Mumbai: The Rs 15-crore racecourse face-off

With RWITC elections slated for December 16, the turf war is on between current chairman Vivek Jain and his rival Khushroo Dhunjibhoy. At the centre of the battle lies the issue of the mammoth losses the club is facing

When it comes to the Mahalaxmi racecourse, passions are at an all time high. Simply everybody in the city, quite rightly, thinks that they have a stake in SoBo’s stunning open ground. This racecourse in the heart of South Mumbai, where the land prices can give you vertigo, has been coveted by land sharks, politicians and entrepreneurs.

Punters at the racecourse, rejoice at their choice
Punters at the racecourse, rejoice at their choice

They have made noises in the recent and not-so-recent past about converting it into different facilities like a parking lot, high-rise and hotel complex and even an aquarium. The Mahalaxmi racecourse has fended off all those attempts resolutely and stood there steadfast.

The blue riband of Indian racing, the Derby at  Mahalaxmi
The blue riband of Indian racing, the Derby at  Mahalaxmi

It is the headquarters of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) the apex body, which controls racing in Western India and is in the news for racing matters, as well as non-racing news, given the high profile club committee and members. The club’s lease is over and awaiting a lease renewal from the civic authorities.

Khushroo Dhunjibhoy (l) former chairman of the RWITC at the Mahalaxmi racecourse
Khushroo Dhunjibhoy (l) former chairman of the RWITC at the Mahalaxmi racecourse

The election coming up on December 16, will centre around the that issue, the losses that the club has incurred recently and conduct of racing. Both, current chairman Vivek Jain and former chairman K Dhunjibhoy contesting for the hot seat, blame each other for some setbacks. The gloves are off.

Chairman Vivek Jain marking 130 years of the racecourse
Chairman Vivek Jain marking 130 years of the racecourse

Khushroo Dhunjibhoy answers:

Q. Has the RWITC club made a loss under the chairmanship of Vivek Jain?
A. The losses for last year are Rs 12 crore. What is worse is that the projected losses for the current year are Rs 15 crore. Since the date of election (December) does not coincide with the year ending (June) of the Club, it is but natural that any new chairman is only there for six months of the financial year. However, in the last five years, Vivek Jain has been the chairman for four years and the major losses have been incurred in his tenure: in the year ending 30.6.2012: Rs 2.19 crores and 30.6.2014: Rs 12 crore, while in my tenure (2012-13) the profit was Rs 7.09 crore. This is after inheriting a loss of Rs 2.19 crore, the previous year.

Q. Is this the main issue on which you are revolving your election bid?
A. One of the main issues of this election, will, of course, be the loss incurred. However, there are other issues concerning the quality of stewarding and bias in enquiries. In a recent case, in almost identical infringements, one trainer was originally suspended for nine months (and later reduced to Rs 1 lakh fine and no suspension after a furore) while in a similar case, the other trainer was fined Rs 25,000.

Q. What do you think went wrong with the marketing of the club? Thin attendance of punters or other issues that led to the loss?
A. The marketing is in the hands of Vivek Jain and he would be in a better position to answer this question. All I can say is the spend of some Rs 2.5 crore on marketing has not got the desired results for the club.

Q. The lease issue is key in 2015. How do you think the RWITC should approach it?
I believe the racecourse is an iconic place for any great city in the world, Mumbai being no exception. The City of Paris has five racecourses and New York two. Why would any government not want one? The lease issue, of course, is going to be a major factor and this can be sorted out only by maintaining good political relations, which has not happened during the last year. In fact one of the Stewards nominated by the State Government, who only requested that a matter be put on the agenda for voting, was threatened to be removed by a prominent member of Jain’s team.

Q. What are your predictions for the elections, things are hotting up now?
A. The result of the elections cannot be predicted. If any parties are being given by my team, they are being given at their own cost. Many of my team members also contribute to the Club’s finances by sponsoring some of the biggest races. They do not use the Club’s goodwill to promote themselves. This year, the Club held a party to celebrate 130 years even though it was facing a huge loss of R 12 crore, only so that the Club members could be invited and some brownie points be earned at the Club’s cost. Having said earlier, that results cannot be predicted, the margin of defeat last year was a paltry four votes. I am confident we will reverse this on December 16.

Vivek Jain answers:

Q. Is it true that the RWITC went into a loss of Rs 12 crore last year, and is looking at a loss of Rs 15 crore this year?
A. The RWITC made a net loss of Rs 12 crore, a cash loss of about Rs 7 crore. The opposition is indulging in all negative propaganda, attempting to put the “blame” on me. Our financial year is July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014. After the recount last year, I effectively took over as chairman only by mid- January 2014. Hence for over half the “loss making year”, it was K N Dhunjibhoy who was chairman. Also if anybody knows how business is run, the decisions of the previous committee impact the following year, and I had to INHERIT the losses, The previous committee increased stakes by Rs 6 crore, employee costs by Rs 1.6 crore, repairs by Rs 3 crore, all of which impacted the year 2013-14. Statutory levies also ate into profits. We have taken decisions to increase revenue and cut costs, with an estimated saving of over 10 crore, over a full year. As the current financial year ends on March 30, 2015, the full benefit will be felt over two years. The current budgeted loss for year 14-15 is about Rs 3.5 crore, not Rs 15 crore, as falsely and mischievously portrayed.

Q. Team K N Dhunjibhoy has made this their plank to contest the forthcoming election. They claim that ‘there is a poor conduct of racing?’
A. They need to attack me on something, so why not the losses, while hiding behind the truth that Dhunjibhoy is responsible both for the decisions that caused the loss and being himself in the chair for over half this period. ‘Poor conduct of racing’ is a very subjective, ambiguous charge, as about 11 stewards ran the stewards room. It was at my behest, that the committee accepted a proposal to have professionals as stewards, And what does Dhunjibhoy do? Quickly attempt to take credit for it at one of his various election dinners recently.

Q. We have seen a huge focus on marketing. Is it true that even if one spent Rs 2.5 crore on marketing one has not got the desired results?
A. Who gave you this idea? Some of our marketing trump cards:
a) record sponsorships of Rs 12.7 crore during the current racing season, which is a huge record for the Club; b) The Invitation Cup that returns to Mumbai sponsored by first timer Omkar; c) all Classics sponsored; d) The first ever Champions Day at the RWITC; e) Renewed emphasis on social media; f) The first club in India to live stream; g) At my initiative we are about to sign a 10-year contract for telecast of Indian racing internationally at a revenue of over R 10 crore; h) new look creative campaign i) media and hospitality alliances; j) Attendance is up, even if marginally; k) Increased focus on CSR: with the Club partnering with NGOs raising crores for charity; l) Several new corporate partners; m) A full-length documentary on Indian racing on the anvil; n) Sunday brunches to start; o) Theatre at the Turf. This is not ‘desired results?’

Q. The lease issue is the main one for next year. Is this a platform for your election campaign?
A. No one can make it a platform. I am confident the lease is a question of time. No one individual can get this. We will get the lease on merit, on our own standing and not by any political machinations. We too
know the ‘right’ people if need be.

Q. Are you confident of winning this election, if so, what would you base it on?
A. We have a track record of performance, no vested interest, we are a team with common values and common goals. We may not be as high profile as the opposition, and neither do we indulge in a stream of parties and giving of gifts (through the year). We let our goodwill and sincerity of purpose speak instead of false propaganda. In the end, it is only an election, you win some, you lose some. But the world (and the club) moves on. It is up to the members to choose whom they think is right to lead the Club.

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