On a day the Indian Derby kicks off, filmmaker Milan Luthria shares his passion for riding, and why racing is an addiction he can't shake off
Milan in 1983 on a mare called Lucy, being led in by one of his tutors, the legendary horseman Jimmy Bharucha
It's that day of the year again when 25,000 people scream with their hearts pumping as the gates open for the greatest horse race of the sub-continent — the Indian Derby. As the roar settles, the field of horses takes the first turn (the famed Hornby Vellard Corner) near Haji Ali dargah, as the jockeys jostle for position. Some are astride "pacemakers", setting a furious face for their "stablemate" who will sit "off the pace" and make his final run only after the final bend. In effect, the stablemate has been "switched off" the false pace made by his companion, while others may be fooled into chasing the pacemaker.
With about 2,000 metres left in the running of the almost R3 crore and 2,400 metres (or "mile -and-a-half") race, the punters' (gamblers) hopes and wallets are at stake as words like "Jackpot" "Treble" "Win" "Place" "Forecast" (pools where they have placed their money) give way to the thrill of watching 500 kg animals bought for lakhs of rupees, trained by experienced hands, and ridden by Indian and international champions at 70 kmph around the Mahalaxmi Race Course.
The track, about 130 years old, has been described as among the best in the world, but needs razor sharp precision to ride. At the last bend, it's purely the jockey's call, as all preparation and planning go out of the rider's mind and the only thing in it is the communication with the animal he is precariously crouched on?
Believe it or not, the 600 metre final "straight" seems like an eternity. In fact, the one in Mumbai is the longest in the country, and is covered in approximately 36 seconds. Riders have to time their final charge to the winning post depending on how the race has gone till then — the top jockeys have found a clear path, the others sometimes run into "traffic problems" as the slower horses fall back and the faster ones surge ahead. The clamour of each punter yelling for his horse mounts to a din as the horses reach the winning post. Within 2 minutes 30 seconds the race is over, a champion crowned, and dreams shattered or achieved. Emotions from owners, trainers and jockeys run higher than ever, as they hug and celebrate their moment, affectionately kissing and patting the winning horse.
The race track is a place I have seen from every possible position, beginning as an amateur rider in "Gymkhana Races", many of which I won, to borrowing someone's oversized blazer and watching the derby balanced on my toes on the binocular stand, to owning a runner in the derby two years ago, then becoming a Steward and finally Committee Member of the famed Royal Western India Turf Club Ltd. My obsession for horses and derby has been a lifelong thing. As a kid, I remember a man would come home to pick me up to drop me to school on a horse. The half-an-hour ride from home to school was the best time ever.
My first race was when I was 15 years old. All youngsters in Mumbai have a mandatory love for the derby. My first was at the age of 18, when I didn't even have a suit. I had to borrow a jacket to look grown up enough. But there was a frenzy to get in there to watch one race, just for the adrenaline rush. But, there is no feeling like riding in a race – galloping at top speed hearing only the sound of the wind, and then the roar of the crowd as the winning post approaches, hoping and praying that it doesn't come too late, pushing every sinew and muscle to get the animal to give off his best. Phew. It's a thrill like no other. So, get to Mahalaxmi and get there fast. Buy, your entry ticket and bet on your favourite horse. Betting is also part of the fun. People say I love to gamble and race, I say I love the thrill that comes with it.