Ameeta Mehra, the horse whisperer
Walking around the Usha Stud Farm in Gurgaon, near Delhi, one can’t help but notice a tomb-like structure covered in lush green vine. Within, there is a memorial to Ameeta Mehra’s parents and younger sister, who were killed in an air crash in 2001.
But perhaps more striking is the grave right next to it, where Razeen is buried. This thoroughbred stallion who sired 56 individual classic winners (more on this later) with more than 100 classic wins—the highest number in the history of Indian racing—died in 2011 at age 24.
“Razeen is a Legend...a horse with greatness who lived and died with dignity...he will be remembered as the Greatest Stallion in the history of Indian Racing,” reads his epitaph.
Born in 1987, Razeen was sired by Northern Dancer (a Canadian-bred thoroughbred racehorse, widely regarded as one of the most successful sires of the 20th century) and Graustark mare Secret Asset. One among Northern Dancer’s second-last brood, Razeen had a gleaming bay coat and stood 16 hands and 2 inches tall (one hand is equal to 4 inches).
Thoroughbreds, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, are a breed of horse developed in 17th and 18th century England for racing and jumping. They have delicate heads, slim bodies, broad chests and short backs. Their short leg bones allow a long, easy stride. They are sensitive and high-spirited.
Razeen, owned by a member of Dubai’s ruling family, was brought to India in 1992 by Ameeta’s father, Major Pradeep Kumar Mehra, who set up the Usha Stud Farm.
“When he was younger, Razeen would be ridden everyday around the farm with Steinbeck (another thoroughbred). He would enjoy that very much... However, if Steinbeck was in front of him, it would drive him crazy, for Razeen had to lead. He was quite content to have Steinbeck follow him... Razeen is the kind of horse that observes every movement or sound around him. If you move, his eyes move with you.”
Ameeta’s account gives an insight into her knowledge, on her ability to pick and breed champion horses, and her relationship with horses. The Usha Stud Farm, established in 1973, has produced 13 Indian Derby winner horses, the highest in India by a single stud farm; seven of them were bred by Ameeta herself. It is followed on this prestigious list by the Poonawalla Stud Farms, which has won nine titles since it was established in 1946 by the late Soli A. Poonawalla. The Usha Stud Farm has also won over 300 classic races in over 40 years of its existence. The last win at the Indian Derby was in 2014.
Ameeta is also one of the few women in the otherwise male-dominated industry.
“For a stud farm, winning an Indian Derby is like winning an Oscar is for a film-maker. It doesn’t come easy,” says Ameeta.
“Once a horse from a particular farm wins a derby, the farm’s value shoots up on the charts. It starts garnering more interest from buyers and the prices of its horses go up too,” says Ameeta, who is dressed in a blue denim top, blue jeans and brown boots.
But what is it that makes a horse a derby winner?
“There are three basic qualities,” says Ameeta. “I call them the three Ps—presence, pedigree and performance. Presence is intangible. You see a horse and your gut says it is a winner. It has beautiful balance, a lovely head, and it is light on its legs, with correct fore and hind limbs... These are things only those who have worked long with horses will understand,” she explains.
“Second is the pedigree of a horse, or past genetic influences (good or bad) of its parents and grandparents that are available for everyone to study, as it is compiled internationally and is available for each thoroughbred horse. This is also called the horse’s lineage. Horses from certain families have consistently produced derby winners. So the horses from the same lineage have greater chances of winning a derby compared with others.
“Third is performance. If the mother and sisters of the horse you are looking to buy were excellent racehorses, the chances of the horse you are about to purchase turning out to be top class will be high.”
The Usha Stud Farm was India’s leading stud farm in 2013-14 in terms of the prize money won by the horses bred there, or stakes earned. It earned stakes worth Rs.20.14 crore through 199 race wins between 1 November 2013 and 31 October 2014, according to the Stud Book Authority of India, the country’s nodal agency for all matters concerning the registration of breeding establishments, thoroughbred stallions, thoroughbred mares and thoroughbred foals.
The other farms in the top 5 were the Tamil Nadu-based Chettinad/Sholavaram Stud Farm (Rs.16.39 crore from 309 wins), the Poonawalla Stud Farms (Rs.14.39 crore through 318 wins), the Ambala-based Hazara Group (Rs.14.21 crore through 162 wins), and the Karnataka-based Kunigal Stud Farm (Rs.13.48 crore through 192 wins).
