By Mahendra Mallya
Friday 20 Sep 2013
Jockey Imran Chisty

It is not a game of numbers. The purists always say - “It is not how many but how, that counts.” Nevertheless, when a magic figure like a ‘thousand winners’ is accomplished – painstakingly added – one by one, day after day, year after year, the achiever commands respect and adulation. Jockey Imran Chisty comes from a humble background. None from his family ever visited the racecourse nor did they ever think of doing so. A chance conversation with a jockey relating the thrill of winning races caught his fancy at an impressionable age and that changed his world. Determined to pursue the high risk profession, Chisty had to overcome objections from his family at the outset. Once he got the go, a new struggle began. There was no turning back, “I couldn’t return without success,” felt Chisty.  After joining the elite band of the ‘1000 plus’ list, Imran Chisty looks back on life after 1000, in an exclusive interview with indiarace.com.

Indiarace.com: At the outset, hearty congratulation from the indiarace team on your landmark 1000 victories. This is an admirable achievement, How do you react to such a huge success?

Imran Chisty: Thank you very much. I did not reckon I would come this far when I started. Lads Gladiator got me this major landmark. It feels very satisfying and looking back, a sense of pride as well. I owe it to the owners, trainers, the riding boys and the stable hands too, who have all contributed to make this possible. I owe it to the racing patrons as well. The reception from them as we jockeys return through the ‘aisle’ is so encouraging. I am grateful to the Almighty as well and also a big thanks to my family for standing firmly behind me as my source of strength.

Indiarace: Every tale of success has a beginning. Tell us yours.

Imran Chisty: Mine was an introduction by inspiration. Hanut Singh was a jockey of repute in western India. He was known to my brother and me. He used to tell us about the thrill of the sport and he cited many incidents that inspired me. Seeing my keenness, he suggested I come to the races and I was fascinated when I saw some real pulsating finishes. My passion for horses and their speed & power amazed me. My senses were numbed comprehending the sheer glory of winning a hard-fought race. I guess at that young age, the glamour of racing was too great not to be hooked on to horses. Hanut Singh instilled the passion of riding in me. I was overawed and fell in love with horses instantly. I was fantasizing about pushing the magnificent athletes to pounding victories that very night and that gave me a high. It didn’t take too long for me to pursue a career as a jockey.

IR: When did you get your first leg-up?

Chisty: Professionally, I had to wait a while. However, I picked up the A..B..C.. of riding at the Army riding school at Pune. After a three-month stint I started to ride work. I was assigned horses to trot and then graduated to slow canter. Hanut Singh ensured that I learned the hard way. I want to share this with you.

There was this nervous type of a horse at trainer Kasbekar’s yard. Hanut suggested I sit on it for a slow canter. I was cantering at an easy pace, unaware that Hanut was following me. As he came close behind, Hanut shouted loudly and my horse suddenly bucked. I was caught unawares too and I fell off the horse. It was not a serious fall, but it was certainly clumsy of me. They all had a good laugh; this used to happen quite often and I didn’t disappoint them in providing fodder for fun at my cost. However, not too many days later when Hanut did that again I stayed put on the horse and was in complete control. I think that was the moment of a little triumph for me and did my confidence good. Although that’s not the best way to learn the ropes, I take that as a first upward learning curve. I was around 14 at that time.

IR: How did your family react to your chosen profession?

Chisty: Well, I am the youngest of five siblings. Naturally, they were extra protective of me and they were weary of the risk involved in this profession. I met with stiff resistance. None from my family was into racing or even knew much about the sport. I was given an ultimatum of being thrown out of the house. It took a lot of convincing for them to finally accept my decision. Even today my mother has made it mandatory for me to speak to her every day no matter where I am. I know this is to ensure that I am safe. The fear still lurks in her. I very well understand her feelings and comply with her diktat.

IR: Your first win certainly ought to be memorable.

Chisty: On the contrary, my first loss is even more memorable and humorous too. I got my license at Chennai. One day, I was assigned a potential winner to ride. My trainer David told me that if I did things right, I had a winner waiting. I travelled well and was approaching the winning post to score my maiden win. Then suddenly I heard a deafening cry - “Jai Bajrangabali” from close behind.

This shook me, I turned around instantly on impulse, and that was a fatal folly. The photo- verdict went against me due to that silly move. My trainer David Tyrell was aghast as to why I had turned back during such an engaging finish. I told him that I was unnerved with the loud scream of the winning jockey and that I thought it was a scream in distress.  David rushed to collar the jockey. The Jockey was Ravinder Singh. Poor chap had this habit of shouting as he neared the winning post. Not intentionally, many jockeys do so. But for me it was a first experience. David too took it in his strides. Ravinder apologized to me later and we have remained good friends ever since.

IR: Did you have to wait long then, to secure your first win?

