March 6, 2016 dawned like any other day – a friend of mine had come to Chennai and had invited me for a special breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola. It was a dream Sunday, as a lazy breakfast in a relaxed environment was the second best thing to do on a Sunday.
I drove through the Gemini Flyover and as there was less traffic, I observed the statue of a Jockey trying to control a galloping horse… I pass through this junction everyday but had not noticed the magnificent horse. The statue had been installed in the remembrance of banning the horse racing at the Guindy Madras Race Course.
I always love to visit the Grand Chola… very few hotels in South India match its décor and ambience. I was surprised when my friend took me to one of the halls wherein a community of exclusive club members from all over India was present. My friend told me that they have come to attend the racing event. I looked at him with a blank expression – “Do racing events happen in Chennai?” He corrected my ignorance, and told me it does. He also mentioned that the Invitation Cup was happening in Chennai after 11 years.
My friend became my tutor and gave me inputs about the race clubs in India. There are about seven race clubs in India and amidst them the Turf Club reigned high with a turnover of Rs. 1700 crore. The rest of the clubs put together will not be equal to the revenue earned by the Turf Club.
My friend also revealed that he was part of one of the elite clubs and the co-owner of a horse. His horse had been invited to the race due to its performance record. My excitement and curiosity knew no bounds. With a childlike enthusiasm I asked him if I could watch the race. He immediately gave me a VIP gate pass! I looked around the breakfast hall and felt that each one there was a proud owner of a winning horse! In a while, I too felt like one of them. My curiosity made me ask questions pertaining to the attire of the club members, the timing of the races, and how does one get to own a horse!!! The questions were continuous and the information I gathered was very interesting…
I started admiring my friend’s attire… the Mont Blanc Glass, the special blazer, tie… I felt inadequate in my linen shirt, trousers and black shoes. He told me it was fine as I was visitor. The races were to begin at 1 pm and I felt I will not miss this opportunity of seeing another world altogether. I shared the disappointment of my friend when the news came in… news that his horse will not be participating in the race due to the swelling in his leg. I was not sure if my friend would be going to the race now, but as he had nothing else planned, he decided to indulge and educate me.
Finally, it was 1 pm. We parked our cars and went into the race course. This was a part of Chennai and a part of the world I was just not aware of. Crowds surging in – there were all types – some in their Cadillac’s and some in their cycles… some flashing VIP passes and some showing their tickets. I got into the VIP area and got introduced to some of the owners – my friend called them the ultra-rich. I always thought my friend was several notches above my social status and here he was, describing people as ultra-rich and talking about their pedigree. I understood that here was a set of people whom we will never know as they were not interested in media or showing off their status – their identity was the horses, the clubs and their elite group – the place had an aura that was definitely a class apart.
I just gobbled a few mouthfuls of the delicacies served for lunch as the new world opened up to me. I saw a tent wherein some elderly gentlemen were dressed like Maharajas… and were sitting royally. The horses were led to the tent and did a ramp walk (here the walk was magnificent) – this was a custom and called the Pallad. I enquired and found that the gentlemen were office bearers and special guests.
I joined my friend and went into the five storey stadium which was restricted to general public. The fourth and the fifth floor was filled with VVIPs, owners, and committee members. I saw many famous faces from Chennai and other parts of the country. It was indeed a different world altogether!!!
The races began!!! The display was on the ODDs. The preparation time before the race was much more than the actual racing time. We had a place to sit and watch the finishing line. There were groups of people sitting in the AC rooms in their round tables and networking – very comfortable with each other. They could watch the race on the big screen, listen to the commentary, and enjoy the snacks/tea/coffee served by the hostesses.
I was surprised and astonished to note that none of the owners were into serious betting. They were more interested in seeing their horse win. That is the master game for them, not the smaller bets. But no one seemed to be bothered about losing. My imagination from the movies wherein the crowd shouts, “come on come on” was not happening here. There were some new comers and guests like me – who were excited. The bets that were placed were small. I too placed a small bet of Rs.50 and got back Rs. 80/-
The grand event was the Invitation Cup, and all of us were waiting for that to begin. The prize money for the cup was a whopping Rs. 1 crore. I peeped at the other side of the stadium wherein there were so many of the common men standing and screaming and making noises for every possible mishap that the horse they bet on did. The atmosphere on the other side was so charged up. I realized that the common man pledges his daily earnings and small wages and looks eagerly to see if he could double it. Many a time, they go back empty handed, but come back with more dreams.
The Invitation Cup race began, and it was a photo finish. The best part was that the favorite did not win the race. It was a 3000 meters’ run and the whole atmosphere was charged with so much of energy… I could feel it!!!
It was with the same energy that I dropped my friend back in the airport. I was happy to have had a glimpse of a new world and having understood something about the business of horse racing. When I saw the masses walking out of the race course, I understood that these people are the ones who place the bets, and not the horse owners. The owners are there for the pride of the Cup and the prize money, of course.
As I drove back from the airport, my thoughts went back to the statue I saw at Gemini flyover. Why did they ban horse racing…. The race helped the super-rich to become richer and this was through crowd sourcing by the ultra-poor, poor and the middle class masses. It was yet another business venture. Crowd sourcing of wealth through an instrument called horse racing…
That Sunday was indeed a galloping experience, and I was privy to a new world altogether!!!