Maj. Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)
The 2011 Calcutta Oaks was previewed on this site under the heading IN THE SPOTLIGHT LOOKS HOME AND DRY. It ended with a final, PAST THE POST paragraph, which read:-
" We have seen some exceptional fillies in recent years. Fillies like Set Alight, Jacqueline, Moonlight Romance and Xisca to name just four. It inevitably leads to the debate about the best filly ever. That debate, rarely if ever, includes the name of a filly who won the Calcutta Oaks in 1968-69. In fact, she won the Calcutta 1000 Guineas, the Calcutta 2000 Guineas, the Calcutta Oaks, the Calcutta Derby and then went on to Mumbai and picked up the Indian Oaks, the Indian Derby and the Indian St. Leger ! Seven winter Classics in a row, five of them over 2400 m. or more and four against the colts!! Now, that should make the debate even more interesting."
It was neither serendipity nor prescience which prompted that last paragraph. The writing was clearly on the rampart walls of Fort William and it proclaimed in bold capitals that In The Spotlight stood on the threshold of greatness. Just as clearly, that writing also foresaw that the filly who won seven winter Classics in 1968-69, would continue to be overlooked and without a mention.
In the euphoria of triumph, it is understandable that the blaring own trumpets are somewhat off the key. Some years back, in the celebration dinner after an Indian Derby, a breeder announced, in all earnestness, that the farm would produce a Dubai World Cup winner in five years!
It's about a month since the AKK Entertainment Golden Jubilee Indian Turf Invitation Cup was run in Bangalore. The dust has settled, the afterglow has subsided and the haze of champagne has evaporated. Time then to assess things rationally and do away with the hyperbole. A very strong case has already been made out by supporters of the current champion. Not to belittle the greats of the day is indeed a very valid plea; however, to forget and disregard greats of days gone by is sacrilegious. One such great filly, already averred to, has been forgotten and to recount her exploits may sound like reading from the pages of Hans Christian Andersen.
One upon a time, there was born at Thevur, a chestnut filly by Rock of Gibraltar out of the mare Tosca. Her dam was a winner of the Indian 1000 Guineas and the Indian Oaks and traced to Stella Marina. Rock of Gibraltar was then the reigning Champion Sire in India.
With those connections, it was little wonder that 1965 Rock of Gibraltar out of Tosca was the pick of the crop at Greenacres. As the monsoon of 1966 subsided, the Greenacres yearlings were taken in hand and prepared for the Sale. They were produced one day for the inspection of Mr. Suresh Mahindra, the doyen of Greenacres. The colts came first and the fillies followed. There was a Flower Dust filly out of Tudor Bouquet who was keen to catch her owner's eye. A frisky little thing, she decided to do it the naughty way. She was unruly and lashed out catching the vet flush on his shin and fracturing it. She got loose and continued lashing out. The Tosca filly picked one on her hock before the daughter of Tudor Bouquet was brought under control. The Tosca filly's hock puffed and swelled and so she was taken out of the yearling preparation, Mr. Suresh Mahindra deciding to retain her and race with her if he could.
Before the buyers descended on Greenacres, Mr. Suresh Mahindra sent the Tosca filly to trainer Talib's yard. Talib, in turn, moved her, away from prying eyes. To the stables of "Anna" Omkar who had been his assistant earlier. When Mr. G. Venkateswara Rao visited Greenacres, the Tosca filly was on the top of his wish list. He was told that the filly was unsound which she was at that stage. A few days later, Mr. Rangarajan arrived. He, too, was after the Tosca filly and he was given the same answer. Mr. Rangarajan bought the Tudor Bouquet filly instead. However, he had his sleuths working over time and eventually they reported the whereabouts of the Tosca filly to him.
Mr. Rangarajan managed to have a look at the Tosca filly and made an offer to Mr. Suresh Mahinda. He would, he told Mr. Mahindra, pay what the breeder would have asked for had the Tosca filly been sound. It was an offer that Mr. Mahindra simply could not refuse and that is how the Tosca filly became the property of Mr. S. Rangarajan.
The filly travelled to Chennai and Mr. Rangarajan entrusted her to the care of trainer "Tich" Tyrrell. She was named Fair Haven and Mr. Rangarajan's instructions to the trainer were to take all the time he wanted. The swelling on her off hock subsided gradually but it was to remain calloused permanently. Tyrrell was patient with Fair Haven and broke her in gradually. She came to hand quickly and was a favourite on her debut as a 2YO on Christmas eve of 1967. The race was over 1000 m., a distance too short for her and her jockey Duffy had been told to give her just a feel of racing. Still, she was an odds-on favourite and ran an encouraging second, two lengths behind the winner Regret.
When Fair Haven lined up for the Queen Elizabeth Commemoration Cup over a mile in February, her brack-mate Rose of Tudor - the filly who had delivered that deadly kick - was the favourite. Fair Haven scored by a neck from Queen O'Scots - later to win South India 1000 Guineas - with that game racer Three Wishes - and a useful stallion later at Broadacres - in fourth.
That maiden win was the first of a series of five consecutive victories. She was withdrawn before coming under starters orders on Mother's Boy's Invitation Cup day. In Ooty, she won the Elk Hill Plate and the Nilgiris Gold Cup, both over a mile and beating Shiraz and Nelson on both the occasions. Sent down to Bangalore, she first won the Lalbagh Plate over 1400 m. and then the Bangalore Fillies' Trial Stakes in heavy going over a mile. She was saddled by H. David in the former race for Tyrrell was in Ooty sending out a trio of winners. In the latter race she beat Rose of Tudor - a subsequent winner of the South India Oaks - and Queen O'Scots.
