HORSE racing in the country is passing through extremely turbulent times and the sport’s future looks very uncertain. Club coffers are drying up fast and the only solution seems to lie in online betting to avoid breaching physical distancing norms.
In Kolkata, the 400-odd thoroughbreds stabled at the race course in the Hastings locality are staring at a bleak future, as are thousands of syces (who take care of horses) and blue-collar and white-collar workers who make a living from this sport.
Racing in Kolkata has a centuries-old legacy. The Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC) is a major heritage site and one of the city’s top attractions that is of great interest to local people and tourists alike. It is an important element of the city’s social infrastructure and the untimely closure of this landmark in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic would indeed be an immense loss not only for the racing fraternity but for all citizens who value their heritage.
The industry employs more than a thousand people in the city and over 1 lakh persons nationally, directly and indirectly. The chief source of revenue is gate money and commission earned on bets placed by the public at the race course.
There has been a considerable shortfall in totalisator collection after a goods and services tax (GST) of 28 per cent was introduced. (The totalisator shows the total number and amount of bets staked on a race.) This led to the growth in illegal bookmakers across the city, which was detrimental to the club’s interests.
In the context of COVID-19 and the severe damage suffered by the RCTC after the recent cyclone, it is uncertain when racing can resume or when spectators will be permitted at the race course.
This could lead to a catastrophic scenario for the horses and the 1,000-odd families dependent on the sport as neither the RCTC nor the horse owners can continue to pay the heavy costs of maintaining a thoroughbred beyond a period.
Joideep Datta Gupta, a prominent horse owner in the city, said: “Racing is a fabulous sport and horses are majestic athletes. In the COVID-19 context, it is imperative to take the sport online for it to survive.”
Vikram Bachawat, another prominent owner, said: “We need to accept the fact that life won’t be the same post-COVID. If planned well, it [the crisis] can be turned into a big opportunity for the horse racing fraternity. Online is the way out. The government needs to step in; new tax systems and laws must be implemented fast to turn a disaster into a moneyspinner, create jobs and put an end to illegal betting. Racing should be given the status of industry like film making.”
He added: “We have 150 years of know-how and infrastructure in place, which we use to capitalise on by extending to audiences all over the world. The government must act and act fast.”
Without the support of such prominent owners, the stud farm industry in the country would also be in trouble. The huge investments made in importing stallions from overseas and on their maintenance would come to nought without any prospect of sales of yearlings (young horses between one and two years old).
Tegbir Brar, a breeder and owner of the highly successful Dashmesh Stud Farm, said: “Racing and the revenue it generates drive the breeding industry in India. It’s vital that racing starts again as lakhs of jobs are in jeopardy at race courses and stud farms all over India.”
Marthand Mahindra, the breeder and owner of Broad Acres Stud, said: “It’s critical for breeders and owners to have functioning race courses for the sport’s survival. The sooner race courses open their doors, the better for everyone. However, now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the need of the hour is to start racing with an online betting platform immediately.”
Amit Chaturvedi, the general manager of RCTC, said: “RCTC is a heritage club and has been in existence for over 170 years. Business has been severely affected but the lives of over 400 thoroughbreds, and twice as many people taking care of them, have not been affected as the club and the horse owners have supported them. But their fate hangs in the balance.”
He added: “We are looking forward to recommencement of racing in a few months and expect support from both the State and the Central governments, especially in terms of reduction of GST, which has reduced our turnover to a great extent.”
The British Horse Racing Association has already given the green light for racing to commence in England and Ireland, but without spectators. The authorities in India too could enable this at the earliest to save the horses, the sport and the livelihoods of those dependent on it.