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By Mahendra Mallya | 20 Jan 2008 |

The rise to the top is never easy or so they say.  None, perhaps, would testify to this phrase more accurately than the Western India Champion Jockey C.Rajendra. He took his time in tasting his maiden victory, but how many would know that he took much longer trying to convince people to hand him a ride? In a candid interview with our race correspondent, Jockey C.Rajendra spoke of his initial days of struggle, which he dreaded, would never end!  

IR: Your stranglehold on the Jockey Championship is getting firmer every year. Does it thrill you as much even now after so many championships?

CR: You are talking of Championships? I find it extremely thrilling  winning every single race even now! Every race is a new challenge and every season a new mission. I take my profession very seriously, start my preparations in time and yes, I aim to win the Championship right from day one. 

IR: Your very first Championship came to you as early as your third season. That was almost instant success. How did you manage this?

CR: It was actually my second 'complete' season. You see, I got to a late start -  towards the latter half of the Pune Meeting 1993. It was the Mumbai 93-94 season that I got to ride in full. I ended just two short of Malesh (Narredu) thus losing the main title narrowly. I was, however, the Champion Jockey claiming allowance! The Pune '94 Championship was my first big one. I managed this (laughs) through determination and fear.

IR: Determination & fear are two contrasting words!

CR: In my case that was the combination. I had a very steep climb ahead. With no one to give me a 'leg-up' it wasn't easy. No one was keen to hire me. Ultimately, when I did get my chance, I knew I had to make it count. The fear of not getting another opportunity made me determined to make the most of it. 

IR: Could you elaborate on those early days?

CR: Well, they were tough days, but nothing to be ashamed about, I guess.  My becoming a Jockey was a stroke of providence. My uncle, N. Shankar was a Jockey who saw little limelight. He was my only source of information rather than inspiration. I used to sit on the rolls in Raza Ali's stables as a 11-12 yr old boy. One auspicious day, a young boy came to my house en-route to the Amateur Rider's Club (ARC). He was carrying some admission forms and on my dad's suggestion I filled the admission form. Not much later, I was taking my first riding lessons.

IR: Your stint at the ARC must have been a highly successful.  You must have made an instant impact?

CR: (Chuckles)  Just the opposite! We were a team of boys under a particular instructor. The instructor treated me shabbily and I was made to stand away from the rest. I felt very hurt and I used to weep very often. I was practically sidelined. I rode for two gymkhana seasons but drew a complete blank. Not a single winner to show in two years! 

IR: This is shocking ..... unbelievable! You must have been mentally very tough to have reached the top, surely?

CR: Not at all. Else I wouldn't weep, would I? I was constantly haunted by self-doubt and low  confidence. Those were really bad days. I used to wait for days outside Mr. Adenwalla's office seeking an apprenticeship. Seeing my plight and showing concern, Mr. Adenwalla would feel for me and reassure me saying, that if nothing came forth, he would recommend my name for a clerical job at the RWITC!!!

IR: You can't be serious?

CR: I am! Fortunately, it didn't end that way. Before long, I was assigned to trainer Sheroo Irani. I reckon he took my gymkhana record too seriously. My routine here was only to bring horses to the track from the stables for morning work. I would sit around and sigh as other youngsters would get to canter the horses but not me. That was how it was, I was struggling to get a ride even for morning track work.

IR: Are you telling me you were not even getting to track horses?

CR: You heard me right! My first break came courtesy one Mr. Santook, our Jamadar. Mr. A.D. Irani, an horse owner, was looking for a rider for his horse Ulysses. With not many options left, I was reluctantly given the ride. I ran 5th in a big field. The ride must have been acceptable, because, soon I was getting to work a few horses on track.

IR : How were you taking all this?

CR : My track-work gave me pleasure. I was feeling good working the horses. It was  Mr. Santook again who managed to convince another owner -  Mr Billimoria, and I was declared to ride Hedy Lamaar. In the paddock, Hedy Lamaar, I found, was the favorite over a 6 furlong trip. I knew this was it ! I was focused and rode a start to finish race and won by 9L. I partnered the horse in all his wins from Class V to 
Class I. This was Pune '93 and the next Mumbai season 93-94, I finished two short of M. Narredu, the Champion of the season! I  was competing against  my idols like P.Shroff, Aslam Kader,V Shinde, R Connor and overseas jockeys like C Roche and K Fallon. In just over one full season, I had ridden 39 winners. One shy of shedding my allowance!

