It is the only activity in the country where betting is allowed legally, but has a social stigma attached to it.The Maharaja of Mysuru played a stellar role in the promotion of the sport in Karnataka.
Horse racing in India is restricted to six States. Despite it being 200 years old, no new racing centre has been established. India’s first racecourse was reportedly set up in Madras in 1777. The activity has now developed into a well-established racing and horse breeding industry in the country.
Racing activity is restricted to nine centres in six States. Unlike any other sport which can take root within a reasonable period of time, it is difficult to establish any new racing centre in India as it needs a long tradition of following for the sport. Several attempts to start new centres or revive dormant centres like the one at Lucknow have failed.
As such racing is restricted to Bangaluru and Mysuru (Karnataka); Chennai and Udhagamandalam (Tamil Nadu); Mumbai and Pune (Maharashtra), Kolkata, Hyderabad and Delhi.
It is the only activity in the country where betting is allowed legally, but is looked down upon possibly because of the influence of our ancient epic Mahabharata where the most virtuous man was seen losing everything in a game of dice (gambling). However, the Supreme Court ruled in one of the landmark judgments that racing is not gambling but a game of skill.
Be that as it may, racing in Karnataka is more than 150 years old. It is a colonial legacy and during the British rule, they set up race courses at many places but very few survived after their exit. Even now the influence of the British can be seen in the way races are named. The most prestigious races like the Derby, the Guineas, the Oaks and the Leger are all named after major races of England. The dress code at race courses at designated places is still a lounge suit.
The Maharaja of Mysuru played a stellar role in the promotion of the sport in Karnataka.
In fact, both race courses were gifted to Bengaluru Turf Club (then known as Bengaluru Race Club) and Mysuru Race Club by the Maharaja of Mysuru who was the chief patron of racing in erstwhile Mysuru State. Under his benign blessings, racing flourished in Karnataka and continues to do so though severe crisis has affected Bengaluru Turf Club in recent years.
Land lease terminated
The Government of Karnataka terminated the land lease of Bengaluru Turf Club about five years ago and asked it to relocate to the outskirts of the city and the High Court too ruled in favour of the government. However, the club got a reprieve as the Supreme Court admitted its appeal against the High Court order. The time that it may take to resolve the legal tangle will be the lifeline of the sport as far as Bengaluru is concerned. This is because the club is in no position to acquire new land or build new infrastructure for want of huge amounts of money needed.
Mysuru Race Club, however, is on a safer wicket as the government has been largely kind and sought to give concessions to it while denying the same for Bengaluru Turf Club. Being close to political capital could have the obvious disadvantages.
History has it that racing began more than 150 years after Kempe Gowda founded Bengaluru in the 15th century. The wars interrupted racing apart from availability of Indian bred horses until the problem was resolved with the establishment of Indian breeding industry.
The Derby is the most prestigious race. The Bengaluru Derby was first run in 1962. It took sometime before Derby overshadowed the Maharaja’s Cup in Bengaluru. The Maharaja’s Cup was marked by pomp and pageantry. The Maharaja would drive from the Bengaluru Palace in an open landau drawn by four horses on a newly laid-out sand path.
The horses too were stabled at the palace and nearby areas. They would reach the race course in a procession. With the passing away of Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, the Derby became the Blue Riband event of Bengaluru races.
Derby has become a lifestyle event since the advent of sponsorship in 1988. The sponsorship also brought in glamour and glitz. Derby day is also a day to make a fashion statement for many especially women. The winner of the inaugural Derby took home Rs.25,570 while the winner these days takes home in excess of Rs 1.25 crores.
Though there were several stud farms in Karnataka, the one which is still flourishing and doing extremely well is the Kunigal Stud Farm. Originally started by Tipu Sultan, the then ruler of Mysuru, to breed horses for the army, the stud farm was under the care of Bengaluru Turf Club before it was given on lease by the government of Karnataka to businessman Vijay Mallya about 25 years ago.
Racing has flourished in Karnataka thanks mainly to the bold initiative of the government in terms of reducing the tax on club operated Totalisator pools. The government levies a turnover tax which has helped the club to operate these pools taking minimum cut as its commission. This has seen the turf club do a turnover of over Rs 1,500 crores per year.
Racing has a fairly good patronage in Karnataka with turf clubs recording higher attendance than at any other centre in India, besides the highest official recorded turnover. There is no doubt that horse racing has made the landscape in Bengaluru and Mysuru look beautiful.