End of the road for small horse owners

Updated: 02 November, 2020 16:14 IST | Prakash Gosavi | Mumbai

There was an incident in the past when a retired racehorse was found being used for children's joyrides at Mumbai's Juhu beach.

A file picture of Ashok Rajani (brown shirt) leading in Star Sunrise (Harish up) with trainer Samar Singh at the Bangalore racecourse
A file picture of Ashok Rajani (brown shirt) leading in Star Sunrise (Harish up) with trainer Samar Singh at the Bangalore racecourse

If you have visited Bangalore racecourse during the season, chances are you bumped into a man called "Lali" either sitting in his regular chair just outside the commentators' box cheering for his horse, or talking animatedly to a group of racegoers under the banyan tree of the Saddle Up cafe in the evening, or sipping his drink in the racecourse bar after the races. His real name is Ashok Rajani.

Ashok has been a passionate racelover for almost half a century--48 years to be precise. He is also a small horse owner--or rather "was" one until last week, when he cleared his dues to the BTC (Bangalore Turf Club) and relinquished part-ownership in his last horse, Set To Win (Multidimensional - Set Aside). Interestingly, Set To Win is winner of four races from 18 starts (over Rs 2 million in stakes), but Ashok Rajani gave away his share in the horse for absolutely free. What's even more strange is that he was genuinely grateful someone picked up his share.

Doesn't make sense? Read on.

Ashok Rajani sneaked into the racecourse at the age of 15, well before the legal age requirement. "I used to stay only 100 metres from the Bangalore racecourse" he told mid-day, "I grew up watching horses from the roof of my building."

Rajani sensed horse racing's potential to offer a great experience for socializing. "Racecourse is a great place to meet people, strike friendships and enjoy the thrills, if you know how to stay within the limits," he added, "I took to racing like fish to water."

In 1996, he bought his first racehorse. "Think small, that has always been my mantra," Rajani continued, "I never bought a horse hoping to win the Derby. For me, it was simply the joy of watching my horse run. If the horse won or placed, and brought in some stakemoney to earn his corn bill, well and good; otherwise, no complaints."

Low expectations made Rajani feel he would never be out of this game as a horse owner. But the unthinkable finally happened. Racing in the country came to an abrupt halt in March due to the Covid-19 lockdown, closing all avenues of revenue for all involved: no stakes for horse owners, no betting revenue for turf clubs and no income for jockeys and other professionals. However, horses need to be looked after whether there is racing or not, and that money is supposed to come from owners who pay bills to trainers through the BTF (basic training fee) accounts maintained by the turf clubs.

The BTC missed one full racing season (Bangalore summer 2020) due to the lockdown, but is hoping to take fresh guard for the winter season. They have announced once-a-week racing in November, and have started sending out notices to horse owners, small and big, to settle their BTF dues, even threatening to auction the horses in case of default. In a way, it was ironical because with no crowds allowed, what auction was the turf club talking about?

Clubs have no option

"Not the club's fault," Rajani sympathized with the unenviable position the turf clubs are in, "what other option do they have?"

He added that even when racing was on, things were already very grim. "I think the 28% GST dealt a severe blow," he explained, "the race club's primary source of income is the commission they earn from the betting money. In 2017, at the 8% tax level, the BTC turnover was Rs 2,000 crores, but after the 28% GST it came down to only Rs 700 crores, leaving them no option but to reduce the stake money by 50%."

The economics of owning horses becomes untenable if the stake money is reduced so drastically, because there is a list of deductions before it reaches the owner's pocket: 10% to the trainer, 7.5% to the jockey, 9.5% to the syces' fund, Rs 2,500 as riding fee for the jockey, etc.

With no racing, and therefore no hope of earning stakemoney, the outgo of Rs 35,000 per horse per month towards the BTF is a small owner's nightmare. "I don't see any hope for this sport," concluded Ashok Rajani, "and certainly not for the small horse owner. There is no point in living in denial."

Similar stories are pouring in from all Indian racing centers where the small horse owner, who puts his money on the line to add numbers, visibility and ensures competition on the racetrack, is being forced out of the game due to the current situation. But not all of them may be as lucky as Ashok Rajani who at least had a taker, if not a buyer, for his horse when he decided to give it away. Because the law says even if a horse owner wants to get out, he has to make sure the horse will be looked after well after it goes out of his ownership, failing which the owner can be prosecuted [Read box Close shave with the law ].

True, there are institutions which absorb retired racehorses like the army, the mounted police force, and some elite boarding schools scattered all over the country, but there is a limit to how many horses they can take under their shelter. The quintessential small owner seems to be badly trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Sailing in the same boat

Gautam Sengupta, former president of the Race Horse Owners' Association in Kolkata, believes it is erroneous to think only small owners are facing problems. He feels even big horse owners will have to seriously question their investments in horse racing under the current scenario. Sungupta himself once owned dozens of horses racing all over the country before trimming his string, because he "saw the bad days coming".

"Even before the pandemic and lockdown, horse racing was already on the decline, the 28% GST only added one more nail in the sport's coffin," he said when speaking to mid-day over the phone. "The exorbitant GST rate on horse racing is, in spirit, contrary to the landmark judgement of the apex court of the country which said horse racing to be a game of skill."

It may be noted that in 1996, a bench headed by justice Kuldeep Singh, had unequivocally ruled that horse racing is not gambling, but a game of skill. To arrive at the landmark decision, justice Singh defined a game of skill as something in which "the element of skill dominates the element of luck", and termed all activities related to horse racing from breeding a horse to training to riding to judging the winning chances of a horse (punting) as requiring more skill than luck.

"If the central government does not relent, and continues with what they call as sin tax, it will be a death knell for racing," Sengupta added.

"After all, you can't forget who you call big owners also have their other interests, other businesses, which also require resources," he explained, "it's true that their passion brought them into this game, but their financial commitment cannot be taken for granted forever. At some stage, they will be forced to rearrange their priorities. I am sure some of them are already doing it."

Close shave with the law

There was an incident in the past when a retired racehorse was found being used for children's joyrides at Mumbai's Juhu beach. Someone who knew racehorses are "marked" for the purpose of identification (a unique code is imprinted on the body of a horse which can't be missed) saw one such horse there on a Sunday evening. He phoned the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) office next day to report. The club secretary checked the records, found the name of the horse with those markings, and called up the former owner who was also a member of the club.

The blissfully ignorant owner was under the impression that his horse was taken in by a wealthy farm owner of Satara, a district in Maharashtra--at least, that's what the middleman who took the horse away had said.

The "poor" rich man was horrified on finding that he had landed on the wrong side of the law for trusting someone. He moved from pillar to post to absolve himself of the charge. Luckily for him, one of his friends personally knew the assistant commissioner of police (ACP) of the area. The ACP, however, insisted he must quickly find a good home for the horse, and submit proof of the same to his office.

But there was a problem. The new owner who employed the horse for the beach rides refused to part with the horse, saying he had bought it from the middleman by paying Rs 5,000. Finally, the old owner "re-purchased" his own horse (which he had given away for free), and packed him off in a float (a special truck designed for horse travel) to a famous boarding school in Panchgani, near Mahabaleshwar.

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First Published: 25 October, 2020 08:00 IST

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