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Where horse is boss

As Derby day looms on Sunday, a look at early morning action at Mahalaxmi and a few hours with thoroughbred racing professionals -- both of the two-legged and four-legged variety

In racing parlance the final straight, is called the last leg of a race when horses generally, are in full gallop towards the finish line. The Royal Western India Turf club (RWITC) is, metaphorically speaking, in the final straight for the Indian Derby, racing's most prestigious event to be held at the Mahalaxmi racecourse on Sunday (February 5) afternoon.


Rearing UP: Struggling to control the horse Pics/Shadab Khan

The club held what is called a, 'Breakfast of Champions' at the racecourse on Thursday morning. This is an event where journalists meet a couple of trainers, jockeys and owners for an interaction following which, they are shown a day in the life of a thoroughbred -- swimming, shoeing and running on a treadmill as part of the equine's daily routine.

As the sun climbed over the horizon, sending its golden rays on the green of the racecourse, trainers watched through binoculars as horses blazed the track. There were Derby contenders and other horses all involved in 'track work' (morning exercise of the horses) and they thundered by, in a breathtaking blur of megawatt horsepower.


One horse pool: Taking a dip is especially relaxing

The most common word used to describe the upcoming Derby was, "open". Vivek Jain, chairman, RWITC said, even as racing professionals meandered towards him to exchange views on what he thought would transpire on Indian racing's biggest weekend, "It looks like a very open race this time so the contest is going to be very exciting." Meanwhile, about the attendance he expects on the day, Vivek said, "We think there should be at least 28,000 people. The club has used social networking sites too, to get the non-racing person interested in coming in."

There were plenty of first-timers and those unfamiliar with the racecourse, getting a feel of what it is like to be on the lawns, watching the fleet of foot. A number of invitees were in thrall at the beauty of what, trainer Vinay Lagad said are, "the lungs of Mumbai." Vinay was outfitted in an Irish National Stud sweatshirt, which is the institution from where he has done a course in horse training and stud farm management.


Treadmill: Horse Royal Honour on a treadmill. Horses have
known to go as fast as 60 km per hour on the machine


Said Vinay of his time at the Irish National Stud, "It was a great learning experience. In Ireland and England, one experiences the depth of research that goes into horse racing. Besides the very hi-tech laboratories, even the farriers (people who shoe a horse) are given four years of training to perfect the art. We (In India) too have good rules and infrastructure, now we should develop racing as a sport, people who could afford it, can own horses simply for the fun of it."

Trainer Altaf Husain who does not have a runner in the Derby said he liked, "Vinayak ki ghodi" for the Derby, by which he meant the filly, Hills and Stars, trained by Vinayak G. Commentator Mahendra Mallya said, "I disagree that the race is 'open', I don't see it that way, I think the filly, Hills and Stars will win. She impressed me most when she won the Pune Derby and she is suited towards longer distances. Even in the 1,000 Guineas she gave the impression that she would have won, had it been a longer distance."


Manolo Blahnik? Or Bally? A farrier makes horse Shivalik Pride
wear a shoe. A horse may wear a shoe only twice before a new
one is put


Former jockey-now-trainer, Pesi Shroff sauntered in, looking a trifle like Mr. Surly in this hurly-burly but then brightened up saying, "The race looks open because there are many good horses." When asked about his runners, Cardinal, Picasso and Smashing, Pesi said, "They are fine. What shall I say?"

But, when pressed if with so many wins as jockey and trainer, ennui had seeped in, or he still felt the challenge and whether this race set his adrenalin pumping, Pesi replied, "Yes, of course, the Derby is the jewel in the crown of racing, that is undeniable. On that day, a professional wants to go out there and give his best. It is like your wedding day, when you want to look your best."


Sand land: Horses rolling in the sand after a dip in the pool

For trainer Narendra Lagad, it is the horse, Pronto Pronto that looks especially strong hearted but he did say one should keep an eye on, In The Spotlight. Lagad said sentimentally, "I wish Hills and Stars wins, for my friend and trainer, Vinayak Gaikwad. We go back so many years. We were together in Bishop's School in Pune." Incidentally, Vinayak is very ill and currently in hospital in Mumbai.

For keen racing regular, Hasmukh Chavda, "The race looks very competitive, Sunday is going to see a very, very close contest. In fact, it is going to be all about firepower horsepower." Too much fire? Douse that in the swimming pool area for horses, where thoroughbreds were taking a dip as part of the exercise.


Roar score: Trainer Magan Singh Jodha near the pool

Former jockey, now trainer, Malesh Narredu was seen at the swimming pool area as horses dived into the water, swimming nonchalantly as cameramen clicked wildly. Said Malesh, "A former jockey, I believe has a slight advantage as I can tell my jockey how I would ride the horse."

Malesh said that he would look at Hills and Stars, In the Spotlight and Pronto Pronto in the race. When asked about whether his post-jockey phase (he rode for a 27 years) now allows him to eat all those forbidden foods, Malesh laughed. "I starved during my years as jockey, I had to really control myself, because we have weight restrictions. I used to think that I would eat so much after stopping riding, but, in the end, I find that I cannot eat as much as I thought I would."


A point: Pesi Shroff at the Breakfast of Champions

Talking about food, would it be daal baati churma that would spring a surprise on Sunday? A little bit of Rajasthan will be in Mumbai, on Derby day with horse Ranthambore in the fray. Said trainer Magan Singh Jodha, "My son, Adhiraj Singh Jodha has a runner in the Derby, a horse called Ranthambore. We are from Rajasthan and that is why the  name. On Sunday, I hope Mahalaxmi resonates to the roar of the lion from Ranthambore."

The thunder of horses, the swirls of dust from galloping hooves and a thousand hearts pounding in anticipation -- add to that the prospect of a leonine roar of applause for a horse called Ranthambore, that's the sound and fury of what promises to be a high octane Derby, if the Breakfast of the Champions is anything to go by.


Exciting: Racing enthusiast Hasmukh Chavda


My money: On Hills and Stars, says Mahendra Mallya


Horse sense: Trainer Vinay Lagad

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