Over 25,000 people visit the Mahalaxmi Racecourse every year on the first Sunday of February to witness the McDowell Indian Derby (Gr 1), and nearly 80 percent of them are either first-timers or once-a-year-visitors, who hate to miss this mega racing event that decides the champion four-year-old thoroughbred in the country.
Late Bollywood actor Feroz Khan (left) and Sanjay Khan (centre) with Cyrus Poonawalla at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse in the late 1990s. Sanjay Khan's horse Prince Khartoum won the Indian Derby in 1972
A thoroughbred is a pure-blooded horse whose ancestry can be traced back to the 17th and 18th century in England when local mares were mated with three imported Arabian stallions, namely, Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian and Godolphin Arabian.
Over the years, and especially after liquor baron Vijay Mallya picked up the sponsorship of the Indian Derby in 1985 and renamed it the McDowell Indian Derby, the prize money and glamour quotient have gone through the roof.
Today, the Indian Derby enjoys a unique status as the most looked-forward to sporting event on the city's social calendar, where the aam junta can brush shoulders with celebrities from the fashion world and Bollywood, some of whom attend the event with religious regularity.
Sardar Chandulal Shah, a wealthy film financier who founded Ranjit Studios, was among the earliest lovers of horses and racing from the film world. He owned a horse named Balam, who won the seventh edition of the Indian Derby in 1949.
Balam was trained by ALJ Talib and ridden by Kheem Singh. Incidentally, the first six editions of the Derby were all won by English riders, so in a way, Kheem Singh opened the Derby account for Indian jockeys.
Actor Motilal, who worked in many films produced by Chandulal Shah, was also a racing buff, and an apocryphal story credits the financier to have settled Motilal's betting account with a bookmaker by paying Rs 75,000 in cash on the sets of his film when he sensed the actor was under some stress in front of the camera and inquired about the reason.
Tragically, Shah suffered huge losses due to the box office disaster of Paapi (starring Raj Kapoor & Nargis, 1953), and took to gambling in a big way. Soon the man, who once owned a fleet of swanky cars, was reduced to traveling in buses, and finally, died penniless in 1975.
Showman Raj Kapoor was also a great horse racing fan, and rarely missed the Indian Derby. Comedian Mehmood, who owned many horses both in Mumbai and Bangalore had his own private box in the members' stand at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse from where he would watch the Indian Derby with family and friends.
The late Feroz Khan was another regular at the races and owned a number of horses, some of which raced in the India Derby, but never won it. However, his younger brother Sanjay Khan, whose daughter Suzanne was married to actor Hrithik Roshan, became the first film star to lead in an Rashid Byramji-trained and W Swinburn-ridden Prince Khartoum won the Indian Derby i n 1972 Indian Derby by a hair's breadth.
Industrialist Anil Virwani, who once owned many horses, married actress Rati Agnihotri, and made her lead in a winner owned by him when she was only days away from delivering their first child. The horse trained by Himmat Singh, was aptly named 'First Born'.