THE LAST INDIAN CLASSIC
The St. Leger run at Doncaster is the oldest Classic in the world. It was run first in 1776. The Derby and the Oaks came later while the two Guineas events were instituted only in the 19th century. However, the St. Leger, the longest of the five Classics, has been scheduled to be run last in early autumn.
It was inevitable that when the Indian Classics were founded in 1942-43, the pattern of English racing was emulated. In the first year, though, there were only three Classics; the two Guineas and the Derby. The Oaks and the St. Leger were added from the following year. Initially, the St. Leger was run as Governor-General's Cup. After India became a Republic, the name of the race was changed to the Indian St. Leger. The race has alternated between Mumbai and Pune with 45 renewals at Mahalakshmi and 31 across the ghats. This has divided the opinion among the racing fans. There are some who favour Mumbai whereas others plump for Pune. A good case can be made for both the sides. The pro-Mumbai lobby feels that as the St. Leger is the last leg of the Triple Crown an early culmination is preferable so as to allow a horse to carry the momentum and maintain the anticipation among fans. The other party says that a St. Leger at Pune is a tougher test and confers the Triple Crown on a worthier horse. Such a Triple Crown winner has to hold his form for much longer and tackle a testing, undulating track that is at the mercy of Monsoon weather. In 76 years, twenty horses have been in line for a Triple Crown having won the Indian 2000 Guineas and the Indian Derby. Five of them did not contest the Indian St. Leger. Of the remaining fifteen that did ten were victorious. Eight Indian Triple Crown winners have sealed it at Mahalakshmi while only two -- Squanderer and Almanac, both trained by R.R. Byramji -- triumphed at Pune.
The Indian St. Leger is the only Classic that has seen three dist, dist, dist wins and all of them were at Pune. It is also true that the closest -- shd, shd -- finish involving the first three horses came at Pune. Whether it is run at Mumbai or Pune and whether it was called the Governor-General's Cup or the Indian St. Leger, the prestige of the race has been the same. It is the last peak that a horse has to scale to proclaim Triple Crown glory. There have been 76 renewals of the race so far and a good tale can be narrated about most of them. To single out five of the most memorable contests from them is no easy task. The quintet chosen is not based on any fixed criteria nor does it purport to showcase the best winners of the race or recount the most pulsating finishes. However, there is some historical fact, some behind-the-scenes tid bit that may or may not be commonly known or something unique that has prompted their selection.
The Indian Classics of the year 1947-48 were the first run in independent India. When the Governor-General's Cup came around towards the end of February, a total of 27 Indian Classics had been run since the inception and they were all won by horses ridden by foreign jockeys. Thus, when Pandu Khade won the Governor-General's Cup astride Doorani, he became the first Indian jockey to ride an Indian Classic winner.
Doorani (b c 1944 Mas d'Antibes* - Daring Dance*) was bred by Nawabzada Yemin-ul-Mulk of Bhopal at his own stud. He was a late foal who raced unplaced in his breeder's colours in the early part of his career. He was sold to Mr. R.T. Wandrekar during the Pune season. He had his first start for his new owner towards the end of the1947 Mumbai season when he made it on the board for the first time under Kasbekar. Four days later, on the New Year's Day of 1948, ridden by Khade, he won a mile race by eight lengths. Khade again had the mount in the Berar Cup over the Derby distance and was just touched off by a head by Shivaji (Younger). Doorani had his third race of the month in Jeanne D'Arc's Indian Derby where Sibbritt was unable to get his number in the frame. On the last day of February, Khade was reunited with the colt and he scored a facile victory over 2000 m.
The Derby victress Jeanne d'Arc was missing from the Indian St. Leger run on 9 March and in her absence Kunigal Star, a short-head second to the filly in the Derby, had the maximum support. The favourite floundered in the race and Khade brought home the 9 to 1 shot Doorani by three and half lengths to etch his name in the history books. Doorani, who was trained by H. Hassanali, remained in training for two more years but failed to win.
Doorani was born on 22 June. In the entire history of Indian Classics, no winner has been born at a later date.
The 1955 Indian Derby was won by Maharaja of Kashmir's Rough Deal who redeemed somewhat the dismal season his owner was having. At that point in time, Kashmir had won only two races, both coming through the Derby winner. Rough Deal was an odds-on favourite for the Indian St. Leger and widely expected to land his third consecutive race with Eric Eldin on board. His principal rival appeared to be Flying Red who had beaten him in the Indian 2000 Guineas and finished second in the Derby.
