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Crying Hoarse In The Racing Season - By Ravi Rao

Posted on - 16 Nov 2011

Crying Hoarse In The Racing Season

By Ravi Rao 
Much has been written recently about F1, its fast tracks and its winning formula. But personally, my favourite sport remains horse-racing. Forget the gambling (though I admit a little flutter is thrilling; a heavy bet is often ruinous), the unbeatable combination of man and beast, the sudden surge in a stallion's speed, the dereservation of a filly's stamina, the skill of a jockey with his rump high in the air, the art of handicapping, the passion of the owners and trainers, the feeling of unity among the punters who are all trying to beat the odds, the great outdoors—these make a day at the races an inexpensive (provided you restrict your bets to small amounts on the Tote) and extremely satisfying experience.
I have fonder memories of fillies like Star Fire Girl, Ministrella, Littleover and Jacqueline than I have of girlfriends in my youth!
Why am I plugging the races? Because the Mumbai season starts this Sunday. I have culled some of my articles that have appeared in print previously to give you an idea of what is in store.
Mahalaxmi beckons. Not the goddess ensconced on an outcrop overlooking the Arabian Sea, but her more down-to-earth manifestation a few hundred metres away—the racecourse.
As October's boiler-room gives way to November's more dignified clime, hundreds can be spotted making their way with single-minded determination to that brown-green pendant in the heart of the city.
They come by car, they come by train. They bus it down, they walk it up. They come from all classes—the white collared, the blue-collared and the collar-less. They come with hope (and not a little greed) and money to burn—hard-earned, inherited or ill-gotten, it doesn't matter.
Lottery may be dead, matka may have been pushed back deep into its hole in the wall, card clubs may have folded up, cricket betting may be fraught with risk of default, but horse-racing continues to rule.
Few pilgrims to Mahalaxmi know or care that the sprawling 215-acre racecourse is situated on reclaimed land. Or that it was built with the largesse of industrialist and horse-lover C N Wadia in the early twentieth century. Flanked by the sweep of Annie Besant Road to the west and the arterial Dr E Moses Road to the north east, the Mahalaxmi racecourse is where all the action is from early November to late April.
As the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) kickstarts the current season, bittersweet memories come racing to mind. Of a daze of wins and wonder, of days of pain and penury. Favourite recollections include that fine Sunday in February 1994, when little by little, one was won over for life.
She winked at me, she did. I had seen nothing like it. As she paraded in the paddock, her left eyelid dropped ever so languidly, and I dare say suggestively, and then she was past me. If I was looking for a heaven-sent sign, this was it. In the wink of an eye, my mind had been made up. Littleover it had to be.
It was Derby day. Mellow afternoon, charged atmosphere, people streaming in. Knowing looks, innocent hunches. Smart punters hedging bets. Smarter bookies lowering odds. Green turf, grey droppings. The colour of money, the scent of excitement. Everywhere. Serene swishes of equine tails. Vigorous nods of human heads. Frenzied commentary, raucous crowds. Slow horses, racing pulses. Money in hand, hearts in mouth.
3.45pm. Time yet for the big race. Time for a chilled beer. But there's been a run on the bar—by sweat-stained beer guzzlers. Trust good old John to oblige a regular. Even with his hands full serving billed cheer, he manages a smile and a Kingfisher. "Only for you, sir. Most chilling." Thrilled, I say.
Elsewhere, things are hotting up. The Lady in Red has come in for much critical attention. In the heat of the moment, she apparently let her slip show. Having placed my bets, I have a hard time convincing my friend, a debutant race-goer, to put his money where my mouth is. Oh well, some people will swallow a horse but strain at a horse-fly.
By now the Starter's up on his platform. Generous Patron, Reason to Smile, Maximillion, Icarus, Littleover....the 13 horses are going into their starting stalls. The line is set and they are off and racing.
As the horses turn the final corner and enter the straight, the crowd goes round the bend. The din is incredible. The commentator's voice is drowned out. There is wild cheering and jeering as the horses cross the finishing post. No one is sure who won, but everyone looks like they are having fun.
Meanwhile, I'm pummelling my pal. "Didn't I tell you Littleover would win? She winked at me?" I duck a punch just in time. Talk of doing others favours.

Yes, that there is Pesi Shroff. Grinning, winning Pesi. Ahead of the sweating, sulking losers. Red roses and wah-wahs for the winner. Purple prose for the also-rans, their jockeys and their mai-baap.
The cacophony has subsided. As Littleover begins her regal walk back to her stable, she tosses me a backward look. And winks. This time neither the sun nor the beer's had me. I wink back. And blow her a kiss for good measure.
Mahalaxmi beckons? Nah, she summons. And who am I, a mere mortal, to say neigh?

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