Part-ownership of equines turns popular; surge in no. of first-time owners
By Devina Sengupta
Chulbul Pandey, 3, is an epitome of the ongoing transformation in that most patrician of pursuits — owning horses. With a delightfully quirky name borrowed from a mass entertainer — the Bollywood movie Dabangg — the bay-coloured colt, which will run its first race later this month, is symbolic of horse ownership in India acquiring middle-class trappings.
Chulbul Pandey was bestowed his name by his three owners, all of whom are well-to-do entrepreneurs but none of whom belong to the old-money or blue-blooded sets. For them, horse ownership is not just a passion; it is an investment and a means to upward social mobility.
One of Chulbul Pandey’s part owners is Sharan Makhija, who runs an advertising agency in Bangalore. He succumbed to the lure of buying a horse, the first member of his family to do so, because of the “thrill of races”. His first horse was Bhagirathi, bought two years ago as part of a syndicate, an arrangement that allows up to 10 people to pool cash and share ownership. Bangalore-based Shankar Suryanarayan, an executive with a retail firm, thinks owning a horse allows him to rub shoulders with the social elite. His grandfather worked with the railways in a village where horses were used for commuting and Suryanarayan would read racing statistics in the newspapers. Three years ago, he bought his first horse Sudden Magic and is in talks to buy another one.
“I saw many 20-year-olds inquiring about horses in the Derby last month, which was a welcome change,” he says. Another indication of the rising popularity of horse ownership comes from Sans Craintes, a 20-year-old stud farm in Coimbatore that has around 100 horses. R Subramanian, the manager, says that each year he sees 3-4 first-time buyers at the farm.
Many buyers, he says, are well-informed and carry out a lot of research before taking a decision.
Jump in Number of Stud Farms
Makhija and his syndicate did a complete background check before buying their horse. Chulbul Pandey’s mother Tuxedo is a broodmare who used to race and his father Azaad is a stallion, giving him just the right pedigree. But there are also those like Bangalore-based Sally Thomas, who bought a horse on an impulse when she went for her first race. She does not know any of her three syndicate members. According an official from the Studbook Authority of India, a nodal agency that records the number of thoroughbreds, there are 100 stud farms in India today. Just two years ago, there were 75. The spread of horse ownership has also been helped by an increase in the number of races. Racing in India till a few years ago was seasonal, but they take place for nine months of the year. So a place like Bangalore has races at least twice a week.
The prize money, too, has gone up in the past decade and there are many more sponsored races. The Poonawala Breeders multimillion race, for example, had the winner pocket Rs 60 lakh while the runner-up got Rs 20 lakh.
According to Bangalore-based Zeyn Mirza, managing director of Vijay Mallya’s stud farm United Racing and Bloodstock Breeders, those participating in the smaller competitions, such as the ones held in Mysore, can earn up to Rs 6 lakh per race, while a mid-level race could see horse owners pull in about Rs 15 lakh. The derbys — races restricted to the 3-year-olds — are the cream of the crop, with prize money of Rs 1 crore.
Shailesh Shivaswamy was 33 when he bought his first horse in 2000. An owner of an auto service centre in Bangalore, he banded together with three friends to make a shrewd investment: Rs 75,000 for an injured horse. They treated the animal, which went on to race 46 times and earned them a profit of Rs 24 lakh. Today he has around 40 horses, some of them in syndicates. Chulbul Pandey is one of them. “Surprised to see some of them owning horses but not cars,” he remarks. Horse owners also make money from breeding. The mares that have performed well have good breeding value and are sent to stud farms post retirement. Delhi-based retired army Major JS Ahluwalia owns six horses, which are kept in Belgium and Germany and mostly participate in show-jumping competitions. He was part of the 61st Cavalry and riding therefore was an occupational demand. Among his six horses abroad, one is a stallion of “exceptional breed”, he says. Mare owners pay as much as 8000 euros to sire an offspring, depending on the breed.
Ahluwalia, who is also the VP for development of Equestrian Federation of India, said that every year offers come from 30-200 mare owners.
“Maintaining horses abroad could cost as much as 1000-1500 euros per month but this is covered through breeding, sports and horse shows,” he adds. There has also been a surge in interest for equestrian horses for sports such as show-jumping, riding, and polo. Enthusiasts have started importing these horses from Austria, Germany and Argentina, paying around Rs 25 lakh for each animal.
Silva Storai, the only female jockey in India, was part of the first women’s syndicate to buy horses and ride them in races too. She and her nine partners pooled in Rs 40,000 each to buy their first racehorse Strombolli, a winner of many competitions. Now managing the Embassy International Riding School in Bangalore, she says there is an increase in people learning equestrian.
Once the children get attached to their horses, parents are seen indulging them by buying the animal. Mumbaibased Shyam Mariwala is one such parent.The equity investor, despite having seven horses in Mumbai and Jaipur, imported a new one for his 14-year-old daughter Yahvi. Experts say this is preferred because the horse should know only one owner. “Even the kick of the owner is individualistic,” Mariwala observes. His daughter’s classmates have also joined in for riding sessions and more parents who have never bought horses before have followed suit. But the sport has its share of challenges too. Despite new entrants, horse racing needs to be marketed better, said Mallya’s stud farm manager Mirza.
Bangalore-based Jeanne Saldanah, a co-owner of four horses, believes that the animal is an addictive possession for a growing tribe of connoisseurs.