By Maj. Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)
Thirteen runners will line up in front of the Members' Stand for the start of Mahalakshmi's race of the year. That's one more than the average of the past 69 runnings and includes three fillies - Hills and Stars, In The Spotlight and Smashing - as well as three outstation challengers, namely, Field Marshal, In The Spotlight and Star Marquess.
Only four trainers have saddled more Classic winners in India than Padmanabhan whose cupboard is missing just one important trophy - the Indian Derby. There is no doubt that the void will be made good sooner than later. It is not a question of 'if' but 'when'. With Field Marshal and In The Spotlight in his charge, he has an outstanding chance to do it this year itself.
When the winter racing commenced, he would probably have fancied Field Marshal (Placerville -Shamaal) more than In The Spotlight (Alnasr Alwasheek - Radiate). A line through Southern Bay certainly gave the colt an upper hand. Since then, the filly has disdainfully swept all before her at Kolkata while Field Marshal, after an easy win the Bangalore 2000 Guineas, Gr.2, was beaten third in the R.R. Ruia Gold Trophy, Gr.2 on his first start at Mumbai. The pecking order may have changed today.
Field Marshal's defeat in the Ruia needs to be looked at differently. It was his first run on a new track after relocation. Padmanabhan would probably have instructed Allan to win if he could but not be harsh on his mount. Afterall, Field Marshal had not been brought to Mumbai for the Ruia. Besides, the trainer always has his wards a bit underdone in the lead-ups but spot-on on the big day so it will be no surprise if the Ruia placings are reversed. (He just did that recently with Nearness of You in the Bangalore Derby, Gr.1). Field Marshal has won his races so far by going to the front. In The Spotlight likewise prefers to be right up there. It is hard to imagine a radical change of plans in the Derby but master tactician that he is, Padmanabhan is quite capable springing a surprise. Field Marshal may just wait on the heels of In The Spotlight. He is most likely to improve on his Ruia run but his winning chance gets a bit of a knock because of his pedigree. His sire - Placerville - and his damsire - Razeen - were the Champions Sires of the era that has just gone by. Placerville has covered a number of Classic winning daughters of Razeen - like Forest Fantasy, Snow Dew, Pleasure Hunt, Yutai, Desert Lightning and Warsaw Pact - but the produce out of them has produced just one Classic winner - Leave It To Me - so far over the Derby distance. Leave It To Me was herself rather moderate. The Placerville-Razeen cross has thrown better horses over shorter distances and that could be Field Marshal's achilles heel.
In The Spotlight has everything going for her. Admittedly, the quality of the opposition at Kolkata may have been mediocre but a horse can only beat the opposition that is there. A recent line through the consistent Surya Lakshmi, however, shows that In The Spotlight and Southern Bay are closely matched even today and indeed Padmanabhan's filly was quite close to Southern Bay in the K.R.O.A. Mysore 1000 Guineas, Gr.3. She has abundance of stamina, is happy making the pace or sitting just off it - thereby avoiding the traffic problems which horses coming from behind sometimes have to face - and gallops resolutely once she hits the front in the straight. It will take a really classy and gutsy customer to lower her colours.
Pronto Star has been left in the field as a pacemaker to Pronto Pronto. He will get to lead his rivals only if he opens all throttles for neither Field Marshal nor In The Spotlight are likely to allow him to meander at the helm. Astapi may attempt to do it as he did in the 2000 but he won't last for long and there is a possibility that Marauder may have a similar mission assigned. None of the other fancied contenders are front runners.
The pick of the come-from-behind types are Pronto Pronto (Major Impact - Sandslash) and Hills and Stars (Razeen - Altitude), the two light-weights. Pronto Pronto and Hills and Stars weighed the least when they ran in their respective Guineas races. Their frame and lack of kilograms has perhaps been the reason why they have been sparingly raced and tenderly worked.
Pronto Pronto goes into the race on the back of successive victories in the Shapoorji Pallonji Breeders' Juvenile Colts' Championship, Gr.3, Bangalore Colts' Championship Stakes, Gr.1, Kingfisher Derby Bangalore, Gr.1 and Casino Royale Indian 2000 Guineas, Gr.1. Which other contender in the field has won three Gr.1 races in a row? Yet, Pronto Pronto is not a horse who has caught the imagination, possibly because all his triumphs have been narrowly gained. He languishes at the back of the field, moves up unobtrusively and pounces on his rivals close home. He is gutsy and has produced the required acceleration at the business end of a race. Some very good horses - like Squanderer and Mystical in the later part of his career - do just enough to win a race. That is a sign of greatness in equines.
Purely on pedigree, Pronto Pronto is not meant to be a mile and a half horse. Neither was Diabolical (also by Major Impact) who had a very plebeian tail-female line. Pronto Pronto has won over 2000 m. At Bangalore which in reality is more like a mile. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. He has invariably produced his telling burst and one can only surmise that every now and then the influence of Roberto - Major Impact's sire - comes through to blight everything else.
