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By Anil Mukhi | 24 Apr 2020 |

Unfortunately, no one can accurately forecast the future, the claims of astrologers and soothsayers notwithstanding. Had this been possible, we would all have minted our fortunes by selecting every winner on the racetracks of the world and been comfortably ensconced in our villas on the French Riviera, overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean, while sipping our strawberry daiquiris! 

However, bright minds acting together can develop a model of what the future might look like. In the fast-changing environment of 2020 – a year that will go down in infamy due to the spread of Covid-19 – today’s model may become tomorrow’s cannon fodder, but that does not mean that the latest findings should not be part of an action plan to tackle what could be the defining menace of the 21st century. 

On April 1st this column had pointed out that “everything (on the Indian Turf) would spiral out of control” if no action was taken to revive the sport in these unprecedented times. That was no “April Fool’s joke”! With no racing, the time is not far when some owners or trainers will simply abandon their horses, being unable to afford the maintenance costs. That will lead to unmanageable suffering on the part of the noble equines that generously give their all for our pleasure. 

Also undergoing travails are jockeys, riding boys, daily contract staff, and the general apparatus of racing whose income has fallen overnight to zero. Trainers lucky to have good owners may still eke out an existence for a while and likewise grooms with good employers will still be paid, as will employees of race clubs. But for how long?

Unlike other countries, where revised plans and schedules have been published and press statements issued, there is a deafening silence in India regarding the possibility of resuming racing. A perusal of the websites of the six different Turf Authorities reveals that five of them have said little or nothing apart from the news of cancellation of racing. Only the Hyderabad Race Club has issued a press note on April 17th; however, this deals with donation of funds for the battle against Covid-19 as well as welfare measures for daily workers. Welcome though this initiative is, it does not enlighten anyone as to the future – if any – of racing at Malakpet. And information on highly appreciated welfare steps being taken at the RWITC Ltd. for staff comes from private sources, and not from the club itself.

That indispensable publication, England’s Racing Post, has an updated list of jurisdictions that are still conducting Thoroughbred horse racing, as well as current plans of some others. Since this column first mentioned a list of such countries, Singapore dropped out in view of the city-state’s government’s orders. Faint hopes of resumption in May were dashed and June 1st now looks the likely date. However, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Sweden, and some areas in the USA continue to operate live racing. South Africa and Germany plan to resume on May 1st while France has penciled in the date of May 11th. All such racing is or will be behind closed doors. France Galop has published details of the very strict protocol that would apply.

Racing in England and Ireland has also been brought to a halt based on government directives, but both countries have full-time organizations – The British Horseracing Authority and Horse Racing Ireland – that continue to monitor the status of the disease and share their findings with the public. What’s more, the Racing Foundation and the Horserace Betting Levy Board in England have announced a package of £22 million by way of emergency financial support to the sport. This fund includes immediate hardship payments and support for jockeys, training stables and racecourses by way of grants and loans.

Which brings us to the organization at the helm of affairs in India, namely the (Joint) Turf Authorities of India. Without even a permanent office or a website, this organization has not given anyone a clue as to what plans are in place for resumption of racing in India and/or financial support for the needy. It was in fact minuted a few years ago that the Turf Authorities of India would establish a Central Secretariat, which would have been a godsend at this difficult time, but that proposal ran into the usual political wrangling over jurisdiction, the consequence being that the ego of some power-hungry souls subjugated the dire needs of the Indian Turf. Imagine how useful it would have been if a single permanent designated person was in charge of co-ordinating the industry response.

Assuming that it is the mandate, and desire, of the Turf Authorities of India to resume live racing speedily, then infrastructure for telephone and online wagering will have to be set up rapidly, and the appropriate regulatory framework established. For there is no question, unless the virus mutates and disappears, of the conditions becoming conducive to holding a race meeting in India with spectators in the next year or two!

Governments need not be a hurdle. Enquiries have revealed that back in 2017, the then Finance Secretary of one of the racing states in India had verbally agreed to permit online betting provided the concerned race club came up with a viable secure technical solution. The official pointed out that an online platform was analogous to an off-course betting centre and when the latter was permitted, it made no sense to prohibit the former. However, the club dragged its feet at the opportune moment allowing altered political realities to develop. The tide in the affairs of men which needed to be taken at the flood was ignored, and thus “all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries”. Alas, others have had to suffer too….

All the scientific data on Covid-19 shows that herd immunity will not be achieved until (a) enough people have caught the disease and recovered from it, plus (b) an effective vaccine has been developed and administered. Together some 65% of the population will need to be in that category before public sporting events involving close contacts between participants and spectators will pose little threat of a spike in disease incidence. 
Simple mathematics suggests this won’t happen in India till the end of 2021 or 2022. Think of the trials and clearances that any new vaccine would need to go through. Then add the logistics of producing enough vaccine, distributing doses keeping the cold chain intact, and then administering it to over a billion people! It’s a good bet that the Poonawalla-owned Serum Institute of India will develop the first successful vaccine in India. Even so, SII’s CEO, Adar Poonawalla, has stated that his consortium could produce 10 million doses a month. At that rate it would take 10 years to have enough supply for India’s population! 

What will happen to Indian racing if it cannot be conducted for a year or two? Complete devastation, that’s what. And all of it would be completely unnecessary, as racing is one sport that can be conducted even with Covid-19 proliferating. Before cricket and football discover that they can acquire private islands and set them up as residential disease-free zones, from where TV coverage can be sent round the globe, racing could regain popularity as the only game in town. Such an opportunity will never again present itself!

Sources say that the Turf Authorities of India are seized of the matter. But we cannot afford the delays inherent in a sluggish approach as Chairmen assemble their thoughts. Like a good tree is the one which was planted 20 years ago, so also a good approach to the present problem is the one which was implemented “yesterday”. Probably the makers of the popular video contact software that is used to conduct online meetings were thinking of speed when they branded it under the name Zoom. Well, it’s time for the Turf Authorities of India to zoom! The lives of thousands of horses and livelihood of millions of horse racing and breeding folk are at risk.