Horse d'oeuvre

Published: Nov 12, 2011, 04:39 IST | Hemal Ashar |

Dial I for Integrity, Dial D for Dress Code. There was plenty for starters at the meet announcing the Mumbai racing season beginning tomorrow

Dial I for Integrity, Dial D for Dress Code. There was plenty for starters at the meet announcing the Mumbai racing season beginning  tomorrow 

Regular walkers and joggers at the Mahalaxmi racecourse must have noticed a signboard near the entrance of the racetracks, cautioning them about the turf club's priorities on this coveted land. The signboard says: Walkers and Joggers Beware, Horses Have Right of Way.

Today, the equines are managing to retain their hold on SoBos green lung --but just about. At a meet on Thursday night, to announce the start of the 5.5 month long Mumbai racing season beginning tomorrow (Sunday, November 13) it was evident that both equines and humans are going to do plenty of horsing around at the Mahalaxmi this season.

Toast to us: Members on the dais say bottoms up with champagne.
RWITC chairman, Vivek Jain is third from right

The Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) the sport's apex body has gone on a glamour gallop with several races in the season having a heady sprinkling of  style. In fact, on the first day itself,  Bipasha 'Bips' Basu who will be giving out the prizes. At the press conference Vivek Jain, chairman, RWITC announced a slew of initiatives the club has undertaken this season in order to give racing a fresh twist.

Hoove's listening to the music? The meet kicked off with some light
entertainment, soothing to the ears Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

Noteworthy was Jain's emphasis on promoting Mahalaxmi as a "destination." Just the choice of the word was indicative that the club was going to continue with its policy of a few years to promote racing as a lifestyle event. It   also underlined the fact that the Mahalaxmi turf, eyed hungrily by politicians and builders for years will certainly host more than just races this season.

Racing's changing by leaps and bounds: Shaolin monks provided
entertainment at last season's Derby, this time who knows what is in
store for punters?

There are events like a zingy musical program (details are still hush-hush) on the anvil, says the RWITC committee. There is even a Marathi cultural extravaganza planned on November 26, where there will be Marathi song and dance, "Especially for our Marathi people who maybe feeling neglected," said Jain. Days of the Raj at the racecourse? Well... pun intended.  

This inaugural press meet was held at the paddock of the racecourse. The paddock, a place where champions are  paraded post race, is a magical place to be, especially in the evenings, after the sun has beat a retreat and the moon starts throwing down its beams.

Just for an hour or two one can imagine that one is away from smog-filled, traffic choked Mumbai. The heritage RWITC structure is silhouetted against the sky, the lights that hang from the trees glow like giant fireflies and there is a buzz in the air, a pumping of adrenaline in the veins as die-hard punters sense the thundering of hooves getting nearer.

The evening began with light entertainment, where a music troupe held one in thrall and then, Mahendra Mallya, announcer for the event, said that there would be some short films on the screens all around. These capsules would highlight last season's  action and give people a taste of what is to come now. Several trainers and jockeys spoke about the horses they are training/riding this season and their hopes for the horseflesh  for the Mumbai season 2011-2012. 

While the Classics, Million races and the Derby was announced, there was one race that stood out. The RWITC would host the Dr Jagjit Singh Tribute Million, this season, in memory of the ghazal maestro, late Dr Jagjit Singh. Jagjit Singh was an RWITC member-owner. For the first time, the Owners' Association and four individual owners in addition to the club itself have jointly contributed to the race.

It will be a Million race and has been kept for a Class IV handicap and reserved for small owners only. Jain added that, "I used to meet Jagjit Singh at the racecourse in the mornings as he was a regular walker. His humility was to be seen to be believed."

On another track, it seems that it is not just the International Cricket Council (ICC) that has to work hard to restore the confidence of the public in the sport of cricket, especially since three Pakistan cricketers are behind bars for spot fixing. Racing has had 'fixing' smears on it for long, and many of these, to be fair may be the result punters talking through their pockets, though there may be certain races,  the results of which can only be termed as cloudy.

The Club has appointed Australian Wayne Wood, a racing administrator from Down Under as Chief Integrity Officer, to, "Restore confidence of the public in the sport," said Jain adding, "We are yet in the process of defining his scope of work, which may include inquiries, investigations and sampling. Yet, his exact role is being worked out."

Yet another kind of Wood is coming to the racecourse this season but this one is spelt as, Wodehouse. The stiff British upper lip, Drones and British Club world of P G Wodehouse and his creation Bertie Wooster is returning to Mahalaxmi. A dress code will once again be in force in the members enclosure, "To improve the look and ambience of the members enclosure, which is so badly needed," said the club's committee with Jain adding that, "The code would be on till the end of February."

The Club was even willing to brave a dip in attendance figures that might be a fallout of the dress code rule. The Club had relaxed its dress code recently in order to attract more people to the races. Yet, this had resulted in men and women wearing shoddy t-shirts and jeans, casual slippers, even three-fourth trousers to the races, which would be considered absolute sartorial sacrilege some time ago.

Once the bastion of sharp suits and crackling, crisp sherwanis and natty national dress, the members' enclosure now resembles a college class at some races. It is now seeking to reclaim that lost glory of the garb. Like the club committee said, "Now one has to dress up properly for the races �class returns to grass."

Yet, it is not all fluff and fashion at Mahalaxmi. A somber note was struck, with the club announcing its efforts towards contributing for the Indian Cancer Society. A Kurkure of the Indian Cancer Society, who was sitting in the audience for the duration of the program got up and thanked the club for its efforts and for helping so many cancer patients.     
There was a note of caution towards the end, even with all those feel good speeches, Jain added that the Club was facing, "Trying times, with a number of taxes that it is confronted with. I issue a profit warning for the year, this is an especially challenging one for the Club."

Just as the meet was winding down, familiar face at the racecourse, Ashwin Mehta, got up from the audience and showered lavish praise on the Club. So profuse was Mehta in his admiration that the gentlemen on the podium may have struggled to hide their blushes.

In the end, Jain said thanks for those words, "Since we are so used to getting brickbats," he added to laughs. A few years ago, Mehta had got up at a similar gathering and questioned why the media constantly criticises the Club, does not give racing adequate publicity and focuses on the negatives.

This time though Mehta abstained from his observations about the press. Jain brought the curtain down telling the press, "We know that a bad story sells, but we hope that when something good happens in racing, you do write about it too."

Talking Money
 The Mumbai Racing Season begins on November 13, 2011.
* The advertised prize money is Rs 15 crore.
* Sponsorships are to the tune of Rs 7 crore for the season.
w The McDowell Signature Indian Derby will be held on the first Sunday of February 2012. Prize money is expected to cross Rs 2.5 crore for the same.
* 30 races offer prize money of Rs 1 million or more.
* A luxury Vento will be on offer at the contest of skill linked every Sunday to the jackpot pool   

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