The Indian St. Leger was run on Saturday, 5 March 1955. There were only five runners but it was a bad start -- the Starter was later cautioned by the Stewards -- and Flying Red lost about four to five lengths. Pandu Khade was on Mr. P.M. Modi's Pimpernel who had been third in the Derby. Here, Khade rushed him to the front and set a solid pace. Controlling the tempo to a nicety -- Khade slowing it down along the back-stretch and then opening all throttles as the field approached the final bend -- Pimpernel entered the straight with a handy lead. Rough Deal had tracked the front runner throughout and Eldin had been closing the gap gradually. It seemed a matter of time before India's first grey Derby winner would collar the runaway leader but it was not to be. Khade had extracted everything from his mount and he enjoyed a useful lead but Pimpernel had nothing more to give. Here Khade's artistry came into play. He put the whip away, gathered the sprawling, tired horse and rode with just his hands and heels. At the wire, Pimpernel had a head to spare over Rough Deal and Khade received thunderous applause as he was led in.
Old timers consider that ride of Khade as one of the finest displays of front running exhibited at Mahalakshmi. The way he calibrated the pace, the precise timing of his final run and his sympathetic 'nursing' of a tired horse were worthy of all the accolades showered on him. Nobody summed it up better than HOTSPUR, the racing correspondent of the Times of India. "The Derby winner
was ridden by Eric Eldin. Eldin is an accomplished jockey who has a strong finish. Khade at his best is a genius."
In his illustrious career of 19 starts, the great Squanderer won 18 races. His solitary loss came in his fourth start in the Bangalore Colts' Trial Stakes, Gr.3. His next nine races included the Bangalore Derby, Gr.1, the Indian 2000 Guineas, Gr.1, Indian Derby, Gr.1 and the President of India Gold Cup, Gr.1 but the R.W.I.T.C. Ltd. Invitational Cup, Gr.3 was probably the best race he ever ran.
After coming to Pune from Hyderabad, Squanderer was in trainer Byramji's stables at Wanowrie, about two kilometres away from the race course. One morning, while walking to the track for his morning workout, raucous honking of a passing lorry upset him, he got loose, ran helter skelter and fell into a ditch. Fortunately, he suffered no major injury but he was badly bruised, sore and stiff. With the St. Leger imminent, his trainer was wary of giving him even just an analgesic. Hot water formentation and application of turmeric paste to reduce swelling was the treatment that Squanderer received.
That year's Indian St. Leger, Gr.1 had only three runners; Squanderer, his perennial rival Wild Blossom and Topspin.He had beaten them before. But there was plenty of rain about and a soggy track added another dimension to Squanderer's physical problems. Wild Blossom made the running as Shinde settled the Champion into a comfortable last. Shinde remained unruffled even when Wild Blossom stretched the lead to the proverbial street but improved his position as Squanderer gradually warmed up. With 1000 m. to go, Topsin dropped out and Squanderer moved into the front runner's slipstream. They were racing close to the outer rail where the going was a bit better. At the Club House turn, Squanderer was poised to strike but both the horses were beginning to tire and slithering in the tacky going. Shinde let Squanderer decide when he wanted to make his move. A couple of taps edged him ahead of Wild Blossom who refused to throw the towel in. Shinde then brought out his whip in earnest and by the time the duo reached the Members' Enclosure, Squanderer was assured of the Triple Crown..
It was not a pretty victory. Real Champions, though, know how to win ugly also when need be. Squanderer had beaten Wild Blossom by a length in the Indian 2000 Guineas, Gr1 and by two and a half lengths in the Indian Derby, Gr.1. Here, the margin of victory was two lengths. Considering his physical condition, Squanderer can be said to have run above the previous form. Byramji rates Squanderer's St. Leger win as the most gallant of his career with sheer will power propelling him to victory. That victory made Squanderer the first horse to win the Indian Triple Crown at Pune. It was Byramji's third consecutive St. Leger and he still remains the only trainer with a hat-trick -- Sweet Memories, Commanche and Squanderer -- to his credit.
Amorous Knight, 1986
The racing year of 1985-86 was dominated by the clashes of two heavy-weights, Amorous Knight and Sir Bruce. The Western India stalwarts fought out the finish in five Gr.1 contests starting with the Splendour Deluxe Pune Derby, Gr.1. With six wins from six starts including the Bangalore Summer Classic double and a victory in the Southern Command Cup, L -- a rare win for a three year-old against older horses in a black-type race -- Sir Bruce appeared invincible. However, Amorous Knight (P Shroff), a winner of four of his five starts till then, upset the favourite with a facile win. The win was robbed off some sheen because Sir Bruce was interfered with, hit his right shoulder into the running rail and lost momentum just before the bend. Their next encounter took place in the McDowell Indian Derby, Gr.1 where Amorous Knight had broken into the lead opposite the First Enclosure but Kinane hauled him with a well timed run to win by a comfortable two and a half lengths. The scores were level at 1-1.The battle moved to Guindy where Shroff moved ahead coming from behind. It was felt that Kinane had moved too early on Sir Bruce but the jockey has defended his move in his autobiography by saying that in a big race one has to take the decision as the race unfolds and a jockey cannot always stick to the script. The next skirmish occured at Malakpet in the President of India Gold Cup, Gr.1 and Aslam Kader on Sir Bruce let Shroff have the first run and cut him to size with a typical Aslam Kader finish.
