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Race rewind: The first Indian Derby memories

Today, when someone says Squanderer was the greatest racehorse among all Indian horses, I just smile. There is a reason. The memory of my first ever Derby experience is linked with that great horse. The first Derby is much like the first kiss. Both are unforgettable, and any number of experiences you may have later never measure up to the first in terms of excitement, emotion and a heightened sense of ecstasy.


Ranjit Bhat (right) with horse Commanche. Pic/indiarace.com archives

I am sure there must be a psychological reason why our memory cells are etched so deeply with our first Derby experience. I have a feeling it may have to do with the magical spell that the Indian Derby at Mahalaxmi casts on you in your very first encounter. The highly charged atmosphere, the crowds, the fashion and glamour on display, and nature’s most exquisite creation the horses, all fuse together in a very subtle way to create what has come to be known as the ‘Derby Magic’.


Trainer Rashid Byramji with horse Squanderer. Pic/indiarace.com archives

Magic
I fell for the Derby Magic in 1977, long before Vijay Mallya’s McDowell brand lent its name (and money!) to the country's top racing event. Racing was not new for me, I had been to the Mahalaxmi racecourse earlier with a cousin, and had also heard the Indian Derby was the greatest race that was run in February every year. It is an event to see and to be seen at. So I was actually looking forward to the D-day, and tried urging my friends to join me.

“You will see the best horses of the country there,” I told them, and when that did not seem to work, I added, “and you will also see the best chicks in town, and maybe some film stars too.” That did the trick, and a gang of 16 landed at the turnstiles of the Mahalaxmi racecourse on that first Sunday in February of 1977 which, as I would learn later, was the day the Indian Derby was traditionally run every year.

A last-moment discovery at the members’ entrance at racecourse put paid to our hopes of rubbing shoulders with the glitterati, the film stars and the best-chicks-in-town. While almost every gentleman who entered was dressed in a suit and a tie, we were told the minimum requirement was a full-sleeve shirt and a necktie, which we found ‘unacceptable’. The real reason was we did not have the money to buy 16 neckties! So off we marched to the public enclosure, and bought tickets at Rs 10 per head for entry.

Crowds
I had never seen such a huge crowd except at a cricket match at the Brabourne Stadium. The massive stands with two decks were packed to capacity, crowd spilling onto the lawns. Old and young men, working ladies and housewives, the mill worker (mills had not made way for shopping malls yet) and the bank clerk -- all had lost their individuality in a collective pool of humanity that swayed with every race.

They jumped and shouted themselves hoarse for the horse that would get them windfall profits if it won, and enjoyed every moment of it. Never before had I seen grown-ups doing things even children would think twice before doing at a carnival. By the time the Derby horses lined up opposite the members’ lawn, I had lost all my companions to the crowd, but had secured a standing place at the railing from where the horses moved out of the paddock or came in after the race.

I do not remember exactly, but I think it was a very small Derby field, maybe five or six runners only, Squanderer being one of them, and perhaps his reputation as a champion was responsible to scare away the rivals. The horses assembled in front of the members’ stand and were pushed into the gates. A man standing on a high stool (later I learnt he was called a starter) flagged them off, and a huge, collective roar, something like 20,000 people exhaling air in sync with a snorting sound, went high into the skies.

The atmosphere turned electric as the commentator narrated what 20,000 craning necks were trying to see in front of them or on closed circuit television screens which, in those days, beamed black ‘n’ white images.
Squanderer had it easy, exactly as the experts had predicted.

When jockey Jagdish was returning to the thundering applause of the crowd, I saw what has now become the most unforgettable image of my racing life: A flamboyantly dressed man, in dark brown suit and sporting large sunglasses, waded his way through the crowd that was eager to congratulate and shake hands with him, and then suddenly stopped only 20 feet from where I was standing.

Squanderer
That was the first time I saw Ranjit Bhat (the only owner in racing history who holds a unique record of winning three successive Derbys), and to me he looked like an Indian version of Damon Runyan. If I have ever seen an expression of exaltation, it was on this man’s face at that precise moment.

Later, it emerged, he had paused because he was waiting for his partner. The partner, another immaculately dressed man wearing big sunglasses and looking like a film star, joined him. They led in Squanderer while the thunderous clapping and standing ovation continued.

Surprisingly, an absolutely ordinary looking man standing next to me, suddenly shouted, “Congrats, Indru!”, and Ranjit Bhat’s partner (from Cole race book I later learnt his name was I S Mirchandani) actually smiled back at him and winked before saying ‘thank you.’

I could not contain my shock. How could this plain, ordinary man from the public talk like that to the elite guy who had just won the Derby?

“Do you know him?” I asked the man.
“Yes, he is my boss,” the man replied.
“Where do you work?” I quizzed again.
“Tata Steel,” the man said.
Was he telling the truth?
Maybe. Maybe not.
I would never know.

For me, I had just witnessed my first Indian Derby in all its splendour and glory, and seen a horse like Squanderer winning it and being led in to the loudest applause I had ever heard. And this was, in itself, a memory to be cherished for a lifetime. That’s why, as I said in the beginning, today when someone says Squanderer was the greatest horse among all Indian horses, I just smile. And there is a reason. 

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