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By Tegbir Brar
Tuesday 25 Jun 2013
Tegbir Brar

The approval by the Punjab Cabinet to start racing in the bread basket of India, is the first concrete step towards having a racecourse in the state.  The idea was first mooted as far back as 2005, under the aegis of the Congress Government of Capt. Amarinder Singh.  Mr. D.S. Bains who was the Secretary of Animal Husbandry at the time has been the man in the forefront of this project; currently he is one of Punjab’s senior-most IAS officers and is the Home Secretary of the state.  Deputy Chief Minister Mr. Sukhbir Badal, who himself is a horse lover has been hugely instrumental in taking the project forward. 

The land for the project had been identified in 2005 itself. A 192 acre plot which belongs to the Animal Husbandry Department of Punjab in Village Mattewara on the outskirts of Ludhiana is where the proposed racecourse will be constructed.  This land is on the banks of the Sutlej River and is protected by a permanent bund, so water will not be an issue. IL & FS IDC, a consultancy firm has done the feasibility study under the aegis of the Punjab Infrastructural Development Board (PIDB) and has found the entire exercise to be viable and gave it the green signal so that it could be put forward to the Punjab Cabinet of Ministers, which duly approved the project.  The bill should be passed into law during the upcoming Monsoon session of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha.

The racecourse at Mattewara will be located close to Ludhiana, a city with a population of over 3 Million and Punjab’s major industrial hub. Ludhiana City is very centrally located and no more than a 2 hour drive from most corners of the state.  In close proximity to Ludhiana is the Tricity area of Chandigarh/Mohali/Panchkula as well as the cities of Jallandhar, Amritsar, Ferozepur, Bathinda, Sangrur, Patiala and a large number of towns like Phagwara, Jagraon, Phillaur, Kapurthala, Nakodar, Rajpura, Hoshiarpur and Nawanshahr. Big cities of Haryana like Ambala and Karnal are within close proximity of Ludhiana too. There was a suggestion to have the track in Mohali which was very wisely shot down by Sukhbir Badal, since apart from the fact that this location is very central to the whole state, Ludhiana is one of India’s richest cities and as such would be far better than Mohali a suburb of Chandigarh. The Punjab Government has already addressed the issue of connectivity to the racecourse site and an 8 lane, 6 lane and 4 lane highway are being constructed linking to the main national highways, contracts for these were given last year.

The intention of the Punjab Government is to launch this project as a Joint Venture in the Public-Private Partnership mode (PPP). The investor who puts up and manages the racecourse will share net profits with the Punjab Government in a ratio to be determined when the project takes root most likely it will be 75% to the investor and 25% to the Government which will benefit hugely from revenue collected in betting taxes too. Punjab racing will most likely be run by a company rather than as a club as is the norm in India today.  There will be a Totalizator monopoly and no bookmakers as it is felt that bookmaking is an archaic institution with absolutely no use whatsoever  in the 21st Century. This will give the company complete control of all money bet on their product rather than have a parasite sucking blood slowly from a host as is the case in places like the United Kingdom and RWITC today. The intention is to have a turf as well as an All Weather track (such as Tapeta, Polytrack or Cushion). Night racing under floodlights will be another innovation that will most likely be introduced as it is expected that the track apart from racing will also be an entertainment hub with a hotel, restaurants an equestrian centre as well as a Polo field and a Golf course. The Punjab Government is promising a sensible tax regime too which will benefit both sides.

