Assuming all hands pull together, human beings can achieve great feats. Teamwork is the essential ingredient that propels excellence. No sports star, entrepreneur, investor or mountaineer can reach the summit alone – he or she has to have support and back-up, which often goes unrecognized. Wayne Rooney may grab the headlines for a stunning goal, but fewer will remember Steven Gerrard's precision cross that made it possible or the unsung army of assistant coaches, physiotherapists, nutritionists and others behind the scenes who collectively enabled the winning result.
Likewise, State Electricity Boards have to vibe together in drawing electricity from the national grid, or they will all dance alone – in utter darkness, as recent events will testify.
Unfortunately, like the SEBs, the Indian Turf lacks unity, and instead is buffeted by strong forces pulling in different directions. As a result, the horse racing and breeding scenarios in India reek of mediocrity and are enveloped in darkness, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. This has been commented on recently on websites: one writer mentioned this topic in connection with a particular turf club, while another pointed out that the calibre of the Indian-bred may be suspect.
In reality, the malaise is industry-wide – all turf clubs are guilty in varying degrees, and other industry bodies bear their own share of responsibility for the dismal situation.
On the Indian Turf, of late we have positively excelled at diluting excellence! For evidence, note the following:
1) the framing of 39 so-called "classics" annually – any halfway decent horse can be hailed as a "classic winner" in India. Worldwide, each country has no more than half a dozen races that merit this distinction. And some of the so-called classics are run in absurdly slow timings.
2) the "black type" allotted for years to fourth-placed horses in graded stakes, leading to erroneous conclusions about their merit. Technically, a moderate runner like Viva La Diva (highest career rating 65) can continue to be regarded as a "superior" horse! (Note: fortunately, remedial measures have been taken in the last year or two).
3) the introduction of additional races for really low calibre horses, which are pandered to so much that the era of giants like Elusive Pimpernel, Squanderer, Royal Tern, Own Opinion, etc., has virtually disappeared! I hope no one will suggest that Autonomy, Becket, Diabolical, Hotstepper, etc., to name a few recent top horses (all Indian Derby or Invitation Cup winners), were anywhere in the same league (In The Spotlight is not included in this discussion yet, as she is still racing).
4) the insidious reduction in distances of races, contributing to the decline of the breed.
A recent study by this writer showed that almost 87% of the runners in Western India were rated below the midpoint of the 0-130 scale i.e. below 65. The median rating was a mere 32 i.e. half the horses in training were below this pathetically low mark. These are shocking statistics by any measure. Moreover, the ratio of sprints (< 1600m.) to staying races (> 1600m.) at Mahalakshmi has risen alarmingly from 4.50 two decades ago to 6.20 last season, a 38% jump!
The desire of turf administrators round the world to fill fields is understandable. The larger the field, the greater the wagering turnover. Even in Great Britain, the British Horseracing Authority programmes a large number of All Weather cards, particularly during the winter months, a move which draws criticism. As one commentator put it: "Have a look at the vast majority of All Weather cards (and some of the fifth and sixth ranked turf cards) and tell me the BHA isn't pandering to mediocrity. I do not want to decry the connections of the horses because it is the breeders who are the problem. They have urgently to be put under some sort of control."
Yet, whether in Great Britain or in India, the need for quantity is at best a weak excuse for framing increasing numbers of races for untalented runners, thus encouraging their production! At least under BHA rules one finds adequate provision for merit – witness Frankel, who whipped all-comers with perhaps the greatest performance of all time at Royal Ascot. When did you last see an Indian colt achieving a comparable feat, even within the Indian context?
Here's a hypothetical scenario: a trainer acquires a moderate runner; he or she then gets it half fit by trotting and cantering and enters it in a sprint handicap; the horse "blows up" after being in mid-bunch till the home stretch; two weeks later back again (perhaps with a drop in rating) at a similar trip, it runs a shade better; (repeat till the horse is fully fit and down in the scale to a winning mark); bingo, it wins! Probably at long odds, if the trainer and jockey have colluded to help the runner to stay out of the limelight. And the vicious cycle starts again… Of course, not all indulge in this practice – and some get caught and receive a "rap on the knuckles". Is this the kind of racing we want?
One is not so naïve as to believe that vices like envy, ambition, jealousy and dare I say, politics, are absent in Japan. And yet look at the achievements of the Japan Racing Association. By organizing horse racing on certain lines, it has steered Japan into the upper echelons of thoroughbred horse racing and breeding worldwide. The JRA has been particularly efficient at developing the fan base through a combination of factors such as providing enhanced facilities, ensuring the integrity of the sport, making information available, etc., to such a degree that the user experience is greatly enriched.
Japan's breeding industry has been no less industrious. Back around 1980, noted English jockey-turned-breeder, Wally Swinburn told this writer that in his view top Indian-breds, like Squanderer, were better than their Japanese counterparts. Fast forward to 2012 and it is clear that the standard of equines from the Land of the Rising Sun has risen dramatically clear of anything any Indian breeder can come up with.
For decades, Japan was considered to be a dumping ground for inconspicuous, if not anonymous, bloodstock. It was the institution of the Japan Cup in 1981, which kick-started the phenomenal upward rise in the ratings of Japanese-breds. Routed in the race's first few runnings, Japanese-breds made their initial visit to the winner's circle through Katsuragi Ace in 1984 and Symboli Rudolf the following year. A six-year skein of foreign invaders was halted in 1992 by Tokai Teio and thereafter the locally-bred runners and the visitors took turns at annexing the Japan Cup.
Now the wheel has turned full circle, and no international runner has been able to score in the Japan Cup during the past six years. Meanwhile, Japanese-breds have run one-two in the Melbourne Cup and the Dubai World Cup, with the likes of El Condor Pasa and Nakayama Festa having been runners-up in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. In contrast, India has to console itself with an allowance victory for Adler at lowly Ellis Park – that too courtesy of the stewards – as its lone North American success, and a Class IV handicap for Southern Regent on the All Weather at Southwell as its solitary flat victory in Europe. Hardly the stuff dreams are made of!
Are Indian-breds really that uncompetitive on the world stage? I would venture to suggest several decent horses are bred annually in the country – but are not allowed to reach their potential. Almost all Indian racetracks are dilapidated with poorly-designed and/or poorly-maintained infrastructure. The stabling and facilities available for training are nowhere near adequate, leave alone excellent. The entire racing programme is a patchwork quilt stitched by different tailors into something unrecognizable. As a result many horses are ruined or have their inherent ability severely degraded.
It's time for a more coherent, truly national, programme to be developed. Too many ancient notions need to be slain. For example, the racing calendar needs to be advanced – the national classics should be run when horses are three, like elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere – and should be spread all over the country. Holding the Indian Derby in February, when runners are four, is simply too late in their careers. It follows that two-year-old racing must be programmed earlier – say August (instead of November). For those who would aver that this is too early, I would like to draw attention to the feats of Sadajit and Chardi Kala, December foals that scored in April this year, when only 2 years and 5 months of age.
No doubt, there are hundreds of other points that readers can suggest to improve the standard of racing and breeding in India. If the turf clubs listen to their patrons and stake-holders, and take well-thought out action, as the very first sentence in this piece pointed out, great feats can be achieved. I really want to see that Indian-bred "Arc" winner!