The Royal Calcutta Turf Club's Stewards and officials were famous for their administrative and supervisory skills. They controlled racing at several cities in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar from the 1800's till the 1950's. With its internationally popular sweep augmenting finances, the club maintained high standards and owned properties in India and England.
It held its races at Hastings and administered everything from its stately office premises at 11, Russell Street. Following an attempt to convert these premises into a private club with a swimming pool, restaurant and what not, the offices were shifted to Hastings a year ago.
Certain controversial events had by then pushed the once prosperous club to a financial crisis.
The club had appeared incapable of hosting the Invitation Cup weekend this month after already passing over its original turn. Finances were ultimately wrung out of an old deal that had run into rough weather and other clubs postponed the collection of their inter-venue betting royalties. Though some work on the Invitation Cup weekend was begun last year, things became serious only in January this year.
An Invitation Cup cell was formed with Secretary Boman Parakh and senior executives Aspee Pestonjee, Sudesh Sahu and Kanchan Jana as members.
They and other staffers missed holidays, postponed medical treatment for their parents and avoided the task of helping their children with examinations for two months to organise the event.
This involved looking up files on previous Invitation Cup arrangements, booking accommodation and transport for delegates from other clubs, inviting government, police and defence officers, arranging passes for all the delegates, invitees and their friends, confirming agendas of various meetings, fixing menus with chefs and checking weather records.
Freelance writer Mukundan S. Chettiyappa travelled from Tiruppur to Kolkata for the Invitation Cup and to collect material for the Hyderabad Race Club's library and museum. Here are excerpts from his diary;
March 6, 2007.
The Royal Calcutta Turf Club's offices in the old Tote buildings at Hastings have a contemporary, functional look. But the odd photograph or piece of furniture from a bygone era revives memories of the ambience that prevailed at Russell Street.
In a reminder of the past, Aspee Pestonjee doesn't react when I knock down a cup of coffee on his desk in the Invitation Cup cell. My faux pas is the result of a hasty attempt to get behind the desk for photographing members of the cell gathered before a large white board. This board lists several tasks under headlines like 'Letters,' 'Press conference' and 'Agendas.
The cell's agenda for the moment is to cope with two delegates. One had changed the flight for his arrival. The other has changed his entire itinerary for the fifth time.
The Grand Stand was built in 1905-07 and the Reserve Stand in 1920. It is evening when Sudesh Sahu takes a much-needed break from his work in the cell to show me around these stands.
He also introduces me to the backroom boys - public address system, TV and Tote personnel - as workers move around completing repairs.
March 7, 2007.
The Statesman has always covered racing extensively. Its racing correspondent Gautam Banerjea had produced a special supplement for the Invitation Cup one year. This had comprised of the sports pages published on February 18, 1961 when Queen Elizabeth visited Hastings, on March 7, 1964 when Prince Pradeep was fancied for the first Invitation Cup was held at Kolkata and so on.
Convinced that the Hyderabad Race Club's library and museum must have a collection of such pages, I meet Sisir Dey in the newspaper's archives. He takes me to the stack room which maintains issues dating from 1875. Issues from 1952 have been copied on to CDs. Dey and his colleagues are willing to provide print outs according to specified dates.
Associate Editor Michael Flannery, Deputy Art Director Sukomal Basak and Assistant Editor J.
W. Lama then hustle me off to a bar called "Chota Bristol." Putting away a bottle of beer and umpteen little plates of ground nuts, Cheeselings, boiled peas and alu chaat , I learn that this triumvirate was involved with JS. This magazine had served the youth of the 1970's, featuring the adventures of its editor Desmond Doig, the groups that came up after The Beatles and a new garment called "jeans."
Promptly at 5.
00 p.m. a puja is done to the pictures of Kali, Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda in an altar behind the bar counter. Barmen, waiters and other staff line up at the counter to pray with enough piety to shame devotees in an actual temple. Patrons join in too, rising up reverentially between sips.
