Mumbai racecourse drama: Anya Shroff vetoed out of club membership

Apr 10, 2014, 08:15 IST | Prakash Gosavi

Unknown member stalls the attempt of Anya, daughter of champion trainer Pesi Shroff, to move from life membership of the RWITC to the higher fold of club membership

Just when champion trainer Pesi Shroff was getting ready to appeal against the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) stewards' decision to suspend him for nine months for his filly Bullseye testing positive for a banned drug, comes the news that his daughter, Anya, an amateur rider, was blackballed by one of the nine committee members of the club when she applied for club membership last month. A blackball means a veto or negative vote. Incidentally, Anya is already a life member of the apex racing club. She had applied to move to the fold of 'club member' which means she would have voting rights.

Young rider: If Anya Shroff (19) became a ‘club member’, she would have voting rights. File pic

This though, does not mean that Anya (19) application has been rejected, because as per change in notification effected on May 1, 2006, a person will be ineligible for membership only if he or she receives three negative (NO) votes.

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The letter written by Additional Secretary of RWITC, NHS Mani, informing all committee members about the findings of the ballot held for the purpose, a copy of which is with MiDDAY states, "All nine committee members had cast their votes, out of 17 candidates, 16 candidates have received nine "YES" [sic] votes, and one candidate, namely Miss Anya P Shroff, has received eight 'YES' votes and one 'NO' vote."

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Pesi Shroff simply said, "If true, this is very sad. My daughter is too young and innocent, I request you to keep her out of this."

Vivek Jain, chairman RWITC stated, "I am shocked by this revelation. She (Anya) comes from a family with racing background, and in fact, I was the first to welcome her and say she didn't need an introduction when she appeared for the interview. There is definitely something more here than meets the eye. I think our members and the racing public are intelligent enough to read between the lines. There have already been attempts to malign my image recently, and this smells like a conspiracy to discredit me and my supporters on the committee."

Committee member and former RWITC chairman, K N Dhunjibhoy, said that, "This is absurd. I would think she (Anya) was the most eligible among the 17 candidates who were interviewed for club membership that day. She rides every morning and evening, she attends the races, and she comes from a horse loving family. This is not done to a 19-year old innocent girl, only a person full of vindictiveness can think of doing it." When told that some on the committee termed this as a conspiracy, Dhunjibhoy retorted, "Let there be a polygraph test for all. At least, once and for all the racing public will know who has been lying all the time."

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Gulamhusein Vahanvaty, committee member joined the conspiracy chorus when he reacted, "I am absolutely shocked. Pesi Shroff's daughter is a welcome addition to the club. I can't imagine why anyone would do it. This smacks of a conspiracy."
Committee members Geoffrey Nagpal and Jaydev Mody reacted with surprise and shock with the former asking, "Are you sure? I don't think it's true. This may be a rumour, you better check it," while Mody said, "My God, really? I am surprised and shocked."

Four of the nine committee members who voted by secret ballot were unavailable for comment. These were, Champaklal Zaveri, Ram Shroff, S C Jain and Shyam Ruia.

The conspiracy theory may stem from the fact that Pesi Shroff is staring at a nine-month suspension for vicarious liability on account of his filly Bullseye testing positive for banned drug Boldenone while returning from Nanoli stud farm in December last year. Pesi has filed his appeal against the RWITC stewards' decision with the Board of Appeal (BoA) of the club, and the matter is scheduled to come up for hearing on April 18.

Dhunjibhoy, Bullseye owner and Nanoli stud farm owner had called Pesi's nine-month suspension "perverse" and "unprecedented", accusing his arch rival, current chairman Vivek Jain, of being "biased" against him, his farm and his trainer. In a recent ruling last week related to the same case, the RWITC stewards also imposed a two-year ban on all horses coming from Nanoli stud farm, in effect, putting a check on movement of racehorses visiting the farm for rest.

The battlelines were clearly drawn when the race club also took another unprecedented step when it released Pesi's detailed suspension order as 'advertisement' in 'Cole' race book, and also published the detailed minutes of that particular meeting on its official website, from where popular racing websites and picked them up for re-publication, giving rise to ferocious debate in the racing fraternity divided into two camps, one pro-Pesi and the other pro-RWITC.

Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that one negative vote on Anya application has stirred a hornet's nest. Rumours are flying as to who of the nine gentlemen did not want Pesi 's daughter as club member. Accusations of "vendetta" and counter-accusations of "conspiracy", indicate that the august club's hallowed committee room will stay a divided house for a long time from now, or at least, until the next general body elections due in December this year.

Who is Anya Shroff?

Anya Shroff, 19, is the only daughter of trainer Pesi Shroff, the country's most celebrated jockey who holds a record for winning eight Indian Derby titles. Anya comes from a family which boasts of accomplished amateur riders like Tehmina Shroff, Jimmy and Nan Umrigar among her grandparents, and the late Karl Umrigar as maternal uncle. She has been riding since the age of 5, and is interested in making a career in dressage and show riding.  She participated in the Delhi horse show last week.

At a Glance
>> The Mahalaxmi Race Course is modelled on the Melbourne Race Course.
>> Built in 1883 on 225 acres of land facing the sea originally donated by Sir Cusrow N Wadia. Now on perpetual lease from the MCGM.
>> Length of the Race Track: 2400 metres.
>> Racing from November to April.
>> Home to the 5 Indian Classics (Indian Derby on the first Sunday of February).
>> Highlights: 1000 Guineas, 2000 Guineas, Oaks, Derby, St Leger, Poonawalla Multimillion and many more.
>> Grandstand now designated a heritage structure.

What is Club Membership?
The RWITC has different kinds of membership like stand membership, life membership and club membership. Stand membership is now defunct. Club membership means the member can vote during elections to the club. A life member does not have a vote.   

What is a blackball?
Blackballing is a rejection in a traditional form of secret ballot, where a white ball or ballot constitutes a vote in support and a black ball signifies opposition. This system is typically used where a club's rules provide that, rather than a majority of the votes, one or two objections are sufficient to defeat a proposition. Earlier, a large supply of black and white balls is provided for voters. Each voter audibly casts a single ball into the ballot box under cover of the box, or of a combination of a cloth and the box itself, so that observers can see who votes but not how they are voting. When all voting is complete, the box is opened and the balls displayed: all present can immediately see the result, without any means of knowing which members are objecting.

Rewind to Willingdon
In 2010, this paper had reported how the swish Willingdon Club (WSC) at Haji Ali had blackballed Pesi Shroff's bid for club membership. It then did a U-turn and accepted former top jockey Pesi Shroff as member to the club, after an earlier decision to blackball Indian racing's most recognizable face. The balloting committee reviewed and reversed its controversial decision. Navin Shah club president, confirmed that the Willingdon had accepted Pesi's membership and added, "primarily because he is a member's child." 
This paper had reported on April 11, 2010 in a report titled: 'Willingdon slams doors on Pesi Shroff' that the eight-time Indian Derby-winning jockey, now trainer, was denied Willingdon membership because of the club's unwritten policy barring jockeys and trainers from becoming members. The newspaper report was published after a circular dated April 8 was pasted on the club's notice board rejecting Pesi's application.

The Pesi snub had jolted the racing circles with one member saying, "Pesi is good enough for record books but not good enough for the high and mighty of Willingdon." There was a fiery meeting at the club following the decision.

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