The Monarchs of Mahalaxmi - By Berjis Desai I Parsiana
Posted on - 16 Feb 2016
The Monarchs of Mahalaxmi
The community continues to contribute to every aspect of thoroughbred racing
By Berjis Desai
A single statistic tells the story. Although 60,000 Parsis constitute an infinitesimal part of India’s 1.3 billion population, a huge majority of owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys and administrators — ‘connections,’ in horse racing parlance — are Parsis. Beyond any doubt, we are the first community of horse racing. Dr Cyrus Poonawalla — Forbes billionaire; creator of the 100 billion dollar Serum Institute of India, the world’s vaccine powerhouse; envied owner-to-be of Lincoln House which earlier housed the American Consulate in Bombay; savior of the nearly abandoned 2013 World Zoroastrian Congress; chief sponsor of the Iranshah Udvada Utsav; host to many a community gahanbar — is also India’s foremost racing personality by a mile. He just successfully organized and led the Asian Horse Racing Conference (a misnomer for the world racing conclave) in Bombay. After Ratan Tata, Poonawalla is perhaps one of the most well known Parsis. Despite his stellar achievements in many non-equine fields of endeavor, he is proud to be known as the undisputed monarch of Mahalaxmi. After all, it was Sir Cusrow Wadia who donated the land for the Mahalaxmi race course.
Poonawalla is not the only Parsi to be the chairman of the Royal Western India Turf Club. (How it has managed to still retain ‘Royal’ in its name in Maharashtra is a minor mystery. Perhaps the social stigma attached to racing has prevented some political leader’s name being fastened.) His brother, Zavaray, is the present chairman, and so was Khushru Dhunjibhoy-six times. All of them are breeders of thoroughbreds, having stud farms near Poona, just like Shapoor Mistry and Dr Farokh Wadia. Fierce contests are fought not only on the turf but also during the annual Club elections with the usual cocktail of anonymous letters, allegations and counter allegations, wooing voters with lavish food and booze and gifts of flowers, dates, chocolates, shawls and even massage oils. All this continued until last year when, like the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, a code of conduct nixed these tactics, much to the dismay of the voters. In the last election, Zavaray’s group managed to win five seats against Dhunjibhoy’s four and the latter lost the chairmanship. Out of the nearly 2,000 odd voters, 250 are Parsis.
In the good old days, when Mahalaxmi was the preserve of royalty, film stars and celebrities, after the English trainers departed, many leading trainers were Parsis. Some were colorful and most were notable eccentrics. One gentleman, who could hardly get his equine wards past the post, would rise every morning at four, visit all agiaries from Colaba to the race course, perform kusti near the winning post and only then commence training. Alas Ahura Mazda did not deem it fit to bestow any success upon him! The other, a man of all seasons, painted a class one horse black and ran him as a class five horse who naturally hacked the field. As the trainer was gleefully counting his ill gotten gains, it started raining at the Poona race course, resulting in the color of the horse and his scheme both coming off in full public view. Not to be daunted by this mishap, he quickly spirited away the poor horse, killed it, cremated it and buried its remains. He was banned for life. His off course activities were equally colorful. In a particular village near Poona, many claimed before the land revenue authorities that the trainer was their biological father and that they had a claim to his land. He proudly claimed, only in half jest, that the secret of his libido was his consuming live a large queen ant, which kept him as fit as a stallion in his prime.
Even presently, there are as many as 15 Parsi trainers. Five have saddled Indian Derby winners — the legendary nonagenarian Rashid Byramjee for a record 11 times, followed by the heart throb of the yesteryears, Bezon Chinoy (four); with Cooji Katrak, Dallas Todywalla and Pesi Shroff, saddling one each. In the recent past, allegations by and between Parsi trainers of doping the rival’s horse have been investigated by the civil and criminal courts as also the economic offences wing of the Bombay police. Being co-religionists has not prevented the sordidness. We do exist to be sport for our neighbors to laugh at.
Parsis have been top jockeys too. Proving the dictum that after skiing, horse racing is the most dangerous sport, Karl Umrigar, nearing the peak of his riding career, fell off his mount and had his lung punctured by another horse. He gamely battled for seven days, recovered, and then suddenly succumbed. His untimely and tragic death did not deter his cousin, Pesi Shroff, from becoming one of the country’s top jockeys and saddling eight Derby winners (a ninth win was annulled when his mount Saddle Up later tested positive). Shroff had the rare distinction of riding for virtually every leading owner including Poonawalla, Vijay Mallya and the recently deceased turf baron from Madras, Dr M. A. M. Ramaswamy. After hanging up his boots in 2004, Shroff has emerged as the champion trainer winning all the Indian and regional classics. Though a distance away from Shroff, other notable Parsi jockeys include Zervaan Suratia and Malcolm Kharadi.
The other stakeholders in this game are the bookmakers (popularly, bookies) both licensed and unlicensed, who generally manage to come on top; and the hapless punters who live their life dreaming of that elusive jackpot. There are about five Parsi bookies but an army of Parsi punters. Unlike other communities, not much social stigma is attached to race goers. The sport is a great equalizer, with noted doctors, lawyers, architects and chartered accountants happily rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi from the First Enclosure. Animated discussion starts from Saturday night when the unofficial odds are announced up to the post mortem of every race. Mahalaxmi is a dream factory. AD, a clever Parsi punter, won a couple of crores in the ’70s and lost every cent in the next two seasons. D. P. C. Kapadia, a Parsi gentleman now nearing 100, owned a horse called Pyare Mia which never won a single race in its career except the Indian Derby! Dreams are made and shattered within seconds as evidenced by a pioneer Parsi breeder, Wadia, founder of the Yerawada Stud Farm. He witnessed the rare spectacle of the Derby winner, the runner-up, the third and the fourth horse – all bred by him but his overjoyed heart brimming with pride, collapsed to death within minutes.
Parsi punters are, by and large, responsible gamblers. We know of a bachelor, S, now in his seventies, who proudly states that he has never done a decent day’s work in his lifetime but eked out a modest living from attending every single race day and generally betting on ‘Parsi’ horses (owned, trained or jockeyed by Parsis). Like our mother who always enquires whether the doctor treating her is a Parsi or not, S too first ascertains before punting whether “Parsi-no-ghoro chhè ké’ (Is it a Parsi horse)?” The traditionalist concern for genetic purity extends to equines too!
Berjis M. Desai, senior partner of J. Sagar Associates, advocates and solicitors, is a writer and community activist.