Derby regulars and riding enthusiasts are a worried lot as municipal authorities contemplate replacing the iconic Mahalaxmi Race Course with a public park, says Ranjita Ganesan.
In 1984, renowned jockey Pesi Shroff was still in the early years of his career. The 19-year-old Shroff rode fastest to the finish in the Indian Derby, marking his first win at the prestigious race. It was also the first victory for Noshirwan Irani and family, owners of the horse, Enterprising.
"It was an unforgettable moment. A dream for all racehorse owners," says Zinia Lawyer, Irani’s daughter. The venue, Mahalaxmi racecourse, where the family went on to win several times, holds a special place in her heart.
Recently, however, Lawyer and other regulars at Mahalaxmi have been a worried lot. There are reports that municipal authorities could replace the racecourse with a public garden or theme park, as proposed by city mayor and Shiv Sena man Sunil Prabhu. Such attempts at conversion have been made before but this time it is slightly different -- the 99-year lease held by the racecourse’s managing authority, the Royal Western Indian Turf Club (RWITC), officially runs out at the end of May.
The 225-acre racecourse, built in 1883 onmarshy land known as Mahalakshmi Flats, was modelled after Caulfield in Melbourne. The plot was first donated by Sir Cusrow Wadia and is currently on lease from Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to the RWITC. In the past, the iconic racecourse has played host to nobility such as the Queen of England, the Shah of Iran and the King of Saudi Arabia. The 2400-metre track, which is counted among the best in the continent, also makes use of high-end technological apparatus.
During the Indian Derby, Mumbai’s swish set descends on the racecourse, sporting hats, trendy clutches and wine glasses while egging on their favourite jockeys. Held typically on the first Sunday of February, it is the most prominent of the races, which also include the 1000 Guineas, the 2000 Guineas and the Oaks. Mahalaxmi has been the venue for another equestrian sport -- polo -- as well as junior riding lessons since 1942.
Moving elsewhere from the sprawling expanse located in South Mumbai’s upscale Mahalaxmi area would be cost prohibitive, says Vivek Jain, former chairman and currently a managing committee member at RWITC. “As far as horse racing goes, it would sound the death knell for the sport in Mumbai. It is impossible to get people to come to the suburbs.” Horse owner Lawyer agrees, “If the racecourse moves somewhere like Panvel, nobody will go.”
It is half-past-six on a summer evening. Stylish South Mumbai wives are marching their sons and daughters, clad in helmets and knee-high riding boots, to the Amateur Rider’s Club (ARC), a fenced-off patch of land within the racecourse. The rest of the garden is dominated by children from local slums, who play with plastic or rubber balls, inspect flowers or simply run around. Expensive-looking dogs are being walked across the huge area. On a jogger’s track are men and women of various ages who do not exchange words but are united by the arduous errand of exercise.
Those in favour of lease discontinuation term the club exclusive and suggest the racecourse should be made into a public space like Central Park in the United States or Hyde Park in London. “But it is already open to people,” argues Darius Engineer of the Indian Academy of Model Aeronautics. He is one of dozen aeromodellers who use the premises to practise on weekends. The only other safe space for the hobby is Madh Island, a two-hour drive from the city. Another radio-controlled plane enthusiast, Puneet Manakpala of the Wings India club, says, “I learnt most of my flying at the racecourse and even taught my son here. It’s a place to bond for me.”
The site is open to the public for four hours each in the mornings and evenings for most of the year. The racing season lasts from mid-November till the end of April. On race days, visiting time is shortened to about six hours a day. During his stint as chairman, Jain says he tried to make the venue more attractive for social and cultural activities. Mahalaxmi hosted vintage car and aeromodelling exhibitions as well as musical artists including Norah Jones and Swedish House Mafia.
“Even if the municipality takes over, they will not be able to maintain it the same way,” says Engineer. Real estate developers in the vicinity often market under-construction homes with the promise of handsome racecourse views. A vast muddy ground leads to a pasture, where horses graze or gallop. On the periphery is the racetrack, running alongside rows of white-and-brown stands. The entire site acts as a catchment area during floods in the city.
The 10,000-member RWITC is reported to have a turnover of Rs 85 crore annually, with about Rs 45 crore paid to the state exchequer as rent and betting and other taxes. Sponsorships from the likes of Four Seasons Hotel, Tata Housing and the Wadia group are said to bring in roughly Rs 5 crore each year.
Mayor Prabhu said he would issue eviction notices to the racecourse on lease expiry, while the BMC administration maintained that a call cannot be taken without views from the state government. The BMC owns 2.54 lakh square metres of the racecourse’s 8.54 lakh square metres of land, while the rest is scheduled land and belongs to the state government. The matter will be decided after the lease ends at the end of May.
“Every major city has a racecourse -- Bangalore, Kolkata, Delhi. Why should Mumbai lose one that has been here for more than 100 years?” asks Manakpala. Lawyer, however, is optimistic, “There are many vested interests at work but I am confident that the state government will not let the racecourse disappear.”