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By Madhukar Bhagawan | 07 Sep 2012 |

Trainer S Padmanabhan

When you think of Classic conquests in Indian Racing, one name stands out on sheer performance and result. Trainer S Padmanabhan, the Bangalore based trainer has achieved everything a successful trainer would aspire to in his career. Here is one trainer who does not believe in numbers. Quality more than quantity is what he looks to nurture and develop. He has his feet rooted to the ground, regardless of the high altitude of his successful career. He knows his job well and is a master judge of races horses. Always up for a challenge, he lent his magical touch to transform unsound horses into winners and catapulting them further to classical glories. One race had eluded him a long, long time - The McDowell Indian Derby (Gr1) – a race that is the dream, greed and the hunger of every racing professional.  Feb 2012 brought this astute horseman under the spotlight with his remarkable filly – In The Spotlight. He tasted his first success at winning the Indian Derby – a long harbored dream, converting into a reality in just 2 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s what it took ‘In The Spotlight’ to delight her connections. Indiarace speaks to the man of substance and he delights with his frank and off-the-cuff talk.

India Race: How and when did it all begin for you?

S.Padmanabhan: I started training horses in the year 1981 at Madras. I clearly remember, I won only two races that season. I went to Ooty the subsequent year and came to Bangalore in mid June. Ever since then I have settled down at Bangalore.

IR: Tell us about your induction into horseracing?

SP: I used to go to the Amateur Riding School in Madras and slowly I got involved in racing and here I am.

IR: Did you have to struggle in your early days?

SP: A lot. It was a challenge, first for survival, then for existence and later to become a top trainer and achieving bigger successes.

IR: Now that you are an accomplished trainer, do you sometimes go down memory lane?

SP: Oh yes! Its normal human mentality to look into the past and see what one has done and how one could have done better. I know some of the horses that I trained then, which I would have worked on differently today.

IR: Do you feel you have achieved everything now that the Indian Derby is in your pocket?

SP: There is a lot more to achieve. We have just won here in India, we must try to win group races abroad and this is a big dream for me. I will strive to see that this dream materializes in the next few years because I strongly feel that the Indian breeding has come of age and the competition has gone up by high levels in India. In the last five years for instance, I have trained some exceptionally good horses, like Ice Breaker, Becket and In The Spotlight. This year I have Borsalino in training, I am confident that these horses can do well in any part of the world.

IR: Talking about Indian breeding, how do you see it develop to international standards?

SP: Indian breeding has improved over the years and there has been a dramatic change in the attitude of the breeders. They buy mares abroad. Well, that does not necessarily make every bought-abroad a champion. Nevertheless, it gives an opportunity for diverse blood to come into the country.  If it hasn’t worked this year, would probably work in the coming year, making the future ahead absolutely exciting.

IR: Do you feel that the breeders should reduce the production at the farms as there is shortage of stabling facilities at racing centers?

SP: The other way of looking at it is that the race clubs could increase the stables. The race clubs seem to have lost focus on one aspect because they are not run like a corporate body. They are run purely as a club, so nobody gives a thought to developing another club. All over the world race courses are mainly owned by private enterprises and the race courses are developed as a commercial venture. I feel the time has come to have racing as commercial ventures in our country and I hope the Punjab government’s effort to set up a race course in their state materializes. We need at least one more race track in the next few years. With the price of land within city limits being expensive it is difficult to start new tracks in the cities, hence it is advisable to set up race courses on the outskirts. For example Arlington race course in America is about 40 miles from Chicago city.

IR: You have bagged close to 140 Group races. Which of them are you more excited about?

SP: I think the early ones were the challenging ones, like Phoebe’s Fire, not really as they say ‘bell sound’.  The horse came to me as a two year old in the month of November, just before the commencement of the Bangalore season. I was told that if I cannot set him right, I should give him away to the riding club. Fortunately, Phoebe’s Fire not only regrouped well, he went on to win group races at Calcutta, which incidentally, was first among my group- race victories. Every Group race is a very challenging assignment, because only about 3% of the total races in the country are graded races. So you are competing for those 100 races all over India with the best of horses and professionals at each centre. It’s like playing a Ranji Trophy or 20-20 finals.  You know it’s a challenging game and you have to have your horse 100 % right in all aspects for the race. Almost 14-15% of my victories come from graded races and that I suppose is a decent record. Particularly considering I had less number of horses with me and I had to win more races with them to prove my worth. If you see my career graph, you will observe that each of my good horses have won 7, 6, 5 graded races. Without intending to sound boastful, I have been winning almost 10 graded races annually over the last 4-5 years.

