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In the 50s & 60s, mill workers were main clients at Racecourse - Indian Express

Posted on - 11 Sep 2013

In the 50s & 60s, mill workers were main clients at Racecourse
Indian Express
Khushroo N Dhunjibhoy, Chairman of RWITC says the state’s tax policy has exported the wagering business from Mumbai to Bangalore and Hyderabad.
The state government and BMC are sitting on the renewal of the Mahalaxmi Racecourse lease that expired on May 31. Meanwhile, the Royal Western India Turf Club Ltd — aware that it hasn’t done enough to bring racing into the living rooms of the middle-class — has prepared a blueprint to increase its popularity and make the club facilities more inclusive, rather than exclusive to its 10,000-odd members.
Mihika Basu: Annually, how much does racing contribute to the state exchequer?
Around Rs 45 crore — in the form of taxes. Unfortunately, the state government hiked the tax rate from 10 per cent to 20 per cent two years ago. And since then, after six months, the revenue started dipping. We told them that most of our betting revenue is going to Bangalore and Hyderabad. The reason is now everybody can use a phone and wager a bet in Bangalore or Hyderabad, illegally. We have been telling the government to bring down the tax rate to the level of Bangalore, which is 8 per cent now. If this is done, we can get back a lot of revenue.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: How much was it before?
You can’t compare it strictly. But wagering was Rs 100 crore then. Now it is Rs 80 crores. They may still be making more than they were earlier, but eventually if the graph goes down the exercise is a waste. What we’ve told them now is that we will guarantee you a level and at that level you let us fix the tax rate. And if there is a difference or a loss, the club will bear the loss. I think it is a fair proposal and has been appreciated by the revenue department.
Sagnik Chowdhury: Is there a lot of betting on websites?
No. It is not allowed in India yet. There is an RBI regulation that says you can spend your money on anything but not on betting.
Shivani Naik: Are you in favour of going online?
Yes. We have applied for telephone betting and online betting. We have gone through the whole process, gone through the director-general of police and they’ve approved it. It has gone to the home ministry.
Mayura Janwalkar: How long has it been pending?
Nearly six months. The file is stuck at Additional Chief Secretary level.
Shubhangi Khapre: While the state is looking at renewing the Racecourse lease, how do you explain the classes-versus-masses debate?
In the 1950s and ‘60s, 15,000-20,000 people would attend horse races daily. Mill workers were our main clients. The elite were the ones investing in the horses, but our revenue came from the mill workers. Around 60 per cent were blue collar workers and 40 per cent were the elite. Even today, this is the majority. At the Racecourse, we have the members’ enclosure, the first enclosure and the third enclosure, which has broken down and is dilapidated. So, we had three stands for working class and one stand for the so-called elite class. So I think now there are not so many workers, because with malls and TV, we have competition.
Shivani Naik: You think the Racecourse has failed to establish that horse racing is a sport rather than gambling?
If you see the latest Supreme Court judgment, it states that it is a game of skill and not mere gambling. This was a judgment given five or six years ago. But yes, there is a failure in communicating and educating people about how you can enjoy an afternoon of racing besides gambling. But trends have changed in the city now. There were no malls or TV in those days. Thus, racing was popular.
Shivani Naik: Do you think institutionalised betting should be extended to other sports?
Yes, it is happening anyway. We don’t want to accept that betting is going on and it is time we accept that. I will give you a classic example. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was against opening casinos and he resisted until four year ago. But today, Singapore has casinos because they had lost their business to Hong Kong and Macau. To get those tourists back, they started casinos. There is so much wagering going on in cricket or football in India, there is no reason to stop it. By artificially stop it, it remains illegal and encourages people to do it illegally and fixers to come into it.
Tabassum Barnagarwala: But don’t you think legalising betting will reduce sport to a business?
In IPL matches, considering the amount of money paid to the cricketers, it’s absolutely relevant to what they are making. Now they are earning in terms of ads and so on. But if they put wagering into it, it will make the pool that much larger, which is anyway there but illegally. When you legalise something, there are two issues - you push all illegal guys into betting out of the business or make it a competition for them so that it is not profitable for them to stay in the business. You cannot take competition out. The competition, even for us, is illegal betting in racing.
Mayura Janwalkar: Do you think to regenerate interest in horse racing, you need to take it to people’s living rooms like IPL?