The Indian St. Leger at Pune was the decider. There were six runners and apart from the two worthies, there was the Indian Oaks, Gr.1 winner Silver Haven. Earlier that season, the filly had beaten both Sir Bruce and Amorous Knight in a Class 1 race when in receipt of weight. Another worthy contender was Solitary Splendour, fourth in the Indian Derby, Gr.1, who seemed to be coming into his own at the right time having won the Idar Gold Cup, Gr.3 on his previous start. These four predictably filled the places in the frame but the order was unexpected. Reuben on Solitary Splendour took over the running from Columbus just before the final bend and he was shadowed by Upwards. Silver Haven (Aslam Kader) was moving up while Sir Bruce (R. Corner) and Amorous Knight (P Shroff) were the backmarkers. With a furlong to go, Silver Haven challenged Solitary Splendour. Shroff was waiting for Sir Bruce to make a move but when he realised that Indian Derby winner was not at the races, he quickly changed his plans and set off. The front duo was battling it out when suddenly Amorous Knight loomed large on the outside and the trio went past the post locked together. The camera gave the race to Amorous Knight with Silver Haven second and Solitary Splendour third, a shd and a shd separating the first three. It was one of Shroff's best rides, his timing was impeccable and he bested two jockeys -- Reuben and Aslam -- who were stronger finishers and had got the first run. The previous year, he had halted Sir Bruce's winning sequence; this time he foiled the same horse's Triple Crown bid.
Classic Story, 1990
When the McDowell Indian St. Leger, Gr.1 of 1980 was run, it was thought to be the last renewal at Pune since the return to Mahalakshmi had already been announced. A field of just five runners did not promise a fitting farewell since the Indian Derby-Invitation Cup winner Desert Warrior (P Shroff) towered over his opponents. The one likely to give him something to do was the Bangalore filly Classic Story trained by Byramji. Owned by Mr. J.P.Goenka, Classic Story was no slouch. She had ended the winter season with a hat-trick of Bangalore Derby-South India St. Leger- Bangalore St. Leger and had arrived in Pune with the Hyderabad Monsoon Double of NIzam's Gold Cup and President of India Gold Cup. Desert Warrior, on the other hand, had raced just once after his Invitation Cup triumph at Calcutta. That was in the Idar Gold Cup. Giving ten kgs. or more to the rest of the field and short of a race gallop, the Invitation Cup winner became the meat in the sandwich of two low weighted fillies Tiger Lily and Nothern Bloom, in a three-way photo finish.
It was Nothern Bloom who streaked to the front when the gates opened and was a distance in front of Classic Story passing the winning post for the first time. She then veered out violently, dislodged her rider and took no further part in the race. That left Classic Story in front and Shinde set a steady gallop with Desert Warrior keeping tabs at a respectable distance. Gradually, Shinde upped the tempo and Shroff, mindful of the threat began to move closer. Opposite the Club House, Classic Story was two lengths in front of Desert Warrior. As soon he came into the straight, Shinde gave a couple of left-handers to his filly to let her know that the race was on with Desert Warrior now inching even closer. Then he sat low in the saddle and held his filly together. As Desert Warrior ranged alongside, the temptation to go for the whip would have been strong but Shinde resisted it. While the gutsy filly was doing her best, Shroff was not sparing the whale bone on the colt. He rode Desert Warrior as hard as he could but was never able to get his nose in front. It had been a thriller down the short Pune straight and a photo-finish was announced. The camera print gave the race to Classic story by a short-head and the resulting applause shook the rafters of the old stands.
Everyone agreed that Shinde had ridden a peach of a race. Byramji rackons that it was one of the three best races that Shinde rode for him. In the Weighing Room, Shamu Chavan waited for Shinde to weigh out and then rushed to hug him. "Aaj Pandu ani Pimpernel chi athvan aali", he said. ("Today I remembered Pandu and Pimpernel."). A compliment from one legend to another. It does not get any better than that.
PAST THE POST
It is six months since racing stopped. With each passing day, the chances of a resumption improve for it is now clear that we have to live with the virus. There are some positive reports but all is quiet on the R.W.I.T.C. front though regular track work is being reported. Still, a resumption at Pune in October does not seem overly optimistic. Will it be an extended Pune season or an early start to the Winter Season ? Whatever it is, it is fervently hoped that a slot can be found for the Indian St. Leger to be staged.