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By Shailendra Awasthi | 15 Sep 2019 | PUNE

MUMBAI: Leading breeder Zavaray Poonawalla is holding the reigns of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) at a very tough time with severe financial crisis, absence of bookmakers and receding faith of punters in fair racing, is at its peak. The newly elected chairman, however, is confident that his team will steady the ship. TOI caught up with him to get a sense of his plans. Excerpts: 

What will be your priorities in this most gloomy scenario ever faced by the RWITC?

RWITC is witnessing the worst financial phase in its rich history. The club’s financial position is down.. GST rate is unfeasible. Bookmakers have left. Footfall is dwindling. Stake money has been cut down and it seems that racing is haunted from all directions. But where there is a will, there is a way! With my outstanding panel of five members, who carry utmost integrity, dedication and passion, it is definitely possible for our club to come on course and overcome the critical financial condition sooner than later. We face a difficult task but are determined to come out of many difficulties that our club is facing. We had done extensive analysis before the elections on various matters that are concerning racing and our club and have meticulously set the priorities with an effective execution plan and course of action. Our foremost priority is the GST reform on which we are working relentlessly since last six months. Another concern is the fading confidence of horse connections and associates in racing which we are determined to rekindle by fair means and practices. We shall spare no erring professional and will conduct judicial enquiries with no fear of favour but at the same time we will be as fair as possible to all. Due to the dwindling funds of our club, stake money was reduced by the managing committee last year. We hope to reinstate this on priority and budget a separate quota for stake money after arriving on a stable financial position. Apart from several big and small undertakings, the most immediate assignment my team will work on under my guidance is bringing back the bookmakers for which we have a plan of action designed and have the proposal ready for negotiations.

How do you plan to tackle GST issue?

The GST issue is undoubtedly the governing factor for the survival of racing in India. I had anticipated the severe impact of GST on Indian racing almost six months back before I took the matter up. In fact I am just now awaiting my turn to meet the officials at the Ministry of Finance in Delhi whilst I talk to you. The GST reform will not only bring back life to the two-century old sport but will also bring about enormous relief to thousands who are dependent on the institution for their livelihood. To take this matter up, a strong team was formed by the Turf Authorities of India comprising of Harimohan Naidu from the Bangalore Turf Club, Surendra Reddy from the Hyderabad Turf Club, Ramesh Rangarajan from the Madras Race Club, Harish Ramchandani from the Calcutta Turf Club, Naggappa from the Mysore Race Club and Geoffrey Nagpal and myself from the Royal Western India Turf Club to officially represent the GST matter to the Government of India. I would like to add here that Ameeta Mehra has added valuable support and Cyrus Madon has also helped the cause. We have been working day and night and have left no stone unturned in impressing upon the revenue departments and finance authorities that our proposal for reduction in GST is valid and essential for the survival of the sport. Horse Racing many times is misconstrued and termed as gambling which is incorrect. We have effectively emphasized the fact to the authorities that racing is a ‘game of skill’ and not ‘chance’ and therefore should not be blended with lottery and casino. Horse Racing all over the country is governed by several honorary committees that are elected by thousands of members. Apart from horse racing, the club’s offer recreational facilities for its members and is a source of income for thousands. The livelihood of these people depends on the prosperity of the institution and therefore it is most imperative to get the GST reform in order to tackle the several financial issues. Another major concern is that high taxes encourage punters to bet illegally causing loss of revenue to both the government and the club. 

What are realistic expectations on GST reduction?

We have convinced the government to distinguish horse racing from lottery and casino and consider our proposal for a GST reform. Presently the GST of 28% applies on the full bet value. We have requested for the 28% GST to be applied only on the Commission of the Club. This will increase the betting collection and put a near end to illegal betting thus boosting the revenue multifold for the government and for our Club.

Absence of the bookmakers at Mumbai has not only severely affected the club's finances, it has also affected the betting collections. What are your plans to get the sizable numbers of bookmakers back in business?

It is abundantly clear that the absence of Bookmakers has severely affected the club’s already depleting finances. It has caused tremendous inconvenience to the punters because they are unable to bet on tote due to high GST rate of 28%. We have a plan of action in place to ensure that Mumbai bookmakers have their licenses and get back to business. Our club has major financial issues that need to be addressed and the absence of Bookmakers is making it only worse therefore we are inclined to settle this sooner than later.

Your plans to ensure fair and clean racing?

We are committed to judicious and fair racing in any situation without any fear or favour. There is not even an iota of doubt in our minds when it comes to fair practices. Our approach on fair racing is through strong vigilance and fair judgments and we are determined to handle erring professionals with an iron hand.

Punters need at least minimum of eight races per race day and at least minimum of 8 contenders in each of them. Can you ensure it?

Having 8 races in a day with 8 horses in each race is an ideal situation and I would truly be happy to see this happen but it’s a difficult task as the Trainers decide the entries of their wards and there are lots of ancillary attachments to their decision. When our finances improve, the prize money will increase as such there will be evidently an increase in the number of horses running resulting in more number of races and race days. This is already in our agenda taken up by Stewards panel and we hope to improve on it.

I am fortunately blessed with a strong and enthusiastic team which will undoubtedly boost my endeavors to take our Club and racing forward. Indian Racing is passing through its worst phase in history but we are confident to do everything possible to revive and bring back the sport from its death nail with constructive plans and actions. 

Courtesy TOI