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By Major Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)
Tuesday 12 Feb 2013
Major Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)

There is a saying -- "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". For fifty years, the Indian Turf Invitation Cup withstood minor hiccups and was contested every year on the same terms and conditions. This year, the race has been opened to older horses. It is a fact of life that nothing remains constant and that evolution is a process of progress. W.G. Grace, Lord Harris and other cricketing greats of yesteryears would be aghast at the 'pyjama' version of the game. Grand Prix de Paris and Prix du Jockey Club are run at reduced distances; the Irish have opened the St. Leger to older horses and if you go to the Epsom Downs on the first Wedneday  of June (as you would have some years ago) to see the Derby, you would be disappointed because it may have already been run (nowadays it is on the first Saturday in June) as happened in 2007 when Authorized won.

"Moving with the times" is how the changes are explained and justified. "A re-run of the Indian Derby" was how the Invitation Cup was being labelled. That, of course, is not true historically. Seven of the Indian Derby winners did not participate in the Invitation Cup. In the remaining 43 runnings, 24 Derby winners failed to confirm their superiority. On the other hand, a dozen horses who had not run in the Derby for one reason or the other, won the Invitation Cup to lay their claim of being the best of the crop. So the "re-run" plea is not a very strong one.

It is also a fact that the older horses get a short thrift on our racing programme. R.W.I.T.C., Ltd. is an exception as that Turf Authority caters more than adequately for older horses in the prospectus whether at Mumbai or Pune. R.C.T.C. runs the Calcutta Gold Cup over a mile, the Indian Champion Cup over 2000 m. and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup over 2800 m. But there are no worthwhile races for older horses in the prospectii at Bangalore and Hyderbad during the winter season. Chennai is not being spoken of; for, though the M.R.C. continues to be a Turf Authority, it has not staged the Invitation races for some time now and nor have the Guindy-based horses participated in them. Thus, we had five Gr.1 races for the Classic crop over 2400 m. and only one, the President of India Gold Cup, for older horses.

To change or not to change was the question and much could have been said on behalf of both the sides. In "moving with the times", the Turf Authorities dumped the traditionalists but still showed themselves as being ultra-conservatives. They had a glorious opportunity to show that they were indeed living in the 21st century and had the mindsets to go with it. They could easily have opened the race not only to older horses but also to foreign-breds. They could still have been cautious and 'invited'  about half a dozen horses rated between 95 and 105 to ensure a fair contest.

Of course, it was never going to happen. The strong breeders' lobby would have seen to it that it did not happen. Survival is the basic instinct of every species and our breeders are aware that their numbers would dwindle as rapidly as the tiger population if foreign-breds exposed the level of our breeding and racing. Had it somehow come about, it would have provided a much needed yardstick to measure the class of the Indian-bred. In the long term, it would have served as a catalyst to improve our breeding standards. In the short term, it would have spared the countless fans of In The Spotlight from going into depression after her Dubai runs.

There are two other aspects about the 'open' Invitation Cup which warrant a comment. Firstly, it is likely to eat into field of the Stayers' Cup. (It is reliably understood that when the change was proposed, the proposal also included scrapping of the Stayers' Cup).Connections of the gallant Native Knight would justifiably be tempted to run him in the Invitation Cup rather than try winning back-to-back Stayers' Cups. To some extent, this may be offset by more four year-olds running in the Stayers' Cup.

Having made the change, the individual Turf Authorities, as a whole, have failed to provide a pragmatic racing programme for the older horses to prepare themselves for the 'open' Invitation Cup. The Eclipse Stakes of India happens to fall in a convenient slot and is preceded by the A.C. Ardeshir Trophy and the Maharaja Jiwajirao Scindia Trophy. Had R.W.I.T.C., Ltd. been aware of the need to provide a proper  series of races, the Jiwajirao could have been run a bit later in mid-January. A "Trial" is usually over a distance shorter than the ultimate race so the Queen Elizabeth II Cup is not an ideal "prep" for the Invitation Cup. The basis on which H.R.C. is going to nominate their older representatives for the Invitation Cup is unclear because a race over the right distance and at the right time cannot be spotted in their prospectii.

One other question which springs to mind is how many older horses currently in training have the form and the pedigree to challenge younger horses. From last year's Classic crop, just two. In The Spotlight (now in Dubai) and Toroloco. (Dandified may run in the Super Mile; if he opts for the Invitation Cup, his suspect stamina may let him down). From older generations, one. Native Knight. Onasis and Ocean and Beyond will probably run and run honest races. It is worth remembering that Onassis has never won beyond 2000 m. so far in his career and while Ocean and Beyond has, it was in the shallows of Calcutta racing. 

It is a fact that the Classic generation withers away fast. It is fascinating to have a quick look at the last five Invitation Cups. Assume that they were open to older horses. Now look at the field for the Stayers' Cup because it is from there that the older challengers would come:-

2012 - IN THE SPOTLIGHT  (Native Knight, Allez Vite, Arabian Prince, Camorra, Ordained One, Malabar Prince, Nearness of You, Macchupicchu, Don Valentino)

2011 - MOONLIGHT ROMANCE (Arabian Prince, Cabriolet, Vijay's Angel, Native Knight, Spark of Gold, Autonomy, Spearhead, Clever Ploy)

2010 - BECKET (Maseeha, Conceptual, Orochi, Spark of Gold, Cavaradosi)

2009 - AUTONOMY (Yana, Angelique, Orochi, Nitrous, Noble Prince, Maximise, Arabian Knight)

2008 - SWEEPING SUCCESS (Maximise, Aquilo, Silver Tern, Gentleman's Deal, Silver Bullet, Arturo, Evanston, Secret Memory)

It is not easy to go back in time. On the face of it, Moonlight Romance vs Autonomy looks a cracking contest; the truth is that the previous run of the older horse was far from encouraging. Similarly, Autonomy-Yana duel had much to offer; except that as they ran in the same colours, the owner may not have wanted them to clash against each other. You have the horses if front of you and you can decide whether an 'open' Invitation Cup in those five years would have added to the competitiveness and excitement.

The unique layout of the Calcutta track means that runners in a 2400 m. race travel a good 700 m. before coming to the first bend. At all other courses in India, the first bend comes much sooner. So if there is good pace at the helm, the field gets strung out along the Kidderpore straight itself. From the mile marker to the 400 m. post, the track is turning. A handy position entering the short, final run-in is hence very important.


To end, the usual trivia:-

       *   The Invitation Cup has been run at Calcutta nine times and the winners are:-

           1964 - Hovercraft

           1967 - Prince Regent

           1971 - Bright Hanovar

           1975 - Midnight Cowboy

           1980 - Everynsky

           1985 - Revelation

           1990 - Desert Warrior

           1995 - Elusive Pimpernel

           2007 - Southern Empire

       *   The first four winners had run their previous race at Hastings while the next five came to Calcutta after participating in the Indian Derby at Mahalakshmi. Believe it or not, Hovercraft and Bright Hanovar had run in a 1200 m. race before the Invitation Cup.

       *   No Calcutta-based horse has won since Midnight Cowboy in 1975.

       *   Barring Pyare Miya, the Indian Derby winner has never been out of the first three at Calcutta.

       *   Only one favourite won in the first five runnings but the public fancies have won the last four renewals.

      *    In winning her race, Hovercraft established new race record while Elusive Pimpernel and Southern Empire broke the existing track record.