Racing in Pune has its own unique charm. Almost everyone connected with the monsoon race season looks forward to it with tremendous excitement.
But no community gears up for the three-month racing season like the horse-loving Parsis do. Almost every Parsi horse lover has a second home in Pune that is exclusively patronised during the three-month season.
Servants get busy dusting off the typical Victorian furniture and checking stocks in kitchen, while Mr and Mrs Pestonji double-check if the thick, 400-page Cole race result book is packed along with clothes. Calls are made to rekindle old friendships and reconnect with relatives in the Peshwa city who would help enliven the five boring days (Monday to Friday) sandwiched between two exciting racing weekends.
Hotels perk up expecting full occupancy, menus are re-designed to suit the “Bombay crowd” as they put it, and auto-rickshaw drivers will stare at you in disbelief if you wait to get back change after paying the fare. “Tumhi nakki Mumbaiche na?” (Are you sure you are from Bombay?), they will ask, almost rudely, so that you would rather walk away without the change than hold that insolent gaze for an extra second.
Almost everything has changed since I started off racing more than three decades ago, although most of it has changed for the better. The Pune monsoon track (laid in 1993) has been a huge success; the track maintenance is looked after by professionals; the CCTV coverage has improved, and the photo-finish verdict is announced instantly now — and so are the dividends.
What has, thankfully, not changed is the unique racing experience that is so typical of a monsoon meet. Rain clouds playing hide-n-seek; umbrellas opening in a flash at the slightest hint of rain, and closing as abruptly when the threat goes off; massive crowd that lines up the paddock rails as if trying to catch every word of instruction that a trainer gives to the jockey; bold touts accosting even strangers to ‘sell’ a hot tip; and the colourful use of graphic slang the locals use in abusing a jockey who is unfortunate to invite public wrath.
Did I miss anything? Yes, I did. The Great Indian Peninsula (GIP), as the Indian rail company was called in the British Raj, used to run a special train exclusively for the Bombay (as Mumbai was then called) racing crowd to get away to Pune for the monsoon races. Though the special service was discontinued some time after the Independence, the idea lingered on in a symbolic form.
The National Association for the Blind (NAB), took initiative to revive the concept first made popular by the GIP, when for nearly 20 years between 1960-80, they ran a special Mumbai-Pune train in aid of charity on the Independence Day (Aug 15) every year. This train used to take enthusiastic Mumbai racegoers to Pune in the morning to witness the Independence Day race card, and bring them back the same evening.
Eminent celebrities like Vijay Merchant, wonderful cricketer and inimitable commentator, along with filmstars like Raj Kapoor (himself an ardent racing fan) and Dilip Kumar (it was said the thespian never turned down a NAB request despite his obviously busy schedule as a leading filmstar) would make it a point to travel with racegoers on this occasion, and entertain them. I once rode on this train, and can truthfully say that anyone who travelled on board even once, is unlikely to forget the experience.
Racing in Pune used to be at the mercy of the rain gods until the monsoon track, at the then princely sum of Rs one crore, was laid in 1993. The monsoon track, initially, was a huge success as not a day was lost during the first two seasons. So encouraged was the club’s management by the track’s success that they slated the third season — the Pune race meeting of 1995 — to start as early as July 10.
But as luck would have it, it rained so heavily that year that all the seven July days were washed away, and the club authorities received a mouthful of flak from Mumbai race lovers who found themselves stranded in Pune, wasting their time and money by checking into Pune hotels in large numbers.
The Blue Diamond and Sagar Plaza in those days were two of the most patronised hotels by the Mumbai racing crowd, especially the elite. Card sessions (mainly, teen patti) would be the order of the day on days when racing was cancelled due to rain — and the stakes, some swear, were comparable to the stakes money of a horse race!
On a day when the races were threatened due to overnight showers, the morning track work used to be a very well-attended event, not for learning which horses did well, but for finding out what the jockeys felt about the track condition.
And among all the jockeys, Pesi Shroff (now trainer) was the most sought after figure. It was not because Pesi had some kind of a hotline with the weather bureau, but because Shroff was leader of the jockeys and vice president of their association. If he thought the track was dangerous, the jockeys would not ride — it was as simple as that.
The fact became so apparent after a time that if anyone asked a club official if there would be racing in the afternoon, he would retort, “Why don’t you go and directly ask Mr Pesi Shroff? Even we will know from him when he chooses to tell us.”