Gautam rings up. He is one of the few correspondents keen on writing a preview of the Invitation Cup and wants to confirm the names of winners at Kolkata. Both of us go over the list - Hovercraft, Prince Regent, Bright Hanover, Midnight Cowboy, Everynsky, Revelation, Desert Warrior and Elusive Pimpernel.
As I head towards my room at night, I know that it would take me sometime to get over the heady mix of beer, puja, JS reminiscences and Invitation Cup winners.
March 8, 2007.
There is a special feeling of eagerness at track work before an Invitation Cup. You meet racing folk from all over the country keen on finding out how every contender had travelled, eaten, slept and worked, who will ride who and the current odds. The aura of the past can be particularly overwhelming at Hastings when you realise that many famous horses, owners, trainers and jockeys of old have trod on the turf here - Dark Legend, Lord William de la Poer Beresford, Jimmy Robinson and Harry Carr.
But there is no scope for nostalgia today. The number of acceptors for the two most important days of Indian racing is pathetic.
Except for a few outstation professionals and the locals, there is no one to swap stories with and sense the Invitation Cup fervour growing. I leave immediately after photographing the main race's runners.
Dr. Veerendra Kaja, the handicapper and official in charge of the library and museum at Hyderabad , arrives a day before other delegates do. Our aim is to ferret out what a city with a racing past going back to 1769 can offer for our project.
We begin with R.C.T.C's collection of books.
Going through the chapters on India in that old tome Racing At Home and Abroad, we come across various notes pencilled on the pages.
It seems safe to assume that they were made by W.G.C. Frith when he was working on his classical history of the R.C.
We are told that scanned copies of these pages, those from other books and photos can be made for the library. Considering the total number of books, photo albums and racing calendars available, we realise that this is a massive task in the offing.
Prospects appear equally daunting at The Statesman where 132 years of racing coverage lie waiting.
Veerendra and I settle now for copies of the sports pages produced on March 3, 1963 and September 10, 1978. They deal with Mount Everest's chances in the first ever Invitation Cup and Manitou's invincibility in the first Invitation Cup held at Hyderabad .
P.C. Lall, the ailing R.
C.T.C Senior Steward, attends the Invitation Cup press conference in the evening. Cyrus Madan sees the event through, as usual, and the professionals answer questions with practiced ease. Veerendra and I appeal for support to get the library and museum going.
March 9, 2007.
The car allotted to Bangalore Turf Club Secretary Nirmal Prasad meets with an accident. Mrs. Nirmal Prasad escapes with minor injuries. People say that the car had dashed against a bus and a crowd had mobbed the driver.
The Invitation Cup cell arranges another car and driver for the Nirmal Prasads.
Seven years ago officials who manned the R.C.T.C's Invitation Cup cell dealt with a car accident that had a more agreeable outcome.
One of the delegates insisted on having the latest Mercedes Benz at his disposal in Kolkata and the officials found him one with great difficulty.
But this car was involved in an accident exactly the day before the delegate was due to arrive. The cancellation of the Invitation Cup saved the day for the officials as the delegate postponed his trip!
March 10, 2007.
Haunting Memories holds off Dynasty by two lengths in the Nanoli Stud Sprinters' Cup in spite of drifting out. Though I am unable to figure out why this happened, I can't help thinking whether Harvey Roulston would have approved of the extra effort involved.
Senior jockeys used to dodge about in races at Kolkata and this Australian Stipendiary Steward got them to maintain straight courses during his tenure in the early 1900's.
Aperitivo makes reviewing easier for newsmen by coming home four lengths ahead of Gentlemans Deal in the Olympia Technology Park Stayers' Cup. This helps Vijay Singh emulate his father M. Jagdish in notching up two winners of the race. The only difference, of course, is that Vijay has trained his winners while Jagdish has ridden his.
Bloodstock agent Anil Mukhi is covering the Invitation Cup weekend for The Hindu and I wait in his room at the Sonar Bangla hotel in the evening as he e-mails the day's report and the Invitation Cup preview. It strikes us that Diabolical's Indian Derby win has made the Invitation Cup a little interesting. If Southern Empire had won the Derby , the Invitation Cup would have become a foregone conclusion.