Then came two defeats. First, in the Bangalore Derby where she was a moderate third as a favourite to Buck Passer and Firecrest and then she ran the only stinker of her career, finishing nowhere in Class II Tiptur Plate over 2000 m. while carrying the public money. She then passed into the ownership of the mica magnate Mr. G. Venkateswara Rao who had owned her full-sister Mica Empress and her half-brother Mica Emperor. She also moved to trainer Mac Galstaun's yard and journeyed to Calcutta.
It is pertinent to remember that in those days there were no Classics at Ooty, Mysore or Hyderabad. On 9 November 1968, Fair Haven commenced the most gruelling and successful of winter campaigns ever. She won the Gavin Johnston Cup over 1200 m. beating that good sprinter L' Etoile Glissante. She brushed aside Hydroplane in the Calcutta 1000 Guineas, Calcutta 2000 Guineas and the Calcutta Oaks. The combined margin of those three Classic wins was over 20 lengths. Hydroplane was no slouch. A full-sister to Invitation Cup winner Hovercraft and half-sister to grand gallopers Time Machine, Gay Time and Prime Time, she was to win the Eve Champion Cup and Southern Command Cup - in record time - later that year.
Lester Piggott, on his way back home after having ridden Gr.1 winners in Australia and Hong Kong, was persuaded to stop-over in Calcutta to ride Fair Haven in the Calcutta Derby, Piggott had 14 rides during his brief stay, won seven races and was never off-the-board. Fair Haven landed the Calcutta Derby at 6/10 on, beating Play Boy - winner of Calcutta St. Leger in Fair Haven's absence - by a length and a half with Hydroplane another seven and a half lengths further away. As he dismounted, the usually taciturn Piggott murmured, "They didn't have to get me for this. She would have won with an apprentice!”
Having conquered Calcutta, Fair Haven set her sights westwards. She travelled by a horse box which, on reaching Bombay, was shunted right and left between Central and Western Railway. G.M. "Anna" Omkar, who was to take charge of her, was at his wits end. Running out of patience, one day just before dawn, using a makeshift gang-plank, he unloaded Fair Haven in a siding near Parel and walked her to Mahalakshmi. Years later, he confided that it was a foolish thing to have done. What he remembered even more was the demeanour of the filly. "The syce merely patted her on the neck and said 'Chal beta'. Fair Haven trudged down the creaking boards and walked across railway tracks and a maze of wires as if she had been doing this all her life," was how he recounted the episode.
To be sure, a lot of people were surprised when the owners - Mr. R.V. Kalro was now a part owner with Mr. G. Venkateswara Rao - chose Omkar to train the filly in Bombay. Omkar, who had learned his craft under the legendary Talib, was a knowledgeable and capable horseman. However, after setting out on his own, he had acquired a reputation as a "gamble trainer". What's more, his small string consisted then entirely of Class V horses. What went in his favour was the fact that he had nursed Fair Haven painstakingly when the filly had a swollen hock and looked unlikely to race.
Omkar and Fair Haven didn't let the owners down. She had won the Calcutta Derby on 28 December. On Republic Day of 1969, Fair Haven won the Indian Oaks beating Mumtaz by nearly two lengths and also surviving an objection. Exactly a week later, she beat Mumtaz in the Indian Derby by a head, clipping two whole seconds off the race record time. The two fillies were a distance clear of the third placed Con Amore. Then, Fair Haven had a longish break. Suitably refreshed, she thrashed Mumtaz by half a dozen lengths on 2 March in the Indian St. Leger. That was her eighth consecutive win in 114 days which meant that she raced almost every fortnight.
As her breeder, Mr. Suresh Mahindra, came down from the stands to weighing room, one man was already waiting for him. That man was Mr. F.D. Wadia who thumped Mr. Mahindra and said, "Suresh, she is simply great". A compliment from the breeder of "Apdi Ghodi" - Her Majesty - to the breeder of Calcutta's "Amar Khoki", was one which Mr. Mahindra always cherished.
The Invitation Cup that year was at Bangalore and Fair Haven duly moved south. One day, on her way to the race course from the Palace Grounds stables, Fair Haven met with a road accident and was retired to stud. In her absence, Venus de Milo won that year's Invitation Cup
A filly whose ability to race was in doubt as a yearling, came under colours 16 times, won 13 races and was unplaced only once. Her eight Classic wins included seven winter Classics. This, at a time when there were only 19 Classics in country and not 39 as in present times. She won at Madras, Ooty, Bangalore, Calcutta and Bombay. She was saddled by four trainers and ridden by seven different jockeys. Her career earnings of just over Rs. 5 lakhs would have bought a decent apartment in Bombay's fashionable Cumballa Hill. Rs. 5 crores can't buy that very property today.
PAST THE POST
Comparing champions of different eras is an infructuous, inconclusive exercise. Those who extol Lionel Messi sky high are entitled to their opinion; Chistiano Ronaldo's fans have a very arguable case; football fanatics with Union Jack tattoos on their hearts can be forgiven if they root for David Beckham or Wayne Rooney and a fervent porteno is convinced that Maradona didn't just have the "Hand of God" but was God himself. It is just a bit irksome when some of them come up with "Pele? Who's that?”.