IR: So it took you less than a year in pro racing to establish yourself?

CR: Pune '94 got me my first Sr. Championship. Since then I have lost the title only  thrice in Pune and four times in Mumbai. 

IR : How do you look back on your career ?

CR : I have learnt a lot. It has been pretty eventful. My one desire is to win the McDowell Indian Derby. I have won seven Derby Races at different centers. I would love to add the Indian Derby to my tally very soon. I got very close with Ray of Light. It was painful to lose on the post by skin of the teeth! Just one forceful push away from my dream race. 

IR : Among the different tracks that you have ridden on,which do you rate as your favorite?

CR : Mumbai, without doubt ! This is one track that eliminates the 'hard luck' factor to a large extent. The straight is long and broad which gives you ample time to ride out to the optimum level. It is tough too, as you have to literally lift the horse and push forcefully particularly the ones that are tiring towards the finish. In a fighting race the Winning Post never comes too soon. You need a lot of strength and shoulder power. 

IR : Lately you have been riding for different stables. Do you get to choose your rides ?

CR : As a retained Jockey I had the 1st choice in my owner's stable. I do my own bit of handicapping & preparation. I generally choose or refuse a ride after meaningful deliberations. To be concise - I do my homework thoroughly!

IR: Talking about Retainers, I understand Mr. Mistry and you have parted ways. What went wrong?

CR: I had a long and enjoyable association with Mr. Mistry. We had a good number of highs. However, of late things were not going my way. I reckon, he was not too satisfied with the way things were going either. Suspicion and rumor mongering is not new at the Race Course. Jockeys as it is are the first to be viewed with suspicion. My detractors must have had a field day. I was told that my retainer had surpassed the expiry date. 

IR: What will be your next move?

CR: I am in good shape and form. The Season is  just beginning to peak. I am open to any eventuality. The current season is an especially attractive one. I am currently attached to trainer Pesi Shroff's stable. He is a thorough professional and has the horses. We share a great rapport and I am confident that the stable will harvest  good results.  

IR : Do you follow a strict regimen to maintain your weight?

CR : I consider my near perfect weight a Gods gift! Fortunately I don't have to follow any strict regimen. Yes, I do closely watch my diet. I am an occasional 
non-vegetarian. I exercise regularly, gym and yoga are my indoor activities. Regular walks and vegetarian food on most occasions. I neither drink nor smoke.

IR : Do classics and big races carry extra pressure?

CR : In the beginning, they did. However, I am used to the tension now. I focus on the task ahead and try not to feel any pressure or let tension seep in. I even talk to my horse and pat him to ensure that he stays focused too. In fact Classics and Group races add color to the day. The crowd is more enthusiastic and this certainly is a motivation to do well. The roar of the crowd is thrilling! The Mumbai crowd, specially on the Classic days gets the adrenalin rushing. 

IR : Your International experience ?

CR : I loved Mauritius. I won the title of the best International jockey there. It was International day at the Race course and a number of jockeys from across the globe were invited to ride on the day. It is one of my biggest moments to have won the title. I have also ridden in Macau where I just lost on the post. At Chantilly Race Course (France) I again had the misfortune of losing on the post on a 90 /1 long slot! I did attract attention nevertheless, but I could not get many rides. If I was a white, I am sure I would not have been ignored. Thats the way the status there is, I am afraid. I experienced it  - first hand.  Mauritius was where I enjoyed quite a bit of popularity.

IR : Any aspirations? 

CR : Quite a few, with winning the McDowell Indian Derby topping the list!

IR : Your advice to young aspirants?

CR : Dedication to your profession and hard work alone will succeed. Respect everyone however small. Never get carried away! Do not get bogged down either, remember everyone makes mistakes, nobody is perfect.

IR : A word for the racing patrons?

CR : Yes - “Good Luck”!