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Calcutta Turf Club

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Royal Calcutta Turf Club


Pride of place in Organised racing in India belongs very, rightly, to the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. Although the first race meetings, such as they were and about which there is any authentic record were held in Madras in 1795 where enthusiastic owners, mainly Army Officers, set their horses against one another on the long flat beach there, it is almost certain that meetings took place prior to that date but, unfortunately, records were not kept.

However, sporting owners had been taking on one another in Calcutta as far back as 1769. At first, races were held in the suburbs at Akra in the Garden Reach area where, at that time, the King of Oudh, deposed by the British, and his descendants lived in their palatial garden houses.

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The Race Course at Akra was to all accounts, a rudimentary affair marked out for the day over a rough course, narrow because it seems not more than four horses could race at a time. Nevertheless, the cool breezes blowing off the adjacent River Hugle must have been a pleasant change for race-goers from the hot and dusty atmosphere around Fort William and Writer's Building.

As a result of the Governor, Lord Wellesley's narrow outlook and reformist attitude, racing in Calcutta came to an abrupt, but temporary halt in 1798 and it was only five years later that it was resumed by an organisation called Bengal Jockey Club which had been formed with the sole object of keeping the sport going on a sound basis. In 1809, the venue shifted from Akra to the Maidan area which is now virtually the centre of the city and there it remains until today.

In the days of the Bengal Jockey Club race meetings were held in the mornings and were followed by sumptuous breakfasts. The Club was a highly organised Institution and was constantly in touch with racing affairs in England. Indeed, results of Calcutta races were regularly published in the English press in those days.

The original stand was constructed very near to the site where the Victoria Memorial is now situated and it faced West because of morning racing.

Races, in those days, were generally over two and three miles and run in heats of all things. This, it was said, was to test the horse's "speed and also his bottom". In the Bengal Cup of 1845, the grey Arab Crab and the bay Arab Oranmore, raced five heats carrying 55 kg each over two miles. The Cup was won by the grey by two heats to one. With two dead heats. As the judge could not separate the Contestants in two of the five heats, those heats were considered "dead" and that presumably is how the expression began.

As all this took time, the bugle for saddling was sounded at sunrise and that for mounting a quarter of an hour later and those races which were not decided in the cool of the morning, were resumed after the sun had set. However, no delay for recovery from their exertions was permitted between heats, no more than half an hour from the time the last jockey was weighed in being permitted.

In 1812, the new course was laid out in Calcutta roughly where it is located today and interest now moved to this major centre. The Calcutta Welter, at the time the most important event had been started at, of all places, Barasat but the race was transferred to Calcutta in 1825.

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Perhaps the one most significant event to happen in the history of Calcutta racing took place in 1847 when the Calcutta Turf Club was officially born. Its important roles were those of regulating all matters concerning racing and protecting the interests of the Turf in Calcutta. Elections to the Club were by ballot and a committee of five was appointed tomanage the affairs of the Club with five Stewards to supervise the races. Those keen racing men who brought this about could scarcely have imagined that within forty years the Calcutta Turf Club would be called upon to administer the sport throughout the country, other than in Western India.

Calcutta, the first centre in the sub-continent to stage a Derby race called the Calcutta Derby Stakes, in 1842, was confined to maiden Arabs over a distance of two miles and carried the then fabulous prize of Rs. 5000/- for the winner. Converted into present currency, it would be a colossal sum even in those days of high stakes. The Derby attracted forty entries. In 1856, it was discontinued and its place was taken by the Viceroy's Cup. The first race under this title being won by Nero over the St. Leger distance. Two years later, the race was won by a countrybred mare, a feat not repeated until 105 years later when an Indian filly, Hovercraft, won in 1964. By then this race had become known as the Queen Elizabeth II Cup.

There appeared in Calcutta in 1860 a man who was responsible more than any other for the birth of a remarkable new era in the life of Calcutta racing. For the next twenty five years, Lord Ulrich Browne, I.C.S. was to dominate the racing scene in the same way as Admiral Rous influenced English racing at about the same period.

The two major reforms for which Lord Ulrich will never cease to be remembered were the redrafting of the Rules of Racing and the revision of the Weight-for-Age Scale.

 

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The pari-mutuel, the forerunner of the Tote, was introduced in 1872. And the first Monsoon Meeting to take place in Calcutta was in 1879 when a course was constructed for the purpose inside the flat course. By 1880 important changes had taken place. For example, it was decided to race in the afternoons: the course was turned round and the new Stands were built-the present imposing stands came later. It was that year, also, that saw the beginning of the general public's growing interest in racing as a spectator sport.