Chisty: Fortunately my first win came soon after this incident. I partnered David’s Platonic to victory to score my first win. I was a lot more focused after that ‘scream- incident’ and I didn’t allow any room for distraction. I had concentrated so hard that I didn’t even realize I had scored just my life’s first win. Consequently, I had failed to savor that sublime moment on the post!

On the way to the winner’s enclosure and to the jockey’s room, I received number of pats on the back and congratulatory wishes. The jockey room reception was most noisy. That’s when it all sank in. I was elated no end. I called up my mother and she was thrilled too, showering her blessing. The pride she felt was the best reward for me.

IR: Was it smooth sailing from then on?

Chisty: Far from it. This is a field of hitting the bulls-eye each time. A lot is at stake and choosing an appropriate jockey is also vital for the connections. New comers, better be prepared for the long haul. I really had to be on the move and that’s never easy. I languished between Mumbai and Pune without much success. I also went to meet Late Mrs Tehmi Shroff, Pesi’s mother. She was a lady who had guided and mentored several aspiring jockeys. Her words of wisdom in advising me did help me take some tricky decisions.

IR: How did the winning ways start?

Chisty:  It was in Mysore that my career took some shape. I owe that to trainer Arjun Mangalorkar. He gave me my first big break and fortunately we picked up a few races. My winning form encouraged him to persuade his father, Mr MB Mangalorkar, to give me important rides. I got a call from Arjun informing me that I would be riding his father’s ward in Bangalore. Now Arjun is known for practical jokes and I thought he was pulling my leg. It was only after I saw my name in the declaration that I packed my bags and rushed to Bangalore. I won that race and from then onwards my career graph began an upward swing. I became the apprentice champion that very season. Hard work pays, I want to tell those aspiring youngsters to be determined and never get disillusioned. Luck could be lurking just around the corner.

IR: How did your major victories come about?

Chisty: My first Classic victory was in the Bangalore 1000 Guineas. This was in 2004 and in Dr MAM Ramaswamy’s silks for trainer S Ganapathy. Jockey B Prakash was astride the favourite and that took the pressure off me. I was told to sit in a comfortable position and do my best in the straight. I was third or fourth near the bend and in the straight Prakash had gone into the lead. My filly Forever Elegance, started to respond well and I won the race comfortably.

This was another turning point for me. Boss (Dr MAM) gave me more opportunities and I won a few Classics for him in Kolkata and also won him the Delhi Derby. I am thankful to boss for this, as it enhanced my confidence levels. Confidence is the key in any sport. That stint, I feel, improved my skill to a large extent and I began riding a lot more competitively. However, my feet are grounded and there is so much more to learn.   

IR: Did you ever idolize any senior jockey during your early days?

Chisty: Everyone does and I am no different. I had no particular favourites per say, but I was impressed with most of the top jockeys like Aslam Kadar, V Shinde, Pesi Shroff. They were all stalwarts. I have spoken to them often, I still do, and their tips on riding have been immensely helpful. Aslam Kadar sir is active in Bangalore in training new riders. I go to him frequently even now to seek advice and to correct my flaws. Small adjustments and minor things that I don’t see do not escape Aslam sir. He brings all this to my notice. I am amazed at his sharp eye to catch the minutest of things. He is word class. I am grateful to him too for taking out time selflessly and helping me along the way.

IR: What has been the most disappointing moment in your career?

Chisty: Look, winning and losing is part of the game. I am not too affected by them. I accept the highs knowing that the lows can follow. We jockeys fight hard on the track and that’s where the fight ends. What happens on the track remains on the track. However, my most hurtful moment is when a jockey sustains a fall. I have been witness to the fatal fall that my apprentice batch-mate Cariappa suffered. He fell right in front of me. My heart skipped a beat seeing him fall. Those are the moments that are deeply disappointing and unbearably hurtful.

IR: That’s terrifying. Have you ever had a major fall?

Chisty: I had a fall in 2001. My collar bone and spinal cord bore the brunt. I was confined to bed for six months. My family, who from the beginning feared such an accident, did everything possible in helping me recover. Their love, support, and constant nursing ensured that I was back on the track. I took me a whole year to ride again. This time they encouraged me and instilled the confidence one needs for making that crucial comeback. I later rode for Mr Deepak Khaitan in Kolkata and won handsomely. That was enough to put the past behind and ride full-on again.

IR: You are in your thirties now, what is the future plan?

Chisty: Hey, it’s too early to think of retirement now, if that’s what you are hinting at. There is so much more to achieve. Every jockey dreams about winning the Indian Derby. I am one among them. Then a championship in Mumbai is on the ‘to do’ list. I am going to work hard to realize these goals. They are gigantic tasks but then winning 1000 races was as farfetched when I started. Nothing is impossible. You have to possess the burning desire in you. The 1000th win has just ignited that fire in me. I am prepared for more hard work to go the distance. When I retire, I want to go on a high note. I’d hate to fade away.

