• Punjabi Girl wins The Fillies Championship Stakes (Gr.1)
  • Sir Cecil wins The Colts Championship Stakes (Gr.1)
By Ranavir Bose
Monday 26 Feb 2018

There is a certain amount of excitement in the air at RCTC and indeed across the racing fraternity in the country as the 56th edition of the Indian Turf Invitation Cup is slated to be run at the Calcutta racecourse on Sunday. What is rather unusual is the fact that there is not a single local entry among the fourteen entrants from the list of nominations and invitees. Hence, none of the top, local trainers will be seen in the paddock for the 2400m Grade I race that decides the ‘champion of champions’. Die hard local turfites who often reminisce about the premier quality of thoroughbreds that this centre has generated over the past several decades, will be sorely disappointed by a field bereft of any Calcutta based champion filly or colt.

While the local colts among the four-year-olds this year failed to make a lasting impression on the aficionados of the game, the Oaks winning filly Sana was held in high esteem by many. Unfortunately, the trip to Mumbai for the Indian Derby took a lot out of her. She lost about 15kg in weight and never quite recovered thereafter. The connections have thus wisely sent her to a stud in the south for ‘spelling’ – which in racing terminology defines a spell of recuperation before deciding on her next target. The filly left a void that none of the local aspirants could fill.

Those who were hoping for a revival of those days of glory when a colt named Midnight Cowboy romped home, can do nothing else but bask in the nostalgic memories of the last Calcutta based horse to win the Invitation Cup at this centre. The year was 1975. Named after the Dustin Hoffman hit of the seventies, Midnight Cowboy was a handsome bay with a prominent blaze and a pair of socks on his forelegs. Sired by the prolific Young Lochinvar out of Take Cover, the powerfully built colt commenced his racing career in Calcutta in 1974 under the care of a young trainer named Paddy Rylands. He was the last of the local brigade to lift the Invitation Cup at this centre — a good 43 years ago.

This property of the gorgeous and graceful Maharani Gina Narayan was installed as the firm favourite at 10-to-8 on and entrusted to champion rider Richard Alford.

“Midnight Cowboy was undoubtedly the best horse of his era,” says Alford, perhaps a trifle wistfully, while relaxing at his home. “At that time, Maharani Gina Narayan was one of the city’s leading owners and I was really fortunate to be patronised by her. The Cooch Behar family has a rich history in the city’s racing archives and to be associated with them gave me great pleasure.”

“Naturally, I was a little nervous before the race, but although I was only 29 at that time, I had gathered enough big-race experience by then to know that apart from saddle artistry, concentration is everything. I had piloted Rare Gem to victory in the Bangalore Derby prior to the big race and that had boosted my confidence level immensely.”

“I knew I had to be wary of Half-a-Crown, a winner of five classics at Chennai and Bangalore. Sure enough, Half-A-Crown was threatening to run away after Calcutta’s infamous turning for home. At that point of time, my mount was snugly tucked along the rails in the sixth slot. I moved him up quickly along the rails to be fourth and switched him to the outside before reminding him of the task at hand. The Cowboy responded majestically and cantered away for a memorable five-length triumph .” concluded Alford. Indeed, it is a race that oldtimers at this centre relate with a sense of pride till date.

Incidentally, Alford had the privilege of riding another Invitation Cup winner from this metropolis — Hovercraft — but unfortunately for him, not in the big race. In the year 1964, when he had finished his apprenticeship, Alford had ridden this Mac Galstaun-trained filly to a couple of victories during the Bangalore Summer season, but a fractured leg due to a fall, kept him out of action for the rest of the season. It was left to jockey Faggotter to pull off one of the biggest coups in the history of this blue riband of the turf. The frail filly’s triumph over the runaway favourite Prince Pradeep is now part of racing folklore — one that local turfites will happily narrate with a mixture of awe and disbelief. But that’s another story best kept for another day!