That brings us to Hills and Stars. In the Nanoli Stud Pune Derby, Gr.1 and Radio Mirchi Indian 1000 Guineas, Gr.1, the Razeen filly has demonstrated the very same attributes - the temperament to lie well off the pace, high cruising speed when on the move and fluid change of gears. She was distinctly unlucky in her last run because the winner - Alma Mater - cut across her path and yet she finished within a length. She is bred to stay. Her full-brother Flashing Star was nailed only in the shadow of the winning post by Mystical at Bangalore in the Indian Turf Invitation Cup, Gr.1. She is, however, attempting something which has never been done before. No filly has won the Indian Derby going straight from the Indian 1000 Guineas. The gap between the two races this year is 54 days. The Indian Derby winner with the longest gap previously is Astronomic who had 44 days between his South India Derby, Gr.1 and the McDowell Indian Derby,Gr.1.
Vinayak, the trainer of Hills and Stars, has been in and out of the hospital. In his absence, the filly has been well looked after by his younger brother and father, trainer Janardhan. She will have Richard Hughes on board. There is a sizeable segment of professionals in Western Indian who will be rooting for Hills and Stars for Vinayak is not short of goodwill. So maybe the filly will make history against all previous trends.
You cannot discount an Indian Oaks or a Ruia winner in an Indian Derby. And, this year's Oaks heroine certainly lived up to her name for smashing was the way she won. 49 winners of the Indian Oaks have participated in the Indian Derby but only nine have bagged the double including Jacqueline and Moonlight Romance in the last two years. So the Rule of Threes favours Dr. Mallya's filly. What an Indian Oaks run takes out of a winner is known only after the Derby is run. Golden Treasure won the Indian Oaks by five lengths and Running Flame by six and a half but both ran flat in the Derby. There is also the concern about the sectional timings of the Zoom Indian Oaks, Gr.1. They ran the first 1200 m. of that race in 1.18.45. Even granting that 1200 m. races are generally run from the mile chute and timings are subject to track variations, false rails, pace and other imponderables, the fact remains that the slowest 1200 m. time this season at Mahalakshmi is 1.14.84 clocked by Young Offender, rated 6, when he won his first race! The slow pace, as mentioned by her jockey, allowed Smashing (Holy Roman Emperor - Exquisite) to "go to sleep". It is doubtful if Field Marshal and In The Spotlight will permit Smashing the luxury of forty winks in the first half of the Derby and then sprint for home.
This year's Ruia was won by Cardinal (Placerville - Haunting Beauty) running in the Jacqueline colours of the Shirkes. The Ruia hasn't been too reliable a pointer of late and Cardinal actually made a bit of history in winning the race. He became the first of his dam's produce - or the produce of her daughters - to win a race over 2000m. On the running of Pune Derby, he is comfortably held by Hills and Stars.
Only two other contenders deserve a passing reference. Picasso ran a much better race in the Casino Royale Indian 2000 but it is hard to see a son of Black Cash winning the Indian Derby. Star Marquess would have won the Ruia with a stronger jockey and he has the pedigree for the distance. However, his subsequent workouts with the moderate Frost Fairy have been uninspiring - though he has been seen in better light in the company of Marauder - and he is yet to win a black-type
One thing is certain, though. This is going to be a race that is run at a cracking pace. Nothing separates the grain from the chaff than a race that is truly run.
Past The Post
And finally, as always, some trivia about the Indian Derby: -
* While 19 fillies have won the Indian Derby, there have been three renewals when there was not a single filly if the field.
* Mr. Ranjit Bhat won four Indian Derbys and he has the best runners to winners strike rate among all owners. However, his very first runner - Red Revolution - planted in the stall!
* In recent years, the first 1200 m. of the race have been run in a time around 1.15. They went too fast (1.12.67 in Psychic Flame's year) and too slow (1.18.85 when Diabolical won) in the first half of the race.
* Nine of the nineteen runners were outstation challengers in 2008 when Hotstepper won.
* There were six runners in Dr. Vijay Mallya's (he was a Mr. then) colours in the Indian Derby of 1991 which he won with Starfire Girl. The colours so confounded the course commentator that he actually called Captain Eo as the winner!
* Three Indian Derby winners - Mansoor Beg, Canny Scot and Fair Wood - were half-breds.
* An objection has never been upheld in an Indian Derby.
* The first four finishers - Mansoor, Bade Miya, Young Stallion and Rock Witness - of the 1973 Indian Derby were all chestnuts.
* Fillies dominated the board numbers in the Indian Derby of 2004 when Psychic Flame, Estonia, Sprungli and Allies Serenade filled the first four spots.
* The finishing order of the 1962 Indian Derby was Loyal Manzar, Rushikesh, Hoyogreeb and High Party. The winner was a grandson of Hyder Ali while the other three were sired by Hyder Ali himself.
* Usha Stud holds the record for most victories with 12 winners. Grey Gaston, who stood at Usha, has sired five winners of the Indian Derby and he is followed by Razeen with four.
* Hat-tricks: -
Owner - Mr. Ranjit Bhat - Commanche, Squanderer and Manitou.
Trainer - R.R. Byramji - Commanche, Squanderer and Manitou and later Astronomic, Littleover and Elusive Pimpernel.
Jockey - P.Shroff - Exhilaration, Desert Warrior and Starfire Girl.
* Trainer R.R. Byramji (11) and jockey P. Shroff (8) head their respective tables.
* Pesi Shroff is the only one to have ridden and trained an Indian Derby winner.
* Cordon Bleu sported the emergency "all black" colours when she won the race in 1988. In fact, though Dr. Vijay Mallya has won the race four times, none of the winners have carried his first colours with the red cap.
* Kheem Singh was the first Indian jockey to ride the winner of an Indian Derby. He did it astride Balam in 1949.