Yes, our effort on marketing has been limited. I admit that. The principle thing in racing is integrity. From now, we will have a security network established. Every horse that will race will be monitored by CCTV cameras and people. It will be monitored a day before the race till the time it completes the race. There are a lot of initiatives we have taken recently in punishing people who have committed fraud. Because in the past, we never adequately punished them. We are sending a newsletter to our members that will cover all these aspects.
Sagnik Chowdhury: With regard to access, do you allow only people coming for wagering or throw it open to the public, too?
Yes, anybody can come. Even if you want to come and see racing, the cost is as low as that of a zoo ticket. If you want to spend a Sunday afternoon there, you are most welcome. You can also come and enter the members’ enclosure, where the fees are a little higher, but in our rest area the fees is Rs 20 or Rs 30.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Don’t you think you have done a poor job at marketing?
I completely agree. I’ll give you an example of my son. He likes racing and everything but he asks - Why should I come there? He says, “I’ll come and watch a race or two but after that what do I do?” So that’s what we are trying to tell BMC. If there is no restaurant, bar or music there, then why will teenagers come there? They will be fed up after watching two-three races. We need to develop this into a place where we have enough to offer people who want to spend an afternoon here but not just watch horses. We need to do something more.
Sharvari Patwa: What are the other plans that the club is thinking of? You mentioned an amphitheatre.
Yes, we are looking into that. The idea is to encourage amateur dramatics and it is going to be a CKD thing. So there will be no structure, like there are 300 people and the crowd is doing a Marathi play. So, we will set up the stage at a minimal cost. We are also planning of other things, such as a petting zoo. Also, we have 10,000-odd members and are revamping. We want to have more events for the public at reasonable prices that are not fancy. We have already done enough fancy things.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: How rich is your club?
We have got Rs 120 crore in the bank. So we are not that bad. Not that broke.
Zeeshan Shaikh: A lot of people complain that public land is used for propagating racing and also for making money by sub-leasing it to other entities. Your comments?
When you have racing, eateries are needed there. We have got three eateries. And the revenue is fine. We are sharing it with the BMC, it’s not as if BMC is making nothing out of it. They may be not making anything out of the catering, but out of the marriages, they make, and out of any event that we hold, they make money. So the question is, that they contend that when we give licence to eatery to run there, it tantamounts to a sub-lease. Gallops has been in the same spot for the past 25 years and other institutions for even longer. But it has not been deemed as a sub-lease so far.
Zeeshan Shaikh: Some people have a problem with clubs making money out of public land.
At least the RWITC is not restricting entry. Other clubs may not allow you to walk through the gates. They are making money and not allowing you to use it at all. We are making money but yes we are running 210 acres. The annual cleaning cost is more than Rs 2 crore. Where will the BMC generate it from? Let’s assume they take over the place, but they need to clean it too. They are going to charge the public. Our security system costs us Rs 2-3 crore every year.
Zeeshan Shaikh: Except Pesi Shroff, RWITC has not produced any other famous jockey or ensured that these sportsmen also get publicity.
Pesi Shroff made a name for himself because he was a skillful jockey, he rode the best horses, won the best races and therefore became a public hero. Even as a trainer, he succeeded. You must have the ability to succeed, you can’t promote a sportsman unless he is really at the top. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone who we can say that this man is the top talent in India. After Pesi Shroff, we did not have anyone.
Tabassum Barnagarwala: Have you faced opposition from animal rights associations?
Yes, opposition in the sense that they only look at it from a cruelty point of view. In the past, there have been concerns about whips, horsewhips. Now the whip has been modified. In the old days, it used to be sharp like a cane. Now it has been padded and modified. Now when a horse is hit, it doesn’t hurt it, it’s more to encourage it. A whip helps you in controlling a horse. The other use of the whip is that horses get lazy. So a whip gives a few hits on the back and it makes them run faster.
Sharvari Patwa: Have you presented a blueprint of your proposed ideas to the BMC?
We have been talking to them. We have discussed a petting zoo. This is there in the original lease agreement. If you read the original plans, you’ll see that these lands were earmarked for development of schools. In fact, in the old days, if you see the masterplan, you’ll see school names put in there. Right from the start, this whole area was earmarked. Now there are joggers and walkers and they exercise for free. But we still hold a cricket class for kids, a farmer’s market, and other activities that have come over the past three years.
(Transcribed by Sharvari Patwa & Abdullah Nurullah)

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