Anil and I arrive early at the open-air racing awards venue in the hotel with other friends and it soon begins to rain. Since it had not rained during this month for years, no one had believed the weatherman today.
But, as Cyrus Madan quips, the weatherman got it right for once.
Preparations begin to have the ceremony in a banquet hall and a bar is set up temporarily nearby. Deepinder Kaur Mahtab, whose royal house has been closely associated with Kolkata's racing for long, joins the waiters, Kanchan Jana and other R.C.T.
C officials in serving the crowd. Numbers swell to 1,400 as the night progresses and I leave before the actual ceremony begins as it has become too late for me.
March 11, 2007.
Southern Empire's sizzling run helps him and Smart Chieftan become the first full brothers to win the Invitation Cup. The Poonawalla family owe a lot to the geldings' tail female line as it has produced several champions for them.
This line goes back to Aileen. She was a hurdler and was bought for Lord Derby's studs to introduce toughness into their lines. Some of Southern Empire's siblings are regarded as "soft" and this seems worth investigating.
Another factor worth checking out is the unimpressive turnout at the race course during the weekend. Having seen huge crowds thronging the stands and the infield in Viceroy's Cup photographs of the last century, I am tempted to ask the R.
C.T.C secretary for the day's figures. But Gautam tells me not to embarrass him by asking how many paid to get in!
The knowledgeable few who attended want an enquiry to be held on Diabolical's performance. They would not have complained if the Indian Derby winner had finished within two or three lengths of his stablemate.
As he had finished a distance behind, they wanted the reversal of form to be questioned.
March 12, 2007.
M.K. Jadhav and his assistant are leaving for the race course early in the morning when I meet them on Sudder Street .
Speaking near a board that says Rabindranath Tagore had once lived there, the trainer offers a file on the Thumbelina case to the Hyderabad library. This case made news in the 1990's as it dealt with a banned substance.
I wish Jadhav would be equally generous for material from his father's days. The senior Jadhav had trained for Sir Victor Sassoon, F.D.
Wadia, M.P. Davis and the Maharaja of Gwalior. He had also shaped the careers of trainers and jockeys like Maj. V.
M. Lad, Bal Lagad, D. Adenwalla, Pandu Khade and Shammu Chavan.
Later in the morning I visit Fonn & Company, publishers of the All India Racing Record from 1916. Staffers form a chain to remove old issues from a shelf above their printing machinery for presenting them to the library.
Two generations of Neogys, the proprietors, add old official race books, calendars, a book on pedigrees of horses imported long ago, and a book on the Tollygunge Club's history to the list. The last book has a value of its own since it covers well organised amateur racing.
The Neogys are willing to let me copy photographs from their collection. One of these is of Orange William who won the Viceroy's Cup in 1923, 1924 and 1925. The other is of Fair Haven who won the Calcutta Derby in 1968 with Lester Piggott up.
March 13, 2007.
My sojourn in Kolkata is nearing its end. I therefore visit 11 Russell Street . This is where several race courses once reported to, top professionals got their licences from and strong links were forged with international bodies.
Though the Tote building there is functioning, the staff quarters and the buildings have been demolished.
The main office building remains. It is empty, gates are shut and the plaster has been removed off some walls. The garden around is unkempt and a rubbish cart stands by the drive.
Arthur Fawcett, the R.C.
T.C secretary known for his courtesy and style, was responsible for the acquisition of these premises in 1919-20. He had earlier evolved the classification system for handicapping which lasted in India for decades.
T.C's office in London and subsidiary club in Newmarket were opened on his initiative. Fawcett finished up as senior handicapper to the Jockey Club of England.
Stipendiary steward Jack Higgins laid down the criteria when the Jockey Club sought advice from R.C.
T.C on appointing professionals to supervise racing in England . Howard Braham, another stipendiary steward, is still held in awe by the Indian officials he trained.
I pay a silent homage to all these men who shaped Indian racing from here and leave as quickly as possible.