Mumbai: It’s a story with an unremarkable beginning, but may yet have a dramatic end.
Jacqueline, the chestnut-coloured three-year-old filly, is the overwhelming favourite to win Sunday’s McDowell SignatureIndian Derby horse race in Mumbai. But at no point, till recently, did anyone anticipate she would turn out so special—in more ways than one.
Trainer and former champion jockey Pesi Shroff, who was one of the people who selected her for joint owners Vijay Shirke, K.N. Dhunjibhoy and Berjis Minoo Desai, says she was just one of “30-odd horses we bought. But I guess she has something special that winners do”.
Great expectations: Jacqueline (No. 591) at the Mahalaxmi racecourse in Mumbai. The filly, which is the favourite for the Rs1.25 crore Indian Derby race on Sunday, has never run the full 1.5 miles (derby distance). Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
If Jacqueline, who has already won three classics this year, wins the derby, she would—according to statistics available with the Stud Book Authority of India and Racing World magazine—become the first horse ever to win all four classics in the same season. There are five classics, the Indian St Ledger being the last to be held on 28 March. The one other horse that won four classics in a season, Her Majesty in 1946-47, did not win the derby.
Jacqueline has already won the 1000 Guineas, 2000 Guineas and the Indian Oaks, the kind of form that makes her the current favourite with bookmakers.
Dhunjibhoy says Jacqueline would be “hard to toss. She has far exceeded expectations, much to our good luck. She has never run the full 1.5 miles (2.4km, the derby distance), which is the real test of speed and stamina. But she is beating the boys. She is one of the finest Indian products in a long time”.
Even competitors, such as trainer Narendra Lagad, whose Mighty Crusader and Native Knight will compete against Jacqueline, says his horses have only a “25% chance”, forcing him to try and bring in a French jockey, Olivier Peslier, to “improve chances”. Peslier could not get a visa, but Brazilian S.A. De Sousa, who won last year’s derby, will ride Native Knight.
Jacqueline, unknowingly, has injected a dose of enthusiasm to a sport that has only spluttered in the recent past, reminiscent of the depression-era American winner Sea Biscuit, who inspired a film by the same name. Jacqueline may yet have bigger responsibilities to creating racing history—to revive a dwindling racing scenario in Mumbai, which was hit by the equine flu last year, a slowdown in the economy and lessening live audience.
Only 28 days of racing were held last year, the season shortened by two months due to the flu. The derby, always held on the first Sunday of February, was pushed to April.
Race regulars say the option of going to the cinema, malls or just watching television has kept the younger lot away from the racecourse. “Many years ago, the only thing you could do on a Sunday was go to the racecourse,” says the editor and publisher of Racing World magazine, Lynn Deas.
The numbers attending the derby have reduced from approximately 40,000 a decade ago to about 15,000-20,000 in 2009, according to people at Royal Western India Turf Club Ltd (RWITC), though no authorized figures are available.
Hit by heavy government taxes (up to 26%), an increased amount of illegal betting has made racing the sort of “taboo” that does not encourage “people from good families”, says leading trainer Imtiaz A. Sait.
In this scenario, several race regulars say the excitement of whether Jacqueline will indeed create a record—and improve upon it by winning the fifth classic as well—has propelled interest in Sunday’s race. Accompanying this is the focused publicity drive—one example, RWITC gave photographers access to the stables three days before the race, an area that’s considered out of bounds— which has brought more visibility, says Vivek Jain, chairman of RWITC.
This year, the Indian Derby has hiked its overall prize to more than Rs2.25 crore, which, according to RWITC, makes it the richest individual sporting event in the country. The winning horse is to get Rs1.25 crore.
Jacqueline is also the product of a move that started several years ago—of improving the bloodstock.
She falls into the category known as “gotabroad”—she was conceived abroad, but born in India. Fathered by German stallion King Charlemagne, the mare Talita Kumi was bought by Sohna Stud Farm Pvt. Ltd in Gurgaon, outside Delhi. Jacqueline was born in 2006, a medium-sized filly of honourable antecedents.
Fitness routine: Horses undergoing their daily workout at the RWITC-run Mahalaxmi racecourse in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
With costs of a racehorse ranging from Rs5 lakh to Rs1 crore, there are indications of greater buying power in India and the magnified effects of the recession in the West that has brought prices relatively down. Most imports come from England and Ireland.
“To be competitive, you need good bloodstock, you have to upgrade and improve,” says Vinayak J. Gaekwad, whose Indictment won the derby in 1997, but does not have a runner this year.
“Indian stallions are nothing to rave about. So when the recession brought prices down abroad, it made sense to import,” says Sait.
Dhunjibhoy says Jacqueline was not inexpensive, but complete value for money. Her worth, post a derby win if that happens, would go beyond mere rupees.