Punjab is a unique state as the Green Revolution brought immense prosperity to the largely agrarian state as far back as the 60’s.  The genesis of horse racing as a sport lies in the landed gentry and farming communities of places like England, France, Germany, Australia and the USA etc. Currently Punjab’s share is 9.2% of the Indian breeding industry with most farms located in the Mukatsar/Faridkot belt. In India horse racing as it exists today is in the urban centres of the country such as Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta, Chennai, Hyderabad, New Delhi with Mysore, Ooty and Pune being the other tracks connected with primary racing centres.  Punjab has a well established culture in Animal Husbandry and the overall population of horses in the state is probably the highest in the country. Owning a horse in Punjab is seen as a status symbol and Punjab has a huge number of, “Desi” horses all over the state, “Nukra” or Albino horses are found in large numbers, people are rumored to pay huge prices to own a well conformed Kathiawari or Marwari horse, the key being the ears joining to form a bridge, a perfect bridge mare can cost well in excess of a Million Rupees. Many of India’s top Polo players such as Colonel K. S. Garcha (of Gee Stud Farm, India’s best ever Polo player in the modern era) and Navjeet Sandhu are Sikhs with their roots in Punjab, Colonel Rupi Brar was a gold medalist for India in the 1982 Asiad at Delhi in Tent Pegging.  Add to this well known equestrian riders like Pinka Virk, J.S. Ahluwalia and recent young riding prodigy Gursobha Singh, you will find that since the days of Guru Gobind Singh and Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his steed Laili the Punjabi is very attached to horses in general.  Country fairs where amateur straight line racing takes place draw huge crowds well in excess of 10,000. If anybody has ever witnessed the Qila Raipur rural Olympics you will find some of the most masterful riding talent around, Nihang Sikhs literally live out their entire lives on their horses and these nomadic people usually get around on horseback. Pre Partition Punjab boasted a very healthy breeding industry with Renala Stud of Montgomery District being one of India’s best establishments at the time.  Today, Post – Partition Punjab has the following Stud farms operating, listed alphabetically:

1.     A.B. (Patiala),

2.     Akal Sahai (Khara-Kotkapura)

3.     Aikdeep (Kamiana-Faridkot)

4.     Badal (Sherewala-Mukatsar)

5.     Bishen (Nakodar)

6.     Dashmesh/Hargobind (Sarainaga-Mukatsar)

7.     Dr Kehar Singh (Mukatsar)

8.     Mebajeona (Mukatsar)

9.     Samra (Kanianwali-Mukatsar)

10. Singh/Neutral (Wander Jatana-Faridkot)

11. Star Born (Bhucho Mandi-Bathinda)

12. Sunder (Dwariana-Kotkapura)

Added to this are a large number of small breeders who keep a mare or two spread out all over the state as far apart as Amritsar, Pathankot, Jallandhar and the Doaba belt among other places.  As for quality, the sandy loam calcium rich and well drained soil of Punjab is ideally suited for the breeding of all livestock not just horses.  3 Indian Derby winners Chaitanya Chakram, Astronomic and Elusive Pimpernel are Punjab bred, the last named is still considered India’s greatest ever racehorse. Apart from this, Indian Classic winners; Vijay’s Pride (winner of the 2012 Indian 1000 Guineas, the close runner up Showin’ Off is bred in Punjab too), Secret Star, Winning Pretty and Classic Story are all products of the land of five rivers.

The unfortunate thing about Horse Racing as a sport is the elitist tag that it carries as the, “Sport of Kings.”  This is a false impression, horse racing is a non polluting green industry which if handled and managed well can generate massive revenue for the Government as well as employ large numbers of people. Breeding of horses as well as racing creates tens of thousands of jobs directly and indirectly right from the base up, syces, farriers, jamadars, riding boys, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, farmers (producing Oats, Grass, Lucerne, Bedding etc.), the manufacturers of bridles, saddles, horse shoes, medicines, supplements etc. Over and above this racecourse staff is required for running day to day racing operations, tote operators, peons, racing officials such as stipes, handicappers, judges, etc. It is envisaged that the racecourse in Punjab will create many jobs as well as have a knock on effect in helping Punjab to diversify in agriculture as the presence of the racecourse is bound to get many farmers big and small to keep a few mares for the purpose of breeding horses and get out of the wheat/rice cycle that is currently the norm. 

We must look at our sport in the right perspective and understand that it is a unique sport in that it is highly labour intensive and caters to every strata of our society. Unfortunately instead of getting sops as similar employment generating industries get, we sell ourselves short and as a result we are a soft target for “Lafafebaaz” politicians who eye our tracks’ land as has been done by the former Yeddyurappa regime in Karnataka and is being done by the Shiv Sena in Mumbai currently regarding the renewal of their lease. It’s about time we get our heads out of the sand and educate the state governments as to our economic impact not just as a sport but as an industry. As for the portrayal of gambling as a vice it is indeed good lip service for our “Pseudo socialist” nation but the fact is that it exists anyway so isn’t it better that the government earns from it rather than drive it into the underbelly of society so that organized crime benefits instead as is happening in cricket.

It is early days yet but from the way things are shaping up and the positive attitude of the Punjab Government it is hoped that racing becomes a reality in the state. If things proceed smoothly from here on out 2016 would be a fair target for Punjab to have its first race meeting.