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April 3, 1997


Of slinky dresses, gamblers and hooves...

The Race
Raring to go...
The McDowell Derby has always been more than just a horsey affair. It is one of the high points on Bombay's social calendar, when the upwardly mobile want to be noticed, and where the latest haute couture is on display. Shaheen Mulla-Feroze records her impressions...

A little after 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, I made my way to the member's enclosure of the Royal Western India Turf Club. Invitation in hand, a wad of money safely tucked away in a hard-to-reach pocket, I walked to the reception desk and picked up my 'Derby Kit' - a magazine, an invitation to tea and of course, a handy-dandy Cole racing card which I yet have to figure out how to read.

Someone brushed past me in a cloud of this year's most popular fragrance. I followed the scent, down the long shaded passage, to a perfect day at the racetrack. Inside, the air seemed crisper, the colours appeared brighter. For a while it was easy to forget the unabashed ugliness of the city - beggars, slums, traffic jams, garbage - just a few steps away.

Wonderland. That's the only way I can explain it. A place that's defined by its complete lack of logic, its flagrant defiance of reality as we know it here in Bombay.

Fashion show at the Derby
A fashion show to pep up the day
There were, not surprisingly, people everywhere I turned. Most silently shouting, through their clothes and demeanour for attention. I found myself surrounded by flowered hats, technicolor blazers, slinky cocktail dresses, clunky boots, brightly hued saris and sombre suits. A motley collection of bizarre and conventional outfits sported by an equally diverse set of people. Dressed to shock. Posing to impress. They seemed to have developed a kind of elevated self-awareness as they strutted their stuff on the turf.

As I wandered aimlessly around the lush lawns, among Bombay's 'beautiful people' - the rich, the famous, the notorious, the envied - I couldn't help feeling overwhelmed by the incongruity of my presence there. Everything was so strange, so completely foreign in its ostentation.

Expectant gamblers packed the stands, straying occasionally to place their bets and stretch their legs between races. Anxious first-timers and high-stakes speculators crowded by the fence, waiting for their bets to pay off. But on the lawns, it appeared that Bombay's most talked about sporting event had more to do with the spectators than the competitors.

In the 54 years since it kicked off, the Derby has become something of an institution in Indian racing. However, it wasn't until McDowell began sponsoring the event 12 years ago that it became one of the city's best-attended events on the city's social calendar.

Then, from 1995, the company started throwing a huge bash on the eve of the Derby. With a guest list featuring the country's top industrialists, film makers and stars, politicians and media moguls, Derby Night is a lavish, (more sedate) teaser to the actual event itself.

I imagined the smug disdain with which die-hard race-goers must regard us, the once-a-year racing fans. They pulled out their binoculars, cleaned their eyeglasses or huddled around the television sets to get a better view of the horses, while the bulk of us milled around, squinting into the sun, checking out the contenders and competition off the track.

Suddenly, the crowd cleared from around the fence. People relinquished their prime spots, moving in a wave to place their bets for the most awaited race of the afternoon, the Derby. Quickly, I made my way over to the front, having gone an hour-and-a-half without watching a single race.

Fashion show at the Derby
A closer view at the latest haute couture
As the horses were led onto the track, an overzealous fan beside me yelled his support for Sant-o-ree-nee. Santorini Star was one of the favourites, along with Indictment, who went on to win the Derby. The horses came thundering round the final bend. A collective hush fell over the crowd as Indictment won by a neck. Sant-o-ree-nee, unfortunately, didn't fare as well as the young gentleman had hoped and he walked away, disappointed.

The crowd was still mingling, posing, preening, as I slipped out. I walked through the imposing green gates, confronting, once again, the reality of Bombay. The moment of wonder had passed, quietly, like a dream at dawn. I reached into my pocket for my car keys and felt that wad of money I'd brought with me, lying untouched.

Maybe next time.