Is fashion overtaking the races at the Derby?

Mar 02, 2014, 12:50 IST | Hemal Ashar

Is a surfeit of entertainment pushing racing into the background? While crusty, old punters cluck angrily at the onslaught of fashion at the race course, others say the song 'n' dance is needed to keep the turnstiles ticking

This Derby, crusty old punters peering into their race books, were getting ready to assess the horses in the paddock, when, instead, of the four-legged fleet of foot, two-legged-more-footsie-than-fleety fashion models sprang on to the space. The foreign models started dancing to ‘Will you be my chamak challo oh oh oh’. Racing regulars sighed in resignation, while some still clucked in irritation, waiting for the dance to get over, so that the horses could come on.

And that's hat: The Poonawalla Breeders’ Multimillion brought hi-fashion visibility. Pic/ Nimesh Dave

With a terrific onslaught of entertainment and events at the race course, many purists are irked at fashion overtaking furlongs. They claim, serious things like studying the horses, watching the race, making bets after certain calculations and deliberations have been pushed into the background, as hype ‘n’ hoopla steals a march over hooves. Others though claim, one needs this to keep people coming in and if the world is in flux, then, even racing has to change.

WILL YOU BE MY CHAMAK CHALLO? The purists say no. A performance at the Mahalaxmi Race Course paddock. Pic/ Shadab Khan

A Curse
Says Adil Gandhy, “I am not a serious punter but a horse lover, who has been visiting the races since 1962. If this naatakbaaj like some people say, draws in more people, brings in money, then, I guess we have to go with it. Yet, I do know that there are people who curse silently, when these songs ‘n’ dances take centrestage (laughs). ‘What is this nakhra?’ they say. Yet I think, this is going to be the trend to bring in more people.”

DON’T GATECRASH OUR PARTY: The gates slam open at the McDowell Signature Indian Derby at the  Mahalaxmi Race Course last month. PIC/ Shadab Khan

For Gitanjali Gurbaxani, who has been a race course regular since 1986 onwards, it is a case of, “moving with the times. “Today, there are sponsors, MNCs that bring the money into this premium property. What we can do is juggle this mix skillfully. Once, I remember the racing commentary and a subsequent stewards’ inquiry drowned out by ‘lungi dance’ being belted out by the loudspeakers.

Ramps for champs: Models walk the ramp as part of a fashion show during  the McDowell Signature Indian Derby at the  Mahalaxmi Race Course last month. Pic/ Shadab Khan

That was truly irksome for serious followers, who were waiting for the outcome of the enquiry.” (Racing stewards are responsible for ascertaining whether the race was run cleanly and fairly). Yet, Gurbaxani said it was important to remember that, “in January 2010 when we had a ‘mock’ race for a movie promotion and Salman Khan arrived at the race course for that, we had huge crowds, which we would not have got otherwise. The mall culture has permeated the race course and it is here to stay.”

Dextrous DD gooder: A juggler was part of the acts on Derby day. Glamour and gallops have to be skillfully juggled together. Pic/ Shadab Khan

Star wars
Vivek Jain, Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) chairman, reacts angrily to accusations that events and activities have overtaken the real purpose of racing. “This is absolutely incorrect. Racing and glamour have gone hand in hand for decades, since the time film stars owned horses. We have a duty to market the sport and attract the media. Hence glamour and fashion and race day entertainment become important and ensures the visibility the sport needs. Take a look at Indian Premier League (IPL) and how the glamour quotient and the razzmatazz has made it into such a big event, watched by the world!”

Having said that, Jain adds, that, “Racing and the horses remain our stars.. We run 72 race days in Western India, pay out over 30 crore in prize money, and have the highest number of top races of any centre in the country. We conduct racing well, but we also have the rights to manage this beautiful 226 acre green lung of the city, and owe it to Mumbai to step out of our comfort zone and envelop activities that are inclusive beyond just racing.”

Horse owner Mehroo Dubash who has been at the races for 50 years, says that, “Serious racegoers are suffering to some extent, with the glamour intrusion, but if it does give the sport a fillip, a bit of a push, we need to live with that. Maybe, the club could think if we curtail it a bit, but we have to grin and bear it if it is helping to some extent. These people have sponsors behind them and they are willing to spend money, so I guess, the sponsors too want their moment in the sun.”

The Communists
There are others who want their moments in the sun too, like certain club “committee members” says racing veteran Major S K Lamba. Lamba says, “Why just sponsors? Even club committee members want to share the dais with glamour figures.” Major Lamba, who claims he is firmly committed to the welfare of the club and sport, adds that, “The tamasha is not just disturbing to people, but for the horses too as the animals may not be used to all these bands.

Then, of course, there are police and bodyguards involved when these famous people are at the race course, creating more obstruction. Dance and drama is also disturbing because you need an alert mind and full concentration when assessing the animals in the paddock and making decisions.” Lamba stresses that he has the best interests of the club at heart. “I think it should go back to being an exclusive club.

Today, you see badly dressed people on the course, who do not know how to knot a tie, sitting next to you in the lawn. They wear keds and arrive at the races. They dress up like fools. This is not a Communist country that we throw open the gates to simply everyone in the members' enclosure. We need to get back the elegance, and reintroduce the concept where members used to sign in guests in the members’ enclosure,” he thunders.

Lamba says that even if the actors, models and events bring in people, the entertainment slot should be at specific times. “You can even have a 90-minute break where entertainment can be factored in. During this time, punters can have their brunch or lunch, in this way, we can have both,” ends the feisty old Major who says, “Glamour was the old world charm of the races. I went for glamour when I was 21-22 years old,” said Lamba who is now 75. “I started attending races first in Pune, all those years ago, when people used to say only half in jest: beware, Pune has slow horses and fast women,” he adds.

While new ideas and old concepts still clash, most conclude that entertainment events and racing can exist with careful slotting and time management. After all this 226-acre green emerald of SoBo, needs both to keep it shining.

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