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By Anil Mukhi | 02 Apr 2020 |

Everyone needs to get used to the fact that life after Covid-19 is never going to be the same. The accompanying economic cataclysm will ensure that. Weaker businesses will fold up, while new ones – as unimaginable as smart phones were a dozen years ago – will be born. 

The situation is so dynamic, nay volatile, that the following list may have changed by the time you read these words: jurisdictions that are still conducting Thoroughbred horse racing, albeit without spectators present, include Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and some areas in the USA. And the reason they can do so, without endangering public health, is because online wagering is possible with TV and streaming coverage. Hence the gambling dollar can come to the rescue of the state by way of betting tax.

Truly, racing is perhaps the only sport that can be conducted under the current circumstances. One major race in Japan last week (without patrons) saw a turnover in excess of that of the previous year!

What about the risk to personnel if racing is conducted? Of course there is a small risk of spreading the virus. But then so is there a risk in crossing a road or boarding a flight. One has to judge whether the risk is manageable. Fortunately, racecourses are so vast that there is only a minuscule chanceof those necessary coming into close contact, assuming procedures are tweaked accordingly. And in any case, grooms in racing stables round the country are even now feeding and watering horses – that is an essential activity that cannot ever stop.

What are the advantages? For one, investors in racehorses will be able to earn prize money in order to defray expenses on maintenance. Jockeys, trainers, stable staff, officials, etc., will be able to put food on their tables. There is the clear danger that some owners will simply run away, should the current lockdown persist for months. In that case, horses will simply starve and the whole Indian Racing & Breeding industry will be devastated.  

Despite all the bravado, it’s plain that the finances of the central and state governments are going to take an enormous hit from the pandemic. Not that racing is a huge contributor but right now the governments need every scrap they can garner. Today, with no racing, income tax collections from prize money and GST collections from wagering are a big fat ZERO. Soon salaries of race club employees will come under pressure, leading to further losses from income tax. One thing leads to another and everything will spiral out of control.

At least with limited live racing – assuming online wagering is permitted – some amounts of revenue can be realized. If this logic is spread to other areas of functioning, a semblance of normality is possible. Shutting all activity with a bludgeon helps no one – a nuanced approach is essential.

There is yet another angle: the mental health of the public. With no live sports to watch, there is no outlet for their frustration. With live racing helping to pass the time, lockdown afternoons could be about more than sleeping or watching Netflix. The declining popularity of racing could actually be reversed!

Timing-wise, the Indian Turf narrowly escaped a disaster – the Indian Turf Invitation Cup meeting was safely conducted last month. Hyderabad and Mysore had concluded, and Calcutta and Madras lost only a few meetings each. The major losers were the RWITC Ltd., which saw 9 or 10 race-days slip away into the Arabian Sea, and the Delhi Race Club (1940) Ltd.

Looking forward, already the Ooty meeting is “toast” – the Madras Race Club does not specifically mention anything on its website, but it’s significant that there are no dates listed in its calendar for April. Barring a favourable mutation/weakening of the virus the Bangalore Summer Meeting will likely be under threat as well. After that, who knows? 

As a worst case scenario, let us assume that there is no live racing in India with public participation for the remainder of the 2019-2020 season. As many as 3,036 horses that have raced at least once in the current season, plus another 1,000 two-year-olds that entered training in February/March 2020, would require an outlay of not less than Rs.56 crores for maintaining them from April to October. Can owners honestly be expected to dip into their savings to this extent?

Here’s a sample of five questions that occurred to me, arranged at random:

Q. How will state governments in India allow this?

A. The same way they are locking you up now – by executive fiat using powers derived under emergency legislation. It’s in their interest to get the revenue streams to resume. And don’t forget the commitment to “Digital India”.

Q. Who will operate the online connection to the Tote?

A. Software for this purpose can be written in a matter of days, not weeks. After all, every bank/airline/payment wallet has already implemented solutions. All race clubs can merge their Totes immediately (this trend is already accelerating). It helps greatly that the Chairman of the Turf Authorities of India, Mr. Zavaray Poonawalla, has excellent relations with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, whose expertise can be sought in this area.

Q. How will jockeys get aboard their mounts without close contact with trainers/grooms?

A. By making temporary padded stools/ladders in the paddock, with the horse being brought alongside on one side and the rider on the other.

Q. How will the starting crew avoid close contact at the gates?

A. By creating a quarantine residential zone in which a dozen or so volunteers can be isolated initially for three weeks (with their feed and accommodation taken care of). They would emerge thereafter only on raceday afternoons. Horses could be loaded in alternate stalls with empty stalls in between.  

Q. How would horses train without close contact between attendant human beings?

A. By specifying work times for each stable – say 30 to 60 minutes each on alternate days – with workouts spread outin the mornings, afternoons and evenings.

Brighter minds than mine would have numerous other questions. These are certainly welcome. In these trying times, any and all realistic solutions are on the table.

If the next couple of months are gainfully employed in setting everything in motion, Bangalore and Mysore could commence in June, along with Pune (early start to make up for lost days), and thereafter the normal calendar would resume – though without the public, until Covid-19 is tamed.

Desperate times require desperate measures. Are all concerned – particularly state Governments and race clubs – up to it?