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By Anil Mukhi
Wednesday 01 Mar 2017
Anil Mukhi

The fact that the Indian Turf faces existential problems is glaringly obvious. In fact, scarcely has it ever had to face greater challenges. Admittedly, the chief such occasion was when the puritanical Morarji Desai, then Chief Minister of the erstwhile Bombay State, wanted to ban wagering in the early 'fifties of the last century, which would have been the death knell of horse racing. As is well-known, it was the stalwart efforts spearheaded by Faly D. Wadia, President of the National Horse Breeding Society of India, that convinced Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, to direct Mr. Desai to rescind the ban.

Even if the situation today is not quite as grave, it is worrying enough. Much has been written about the Bangalore Turf Club matter, which is in the courts and although racing folk remain hopeful of a favourable verdict, they cannot say that the continuation of racing in the Garden City is a certainty. The lease of the Mahalakshmi Racetrack of the Royal Western India Turf Club Ltd. has not yet been renewed and the club is reeling under usurious levels of taxation. Although the Hyderabad Race Club owns its Malakpet premises, covetous political eyes have glanced in the direction of its lands and properties. Even the quiet Mysore Race Club Ltd. has reportedly been the subject of a tussle with the city's Municipal Corporation.  

Next comes the impending arrival of the GST regime, one which could hypothetically blur the current distinction between the State lists, the Central lists and the Concurrent lists, as envisaged in the Constitution of India, with reference to taxation. GST is a very major issue on which a great deal remains to be clarified – but cannot, until the contours of the new legislation have been fully demarcated. It could make or break horse racing in India as we know it.

This then is the backdrop facing that unique body, the Joint Turf Authorities of India. Self-formed several years ago, probably around 1963, to present a unified face for Indian Racing, it consists of a loose federation of individual turf authorities, whose number currently stands at six.

The organization has suffered somewhat as a result of its revolving structure – ex officio its Chairmanship switches each March to the Chairman of the race club which is the next to host the Indian Turf Invitation Cup. What's more, unlike in Great Britain, there is no legal framework on which it rests – there the original regulator of the sport, the Jockey Club (now succeeded by the British Horseracing Authority) was governed by Royal Charter.

There is a serious lacuna in all this. For a very start, this means that the Turf Authorities of India have no fixed office, no fixed hierarchy and no unified long term plan. Undoubtedly there are many hardworking persons behind the scenes, carrying out yeoman service in the cause of Indian horse racing. However, this revolving structure is a crucial flaw in the TAI's efforts to achieve uniformity and transparency. What may have made sense in 1963 could well be outdated in 2017.

Fixing the external problems may take a lot of effort and determination and success in that area depends on factors not in TAI's control. However, there are internal issues facing the sport which can readily be remedied with a little give and take.

Let's start with the fact that there can be no horse racing – and no need for race clubs – if there were no racehorses. As such, the breeding industry – which supplies the horses (and funds certain activities of some of the Turf Authorities) – has a pivotal role. Fortunately, there is a place at the table for the National Horse Breeding Society of India in Turf Authorities of India deliberations. This has been a welcome progressive measure taken by the TAI.

But there is a lingering lack of warmth in some isolated circles of racing administrators which feels that breeders have it too good. On balance, this is not at all the case in an industry where fully 50% of the broodmares cannot deliver a race worthy offspring each year due to the vagaries of society and the exigencies of nature.

It would take far too long to point out all the issues that need to be dealt with in a single piece. In this article I will deal with just three items, which I feel can set the ball rolling for the TAI:

1)    Establishment of a Permanent Secretariat

This is a crying need! The advantages will be that there will be a "one stop shop" for all concerned with respect to dealing with the Indian Turf. Topics relating to Indian horse racing and breeding which the office could deal with include Rules, Statistics, Ratings, Invitation Carnival, Preparation of a five year vision document, Contact information, etc. Information on all of these could be disseminated via an official website.

2)    Uniform licensing  

Instead of the archaic system of trainers and jockeys having to apply for "A" licences and "B" licences – and obtaining clearances each time they practice their profession at a location other than where they are based – there could be single All-India licences. Likewise, owners could be approved at all locations, and have fixed officially registered colours (silks) so that the public can easily identify their runners wherever they run.

3)    Race programming (Fixture List)

Though there is considerable understanding between members of the TAI regarding the scheduling of race days, the programme itself is past its "best-before" date. Too many handicaps are framed, which tend to promote mediocrity. The whole structure consists of individual items cobbled together, whereas true progress – and the improvement of the image of the sport – require a more nuanced approach. In fact, once the GST is in place, a wholesale revamp of the national programme is called for.

Matters left over for another day include:

4)    Restrictions
5)    Ratings
6)    Drugs
7)    Punishments

The time has therefore come for turf administrators in India to grasp the dictum so ably articulated by William Shakespeare – "there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune." Ultimately, history will be the judge.