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By Mahendra Mallya | 16 Jul 2020 | MUMBAI

Mr Zavaray Poonawalla, Chairman, RWITC, is known to wear his heart on his sleeve. He has been the one who has never shied away from taking innovative and unexplored initiatives with regularity, be it bringing the Cartier Million version in the form of Poonawalla Million or taking Indian horses to race overseas to ‘Astonish’ the racing fraternity. He has had a systematic approach to running the show and has tided over several bothersome issues in the past to emerge triumphant more often than not. The Covid 19 though is a different ball game with the virus bludgeoning through economies and industries alike. The various sports arenas are worst hit than ever before. Indian horseracing is already reeling under severe issues such as dwindling tote collections, bookmakers’ disputes and GST levies and the pandemic has had a devastating effect on the sport. Indiarace made an impromptu call to ‘ZSP’ and the charismatic Chairman was gracious enough to promptly spare a good hour speaking his mind. Excerpts:

Indiarace: What was the biggest takeaway from the meeting of the Managing Committee held on Friday last?

ZS Poonawalla: It was a fruitful meeting and the biggest take away was our readiness to get racing started as soon as the Government gives us the go-ahead. The racing fixture was discussed and arrived at. The track condition and other infrastructural updates at the Pune racecourse were discussed. I thought the last year was a difficult year for racing in general. But then no one could have seen what we are going through now. Nevertheless, we have to battle on new parameters this time and we are up to it. Despite the ‘cash crunch,’ we have managed to put up fairly generous stakes.

The Club’s support to the owners, professionals, even to the grooms was deliberated. Hence, the total stakes are reasonably good considering the truncated season that we are staring at currently. The biggest take away, in my opinion, would be our preparedness to get going.

IR: Can we safely assume that the prospectus for the Pune Season 2020 in underway?

ZSP: Yes, the prospectus has been finalized. It is an attractive 15-day program. The major Grade I races would obviously be the Pune Derby, The Indian St Leger which will be the highlights of the season. We are trying to accommodate all the graded races though the time-frame is a little tight. We are doing our best to make it as attractive as we can under the circumstances. The stakes will match up to that of last year.

IR: Was it easy to pull it off - the stakes I mean, with the current financial status of the club?

ZSP: It was difficult considering this is the darkest year of them all. I am leaving no stone unturned to ensure financial stability. There is an anticipated loss breaching the Rs Eight Crore mark and with the GST relief/reform still to come, the turbulence is at its peak. Dark clouds are hovering I must say. Despite this we have managed to offer over Rs Three Crores as stakes for the 15-day season, which is more than just reasonable. The committee has worked cohesively with the focus on ensuring the owners and professionals’ benefits in mind. Races for six-year old horses for example will give a boost to owners with a smaller string etc. I believe most will agree that we have done well in these trying times.

IR: You have also tweeted that arrangements are at concluding levels for featuring online betting. Would it include the smaller bettors’ interests as well?

ZSP: Suffice to say that we are on the verge of getting the approval for online betting. This should give a boost to a whole new sect of potential bettors. The small bettors’ interests are uppermost in our minds and we are likely to keep the minimum bet to as small as Rs Five only to make it feasible for new or small-stake bettors.

IR: Have the office bearers of the Turf Authorities of India had any video meetings to discuss the way forward for resumption of conducting racing and incorporating a common platform pan India for online betting?

ZSP: Yes indeed. Under my chairmanship it is my desire that all Turf Clubs unite and work as a cohesive strong unit. This is one of my various dreams. I am working on pan India racing/betting and I shall continue my endeavour in this regard.

IR: How do you perceive that the Government’s stand on online betting?

ZSP: The positive results that have come from Bengaluru and Kolkata show the way the state governments are cooperating with the clubs. This is a result of enormous hard work done by Mr Harimohan Naidu and Mr Vinod Shivappa in Bengaluru and M/s Sudipto Sarkar and Cyrus Madan at Kolkata for their efforts in getting the approvals for online betting for their respective Clubs. We are nearly there as well and online betting is the way forward.

IR: (a) The general perception doing the rounds is that racing may resume but without spectators, at least for the first few meetings – your comment on this. (b) If yes, will it not be a severe hit on the revenue generated from entry ticket sales, bookmakers’ fees, Catering royalties and also the Club’s commission on the betting turnover? They all add up to a substantial bit, don't they?

ZSP: The club is well aware of the critical situation and we will be highly responsible in our endeavour to conduct racing as they call it ‘under closed doors’. It is inevitable and we have to follow all guidelines. Nevertheless, it is better than no racing at all. People can follow the action which will be streamed live on our website.

Regarding the latter half of your question, the loss of revenue too is inevitable. But the scope is at looking not just at the revenue bit, but the overall resumption of racing action on the turf. We have to act on behalf of those closely connected with racing such as owners, professionals and also the general racing enthusiastic public who I am sure are waiting eagerly for racing to start; even if it means conducting racing at a loss. There will be ways to keep the club afloat financially, but the sooner we start the action, the better it would be. My committee is moving in the right direction and who knows, it could emerge as a guiding factor for the clubs across India.

IR: Could the Club not license select Bookmakers to operate from home to accept betting on telephone with the club to monitor and log the betting? Have you thought on these lines as well?

ZSP: Yes, this is also an option under consideration. We have had initial discussion on this. We have ‘Zoom’ meetings every fortnight and in between are open to emergency meetings. This point was mooted and we will come up with a feasible plan very soon.

IR: With the maintenance of social-distancing being the new normal, what would be the game plan to ensure this at the venue on race days?

ZSP: We are closely monitoring the measures taken at racecourse overseas at the moment. That is helping in understanding exactly how and what needs to be done. We have formed our own team of experts as well, who will ensure complete safety for everyone present. All guidelines will be adhered to strictly. A system will be put in place at the jockey’s change room as well and clear instructions/counselling will be provided on ground.

IR: The labour class that are involved in the track maintenance and other civil workforce seem the most vulnerable full/part time employees of the Club. What has been done about educating them on the virus and their overall welfare?

ZSP: The Stipes and several officers-in-charge are doing a good job of keeping close tabs on these staff members. They are tested and made aware of the dos and don’ts thoroughly. Each of them has been urged to remain alert and keep their respective neighbourhood free of any risk. This has worked tremendously well so far.

IR: Being in the chair at the most difficult times ever in racing history, how have you coped with this enormous pressure? What is your message to those closely connected with racing and the public in general?

ZSP: Yes and I thought last year was the most difficult one! Indian Racing this year in particular will never be forgotten due to the Covid 19 pandemic. I have been able to cope chiefly due to the tremendous support of my colleagues in the committee, friends, well-wishers and of course my family. The committee has stood up to the task and worked under severe pressure all through. The admin staff members too have contributed in a big way working round the clock and thus far we have been able to negotiate the turbulence effectively. I can modestly say that it has been beautifully orchestrated with each one fulfilling his/her responsibility efficiently & selflessly. If you ask me, everything has worked out and I would term it “tickety-boo” in one word. I am hoping that the necessary permissions are soon granted from the government authorities. The RWITC is raring to go!

As for my message, I would like to say that as far as my committee and I are here, racing will thrive all across India. On a philosophical note, I believe that when one door shuts. God opens another avenue and that’s what will happen! This too shall pass! Until then, stay safe.