NILGIRIS DERBY, Gr.1
Major Srinivas Nargolkar (Retd.)
Horse racing in India is a legacy of the British. The British found the summer heat of the Indian plains hard to bear and they took refuge in cooler hills in the summer months. Horses were the main means of transport in the hilly terrain and it was inevitable that racing of sorts would follow. There were racecourses at Darjeeling, Simla, Matheran, Mahabaleshwar and Shillong and the racing ranged from Gymkhana meetings to Sky meetings. However, it was only the racing at Ootacamund, which started in mid-nineteenth century, that was under Rules. Ootacamund has now become Udhagamandalam but still retains its shortened form Ooty. The beautiful Annadale racecourse at Shimla was marginally more elevated. Today, the Ooty racecourse, is probably the highest race track in the world. (Corrections welcome).
The Ooty racecourse is situated in the heart of the town. It lacks the scenic beauty of Annadale. The railway station and the bus stand are not very far and the main bazaar is adjacent to the the final bend. The bazaar does give the course its landmark, the Market Bend. The course itself is narrow and odd-shaped. The main bend between 1000 m. and 800 m. is very sharp when the field has to do almost a U-turn. Most races are confined to a distance of a mile or less. The Ooty season commences in in mid-April and goes on till early June. In the late 1960s, about 80 races used to be run and that is about the number that were contested last year. There was a period in between when almost 200 races were run.
The earliest racing in India was conducted in the mornings and the sumptuous late breakfast laid out after the last race was as much an attraction as the sport itself. Gradually, the racing shifted to the afternoons but every now and then all centres have had to resort to morning racing for a variety of reasons. Ooty remains the only centre that races exclusively in the mornings.
Of the thirty three-year-olds that that still held ground at the handicap stage, exactly a dozen have accepted to start for the the 40th renewal of the Nilgiris Derby, Gr.1 on Sunday. There are seven colts and all of them participated a fortnight ago in the Nilgiris 2000 Guineas, Gr.2 won by Castilian (Power - Oyster Reef). Castilian, trained by Vishal Gaikwad for the Dhunjibhoys of Five Star Shipping Co., is the only 'got-abroad' in the field and is unbeaten in his two starts so far. He did appear in some strife just before coming in to the short straight but Trevor managed to extricate him in time from what could have been a perilous situation and he finished on smoothly to land the spoils. He is the least experienced of the colts and hence has the scope for most improvement. Monte Rei and Otus who finished behind him last time out are not in the field but he had the measure of the other six colts rather easily.
Castilian is the first foal of his dam who was purchased for a mere 3,000 gns. at the Tattersalls Sale in December 2014. Oyster Reef was unraced and she was not in foal so she was sent to the Irish 2000 Guineas, Gr.1 winner Power who was standing for 8,000 euros at Coolmore. Castilian is the result of that mating. He has a very interesting pedigree and a mile should pose him no problems. He was five lengths clear of Yours Forever (Arazan - Yutai) and that is a comfortable margin provided he has come out of his race well. He bids fair to become the 18th colt to bag the Colts' (or Nilgiris 2000 Guineas, if you like) and the Nilgiris Derby double.
Yours Forever, trained by L.V.R. Deshmukh, who is still a maiden after four starts, ushered the Nilgiris 2000 Guineas, Gr.2 field into the straight before bowing out. He is a full-brother to Eternal Flame who won the Bangalore Fillies' Championship Stakes, Gr.1. Yours Forever thus has the pedigree but needs to get into the winning groove first. Deshmukh will be saddling another well-bred one in Liberate (Air Support - Efrhina), a half-sister to the outstanding filly Amazing Grace. Liberate scored on her debut as a two year-old beating Born Greek and Monte Rei -- second to Castilian last time out -- but has finished off-the-board in her next two starts including in the Nilgiris 1000 Guineas, Gr.3. Vishal Gaikwad and Vittal Deshmukh provide the threat to the Guindy-based trainers.
Robert Foley's monopoly of this race was broken by Neil Darashah-trained Battalion two years ago. He struck back immediately winning with Chief of Command. He will be saddling three runners for three different interests on Sunday. The colt Royal Chieftain (Saamid - Reina de Mexico), who will carry the gold and brown colours, has plenty to find on bare form. For the Dhunjibhoys he will saddle the well-bred maiden filly Camile Claudel (Kingda Ka - Highland Ghillie). She is a half-sister to Cabriolet, Berlusconi and Reynolds and a full-sister Rigoletto so she has potential though her immediate mission seems to be to make pace for Castilian. Then there is Supreme Fragrance (Multidimensional - Dior) owned by Mr. A.C. Muthiah. A winner on debut and fourth in the Nilgiris 1000 Guineas, Gr.3 in her two starts so far, she strikes as a filly for the winter though one overlooks a Multidimensional progeny in a Classic at one's own peril.
Like his Guindy compatriot Robert Foley, B. Suresh also saddles no less than three runners. The best of them appears to be the filly Royal Currency (Corporate Jungle - Private Collection) who started as the favourite for the Nilgiris 1000 Guineas, Gr.3, led for much of the way and clung on tenaciously for the third spot when Cape Kidnappers and Apalis passed her. She is the only runner in the field to have won over a mile and has had a week more than the colts to recover from her last start exertions. Her sire died young at Hazara Stud which is a pity because his first crop has been promising. Royal Rules, like Royal Currency, will run in the gold and brown silks while the only colt that Suresh fields is Breaking Bounds (Tazahum - Dear Liza). In the Nilgiris 2000 Guineas, Gr.2, Yours Forever, Breaking Bounds, King T'chala, Glorious Destiny and Dominant were all within a length of each other and the way the race is run on Sunday could well see their inter se positions change.
King T'chala (Arazan - Avec Plaisir) had his followers in Castilian's race. His dam, the German-born Avec Plaisir, was a winner of five races in Ireland including three Listed Races. She was imported by Poonawalla Farms but her first nine foals had only four winners and she was passed on to Vikram Greenlands where King T'chala was born. The connections of King T'chala were obviously disappointed with his run behind Castilian and asked for an official veterinary examination. That examination revealed nothing untoward.
PAST THE POST
The Nilgiris Classics were first run in the summer of 1977. The inaugural Nilgiris Derby was run in soft going and Mr. A.C. Muthiah's Grand Parade crossed the wire a head clear of the filly Winged Wonder who was owned by M/s. G. Narasimhan & S. Hill and was saddled by David Hill. An objection for boring by Winged Wonder's jockey B. Mathews against Jagdish was upheld and thus Mr. Muthiah was denied the pleasure of leading in the winner. It was a dramatic start to the newly instituted race. Mr. Muthiah has still not led in a winner of the Nilgiris Derby in his own colours but has had some consolation through Chief of Command and My Opinion which were owned by Dr. M.A.M. Ramaswamy's Charitable Trust which he represents.
The following year, the great Own Opinion won the race. Three very good fillies -- Nicolette, Birthday Girl and Chaitanya Ratham -- added their names to the scroll in the next seven years. Chaitanya Ratham's full-brother Chaitanya Chakram was all set to emulate his elder sister in 1986 when the Tamil Nadu government banned racing before that year's Nilgiris Derby could be run. In 1989, racing resumed and the next 27 renewals of the Nilgiris Derby were won by horses sporting the gold-and-brown silks. That isolated period of Tamil Nadu racing ended when Battalion, owned by the Mistrys of the Manjri Stud and trained by Neil Darashah won the 2016 running. The gold-and-brown colours were once again to the fore in 2017 and 2018 with Chief of Command and My Opinion but both of them had to quell the challenge of Pesi Shroff-trained horses and were hence deserving winners.