Lord Ulrich Browne was followed between 1886 and 1897 by Sir William McPherson whose contributions to racing are incalculable. His achievements included the complete upgrading of the Rules of Racing with new important rules added, establishing close liasion with the Bombay Turf Authorities resulting in the signing of a reciprocal agreement to adopt the rule that no course in India be allowed to race under Rules without being controlled by either of the two Turf Authorities. Other measures introduced by Sir William were the publication of the official Racing calendar, the separation of gymkhana races from the Rules of Racing, the appointment of a whole-time paid Secretary of the Club, preclusion of jockeys from betting and the appointment for the first time in India of a professional handicapper.

By this time, the stature of Calcutta Turf Club had grown very high. By 1889, its jurisdiction extended to all the courses in India excepting Bombay, Poona, Karachi and Khelapur which raced under Bombay, and there were as many as 52 courses in India (and Burma) at that time. The appointment in 1908 of a Stipendiary Steward for the first time in India was also an innovation of the Calcutta Turf Club. The same year the Maharaja Dhiraja Sri Bejoy Chand Mahtab of Burdwan became the first Indian to be elected to the full membership of the club.

In due course his son, Sir Uday Chand Mahtab, was also extended full membership amongst other important personalities such as Sir Biren Mukherjee and Mr. Sachin Chowdhury (later, Finance Minister Govt. Of India).

Sir Uday Chand Mahtab who succeeded his father as Maharaja Dhiraja of Burdwan joined the body of Stewards in the year 1947 and was elected as the Senior Steward of RCTC in 1955 and continued to hold this eminent office for 27 years. During this period the Club went from strength to strength. He helped the formation of the South India Turf Club so that they could control racing in South India. Amongst his notable achievements was the honor extended to him by the Jockey Club of England requesting him to visit England, Hongkong and report back whether the standard racing and its administration merited recognition by the Jockey Club itself. As the Maharaja's report appears to have been favorable. It would seem that the Jockey Club thereafter extended its approval to the Hongkong Jockey Club.

In the meantime, steeple chasing had become quite popular in Calcutta in the 1870's. The C.T.C. brought it under its control in 1888, introducing the first Grand National to be run at the main course in 1895. The last one was run in 1929; it was won by a horse called Kilbuck who subsequently took part in the English Grand National in 1931. He belonged to a steward of the Club who was incidentally the father of the famous actress Vivien Leigh.

Before coming to some events of the recent past, one should not omit to mention other noticeable dates in the history of the Club. The visit of the Prince of Wales (later King George V) to the Calcutta Races in 1905, the building of the present magnificent stands in 1905, and 1907, and the opening of the Stand Membership, as well as the use of the first timing device on the Course in 1907.

One should also include in this list of outstanding events, the construction of the existing Monsoon track undertaken by the club in 1910. This is a unique track-perhaps the only one of its kind in the world-in that by some ingenious device, it is the quickest draining track that one could imagine. At the same time, the Randwick rails were fitted on the track. This type of rail is now universally used but at that time in the early nineteen hundreds, it was an innovation.

Then came the granting of the appellation 'Royal' to the title of the Club in 1912, following King George V's second visit to the Calcutta Races.

The extensive Stands of the Calcutta Race Course, white amidst lush green open space, have a special charm. Away on the horizon are the high-rise city buildings and nearer, the white marble grandeur of the Victoria Memorial in its well planted park. This magnificent edifice stands sentinel as it did in the year when the Calcutta Races were honored by the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on which occasion, she presented her own trophy which she continues to donate every winter.

For her, it must have been a moment of special significance and not a little nostalgia to have done so against the backdrop of the Memorial erected to honor her great, great grandmother.

For the records, Sir Uday retired from the Stewardship of R.C.T.C. in 1979. He was succeeded by Mr. B. M. Khaitan who joined as Steward in 1971. Mr. Khaitan proved an outstanding administrator of sport and continued to maintain the Club's reputation at the highest possible level. He is now the Patron of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. Mr. Khaitan was followed by Mr. O.A.V. Sen but sadly because of his death after about one and half years, he was followed by Mr. Pran Prasad who on retirement handed over the office to Mr. Pearson Surita, who in turn was followed by Mr. Sunil Singh Roy. The current Senior Steward is Mr. B. M. Varma. Mr. B. M. Varma, a veteran polo playing horseman and ex-president of Calcutta Polo Club who, inspite of innumerable increasing problems involving Trade Union activities, cost maintenance, discipline and shortage of funds, maintains the excellent reputation of the country's premier racing centre. Calcutta at one time exercised racing control and rules of racing over 73 racing centers in the sub-continent extending between Peshawar and Mandalay.