Poonawallas attempt to lure people to Mahalaxmi 'car' ismatic race

Updated: Feb 21, 2020, 08:00 IST | Prakash Gosavi | Mumbai

Poonawalla Breeders' Multimillion race continues the 'contest of skill' to up the attendance; attempt to lure people to Mahalaxmi for the big-ticket event on Sunday

The double-decker bus hit Mumbai streets on Thursday afternoon
The double-decker bus hit Mumbai streets on Thursday afternoon

In a last gasp attempt to bring the crowds to the racecourse, the Poonawallas are pulling out all stops for the Poonawalla Breeders' Multi Million (PBMM) race to be held at the Mahalaxmi racecourse on Sunday, February 23. The Poonawallas are offering free entry to club members (the high cost of members' entry had resulted in dwindling attendance), besides a free betting voucher of R100 to their guests. They also had an open deck BEST bus running through the city from Dadar to Nariman Point on Friday afternoon, promoting the race.

Also, the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) members have been upset at the high ticket prices for their entry in the racecourse. There was a thinner attendance of members this Derby, so the club has recognised that they have to get back their loyal member base.

The big draw for the Million race will be the car that is on offer, continuing a tradition that turned racing on its head, when it began. This Sunday, a Honda Amaze will be up for grabs, in the free contest for skill for punters.

All hands on the top deck of the double decker bus promoting the race
All hands on the top deck of the double decker bus promoting the race

The tradition began in 1993, with the 'car' becoming a focal point selling a horse race. It sold it well as to make the equine event the second most popular horse race after the Indian Derby.

When the Poonawalla family came up with the idea to start a race for juveniles (3 year-olds), styled on the Cartier Million which was already a rage at Phoenix Park, Dublin, in Ireland, the million rupees sum as prize money for a young, three-year-old horse was unheard of in India. The astronomical prize was expected to create waves, which it did. But Cyrus and Zavaray - the Poonawalla brothers who put the money on the line, felt something was amiss. Despite the fashion, glamour and all that jazz on display, the crowds were rather thin, and not even a patch on the huge Derby crowds, that preceded the Poonawalla race by a few weeks.

They wanted to attract the common man on the Mumbai streets and offer him a fun-filled day at the races. The Poonawalla Breeders' Million, now rechristened as the Poonawalla Breeders' Multi-Million - PBMM (the stakes money crossed R10 million mark for the first time in 2013), started in 1990, but the crowds, in record number, turned up only in the fourth year - in 1993, when the Rehanullah Khan-trained Red Buttons wore the winner's sash.

Free contest of skill
The popularity of the race scaled new heights that year because of a simple but very effective marketing trick. The Poonawallas, on the advice of the Bangalore commentator, late S N Harish, offered a Maruti 800 as first prize to anyone who could predict the first four finishing horses of the Million race in correct order. The contest was called 'free contest of skill' to make it clear there was no entry fee, and was aggressively marketed. Harish had argued that the Maruti 800 was the common man's choice of car, and the fact that one lucky winner would get it absolutely free, will get in a record crowd wanting to try their luck. Harish's assessment proved spot on.

Beginner's luck
One Kurien Verghese, a housewife from Santacruz, turned out to be the lucky winner who had correctly predicted the long shot Red Buttons as winner. She was visiting the racecourse for the first time. When asked how she got them right, she said, "When I read out the names of horses from the newspaper today morning, my six-year-old daughter liked the name Red Buttons, and insisted I must nominate them as the winner. I just added three other names that I liked and filled the form." The story with photos of the lucky woman driving the red Maruti 800 on the Mahalaxmi lawns was fired up the imagination of the crowd and took away the intimidating for the first timers at the race course.

This Sunday, there is a scooter for the second winner while a LED TV as the third prize. The fourth prize is a laptop in the Contest of Skill.

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