IR: Which has been the most memorable victory for you?

SP: Well, Borsalino’s Bangalore Derby I guess. We owned the broodmare and we took her abroad for racing and breeding. We did the stallion selection and mating abroad and then brought her back to India. We have come a full circle, first as a trainer, then as owners and now as an owner – breeder.

IR: Any other horse that has been close to your heart?

SP: Training Rapsidion Snow was very challenging because she came to me with a fracture in the third metacarperal of the knee and from there to win a graded race was a big achievement indeed. An even bigger accomplishment was breaking the course record over seven-furlongs at Bangalore, which had stood intact for nearly half a century. It needed a very good horse to achieve that feat and I am proud that Rapsidion Snow did that, despite her setbacks.

IR: Tell us something about your wonder filly, In The Spotlight.

SP: She’s very special, because till last July many people didn’t know about In The Spotlight. To be outright honest, even I was not aware of her true potential and the ripples she would cause. She grew from strength to strength. We set goalposts for her and she kept widening the post every time she won a race. It’s sad that she lost the Maharaja’s Cup. That probably was due to lack of fitness as she was switched off after the Indian Derby triumph. . I reckon she was too fresh and keen in that outing. That could be the reason for her to lose the race. The race tactics played by the other big team in the race went in favour of Toroloco. It is to her credit that she bounced back in 15 days time to beat Toroloco convincingly. Apart from that, she has won everything she was assigned, impressively.

IR: How do you rate the riding talent in India?

SP: There was a bit of dearth of quality riders for some time. However, two boys, Trevor Patel and A.Sandesh have shown out during the summer campaign. We supported both of them with winners and I think they will have to improve from where they are to reach the caliber of Vasant Shinde, Aslam Kader or Pesi Shroff. After these three left the scene, I felt that there was a dip in Indian riding talent. In between there was lack of competition I would say, as the foreign jockeys were not coming to India for some time in Winter and those who came were of average caliber. In any sport it’s the competition that gives you mental and physical fitness. These boys are now riding sharply and by next winter season if  they do well, which will be the ultimate test for them, then they move up to the higher category of riding.

IR: You prefer foreign jockeys to ride for you. Is there any specific reason for that?

SP: Till 1991 I had never brought in any foreign rider to India. It was Aslam Kader, Vasant Shinde or Robin Corner who would ride for me and even Pesi Shroff has ridden a lot of winners for me. From 1991 onwards each one of them got themselves retainers and had their own stables to ride for. We were closing in on the season’s Classic races. The top jockeys were committed to ride for their respective stables. This necessitated me to look for jockeys from abroad in winter and it helped me become a better trainer too, as I found their regular and accurate inputs helpful. In a way, I would say it has been a two-way traffic for me.

IR: How do you purchase the yearlings?

SP: Today we hardly do any purchase of 2 year olds, as most of my owners are breeder-owners and it is only a matter of selecting from the lot they keep. If it’s about purchasing the babies, then one has to go around visiting the Stud Farms, which I think as of today Pesi Shroff is doing it quite successfully.

IR: How does your wife Sharmila help you in your job?

SP: In a training establishment, the trainer is the head and you need good cogs in the wheel for smooth functioning.  Sharmila manages the office administrative work and I should say that she does it very efficiently and effectively. I also have very good assistants in Veer Vikram Singh and James McKeown who are a big asset to the stable.

IR: Do you feel that the pattern of racing in India requires revamping?

SP: We have adapted to changing patterns of breeding in India and that is the main worry, especially for the next generation of jockeys and trainers. There are very few long distance races and very little scope to showcase the ability to train and win long distance races. Most of the races under the club rules are for shorter distances and then you throw a Derby which is over a mile and a quarter or half. This one race offers a huge amount of stake money, which is almost equivalent to winning about twenty races. There should be a balance with more long distance races in lower class. This would give the trainers the opportunity to learn, test and improve on their training abilities. There are several broodmares that have been imported. Many of them are already here. They are bred to stay but do they get enough opportunities to perform?

IR: How do you see the future for Indian thoroughbred on foreign turf?

SP: When I started training, we were running Derby races at 2 minutes 34/35 seconds and we thought we bred champions. We have improved 4-5 seconds over the last 30 years. If we can chop off another 2 seconds, then we can talk about getting closer to the international league.