IR: That would require high fitness and constant weight watching. Is it difficult to maintain your riding weight?

Chisty:  I am one among the fortunate ones when it comes to body weight. I know many jockeys have to work hard and watch what’s on their plates. My system is friendlier. I eat what I like, although I don’t binge. Maintaining the right weight has never been a task. As for fitness, I can hit the gym.

IR: What attributes do you think makes for a skillful jockey?

Chisty: The horse is the real star in most cases. However, how you handle your mount in the longer trips perhaps is a test for the jockey’s skills. In a sprint, it’s all horse power and all one needs to do is to be alert at the gates and then provide your mount the best chance ensuring a clear run. However, over the trip, one has to have a good sense of pace. To understand when to go easy and provide the breather and saving the best for the last, they all count. Judging the pace and saving the horse for the final turn of foot is where the jockey’s skills come into play.

IR: What is your take on the whipping restrictions?1000th Winner Lads Gladiator Imran Chisty

Chisty: This is a tricky call. I understand the reasons for such a rule; anything that is out of concern for the horses is totally acceptable to me. I love horses as much as anyone does. However, one must understand that no jockey is whip-happy. Whipping a horse can be for correcting him; or to ensure he doesn’t drift away. Sometimes even to awaken him if sluggish at the start. In a fight for the finish though, one is completely focused on winning, so how can a jockey be expected to do the count? There is so much at stake, particularly in the classics and other major races. In racing, it’s the ‘winner-takes-all’ kind of a proposition. You have to drive the horse all the way. Whipping is an art too and contributes amply towards the end result.

Having said that, I feel penalties for excessive whipping should be on merits of the race in question. One has to see if it (whipping) was warranted. Yes, unnecessary whipping ought to be dealt with sternly by the stewards. 

IR: Now I ask you to recall the happier moments in your career.

Chisty: Oh there have been several. I readily recall my Mauritius stint. I won three races in a day there beating international jockeys. As a personal achievement, I rate it high. Then the words of Mr Sunny Brar that he said to me. I had just managed to pip the Daniel Grant-ridden top notch filly Yana with Angelic in the 2400 meters Wadia Gold Cup. “Today I felt it was Aslam Kadar riding Angelic,” he had said. That was the biggest ever compliment I have received to date.

IR: Is there any particular instance on the track that is embedded in your mind?

Chisty: I was hoping you would ask me that. I can’t forget the time when I beat Frankie Dettori in a gripping finish. We fought every inch of the final furlong. That was during the international jockeys’ meet held annually at Mauritius in 2010. Frankie was on the rail side and I drew level with a furlong to go. It was a neck-and-neck fight and I pipped him on the post. However, I became nervous when I saw Frankie confidently telling the others that he had won the race. “I beat the Indian jockey” I heard him say as we were trotting back. It was a team event and I was leading my jockey team. My team mates looked at me inquiringly. I gestured that I had won. Finally the judge announced the result in my favour and the joy doubled in an instant. It was another thing that Frankie beat me the following day, but I enjoyed my moment in the sun beating the great horseman.

IR: I am sure you would have your share of followers who bet on your mounts, any suggestions for them?

Chisty: Betting is risky. I would advocate to all to bet cautiously and with reasoning. This is a game of uncertainties. The odds are stacked against the bettor. It is my sincere advice to bet small and certainly not all races. Pick a bet or two in the day and wage within your means. More for fun. And yes, please don’t cuss the jockeys; it’s not always their fault. Enjoy the game in the right spirit. Profits or losses are in one’s own hands. Select your races for bets very carefully and stick by them. That betters your chances. But the risks are always high.   

IR: Well, we know you as a jockey; would you like to share things about your personal life?

Chisty: I am simple person, living in a joint family that is closely bonded. I am away most of the time, but always in touch with my mother and my wife. I said earlier that I speak to them on daily basis and that is a ritual I never miss. Whenever I am in my hometown I am out with them, shopping or catching up on movies. I love to watch television whenever I get the chance. I can stay put on the couch with the remote in hand all day. I hardly get to do that though.

IR: Have you been married long? Any kids?

Chisty: Not long enough to plan a family yet.

IR: Any interesting story to your marriage?

Chisty: You are getting too personal now (laughs), but yes, I fell in love with my wife at first sight. It was she who took two whole years to give the nod. I met her in Mauritius during my first visit there. I couldn’t reveal my feelings to her immediately at that time. The next visit was when we started talking and spending some time together as good friends. It was the following year that I proposed to her. She took her own time to respond to it and when she finally did say “yes” it was worth the wait. We are very happy together and she has mingled with family very well.

IR: One last question. What would you be, had you not a put on the jockey’s boots?

Chisty:  Selling boots!!! Seriously! My father runs a footwear business and I am sure he would have convinced me to take the family venture forward. That would be the second best thing for me to do, wouldn’t it?