) was the luckiest one.
His Prince Khartoum, trained by Rashid Byramji, won the Indian Derby in 1972. Rashid Byramji, regarded as a ‘living legend’ of Indian racing, has won the Indian Derby (hold your breath!) a record 11 times. Incidentally, four generations of the Byramjis have been in racing as horse trainers. Rashid, the most famous and successful, belongs to the third generation, while his son, Darius, now trains at Bangalore as the fourth generation trainer.
Another trainer who holds a unique record for Derby is SS Shah. Now in his eighties, Shah won his first Derby in 1973 with Mansoor, and followed it up 35 years later with a back-to-back Derby double with Hotstepper (2008) & Antonios (2009). Before Vijay Mallya stepped in as a sponsor in 1985, the Derby stake money was a mere Rs 9 lakh. Today, 37 years later, it has crossed the Rs 3-crore mark.
Pesi Shroff, now a trainer, tops among the jockeys with eight Indian Derby victories to his credit. Shroff had actually won nine titles, but one of his winners, Saddle Up owned by liquor baron Vijay Mallya and trained by Imtiaz Sait, was later disqualified on account of testing positive for a banned substance.
This was also the only time in the history of the Indian Derby when an owner ‘led in’ one horse, and collected the winner’s purse for another! Mallya led in Saddle Up (Pesi Shroff up), who won the race on the track, but collected the winner’s purse for Supervite (ridden by Ruzaan Choksey), who had finished second, but was upgraded as winner after Saddle Up was disqualified.
Astonish, bred at the Poonawalla Stud Farms, was the first Indian Derby winner who later won abroad. He won the Red Room Handicap at Sha Tin racetrack in Hong Kong after being exported in 1993.
The only time a photo finish camera failed in the Indian Derby was in 1963 when two horses—Mount Everest and Rocklie—went past the winning post locked together. The judge, as rules prescribe in such cases, resorted to his naked-eye’s judgement and declared Rocklie as the winner.