Ameeta has driven a jet green Porsche Cayenne to the farm. Behind her, horses are grazing, looking for patches of shade, their tails swishing and triceps flexing. Their bay coats are shining in the sun and their shadows are becoming shorter with each passing minute, indicating that the sun is slowly getting into position overhead—it’s becoming hotter. The constant chirping of birds is interspersed with the neighing of horses. A closer look reveals marks, stamps if you will, on both sides of the horses’ backs: “U5” is stamped on one side, an indicator that they were born at the Usha Stud Farm in 2015. The other side bears a unique number; 21, for example, means that it is the 21st foal of 2015. The horses at the Gurgaon farm are a year-old—yearlings. Some of them will be sold in a few months.
The horses here come in for pampering—there is a special oil for the coat and coconut oil for the legs. The horses-to-groom-ratio is 2:1. Each of the three farms has a residential vet and a manager. By the time the horses turn 2, they are sold, some through invitation and the rest at auctions, says Ameeta.
Ameeta was “born into horses”, she says. When she was 3, she had a Shetland pony as a pet. “I have been riding since I was 3. Whenever I would fall off my pony, my father would insist, ‘Get back on the horse.’ And I would get back on,” she recalls. “That way the fear of the horse would not remain in my head. In fact, my father taught us (my sister and me) how to fall off a horse so that we would not get hurt. That, in my opinion, is as important as learning how to ride a horse well.”
“However, I stopped riding when I was 16, and by the time I was 20, I had rejected my father’s way of life. He had by then left the army and was involved completely with the stud farm. He started tasting success, and I decided to go the other way. After graduation from LSR (Lady Shri Ram College) in 1986, I went to the Delhi branch of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram as a teacher and worked there for several years.”
It was at the ashram, especially in Puducherry, that she studied Essays On The Gita, The Synthesis Of Yoga and Savitri by Sri Aurobindo—the trilogy that Ameeta says moulded her.
She joined the stud farm in 1990 on her father’s persuasion.
“My father honed and developed in me the eye for a horse,” says Ameeta. “He had no patience to teach anyone. But he made an exception for me and taught me what he knew. He systematically gave his knowledge to me.”
Her first task was to look after the horses in the paddock and groom them like any other worker would, she recalls. “After a couple of months, my father said I needed to go and get exposure at an international stud farm. So I went to the Irish National Stud Farm and did my equine management in 1992. It was a gruelling experience. There was no staff there. The students had to do all the work at the farm, from picking up horse poop to cleaning the paddocks. I had to groom about 8-10 horses every day. I developed blisters all over my palms. But I also got a gold medal in a project on how to select a stallion,” she recalls.
Horse breeding is a science that can be quite daunting for the uninitiated. “It is also very boring,” says Ameeta. Over the decades, the Usha Stud Farm has chosen to develop good Indian breeding families that produce champion horses generation after generation.
These days, breeding is done at the farm in Jhund Sarai. “It is all about genetics and the three Ps,” says Ameeta. “There is an awful lot of study that goes into determining the families and pedigree of horses and finding suitable partners.”
The breeding season is from February-May, followed by an 11-month gestation period. The foaling season is from January-May.
“The difference between many breeders and us is that we create lineages and families that go on from one generation to the next,” she says. “Breeders who solely want to make money don’t care about families, legacies or genetic influence on the breed. My aim is to bring a sense of pride in our Indian thoroughbred horse-breeding operations.”
Her father didn’t stop at just ensuring that Ameeta got exposure abroad. “He thought I should understand how the business works, and so needed to do a course in business management. I also did a 10-month professional course (management education programme) at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), which gave me a good foundation, even though I hated the idea then,” says Ameeta, who is also a Sangeet Visharad from the Bhatkhande Music Institute, plays tennis regularly and is a coffee connoisseur.
The IIM-A stint helped her create a business model. “It helped us a lot over the years,” she says. “Most of the stud farm businesses in India have other businesses to support them. So whether the farm makes money or not, it doesn’t matter much to them. But for us to succeed, it was imperative that the stud farm business was not only sustainable but also profitable in the longer run.”
The turn of the century saw a major upheaval.
“In 2001, I lost my parents and sister in an air crash. My life turned upside down,” she says.
The following five years were the most difficult. “I had to take over the stud farm with nobody to back me. I remember people coming up to me, shaking my hand in condolence and saying, ‘We are very sorry to hear about your loss. Of course, you won’t be able to look after the farm and will have to shut it down.’ Or do you have a cousin or uncle who will run it?”
The comments upset her so much that she decided to go for the auctions, that were once her father’s domain, on her own. Her first horse auction was in Pune, less than a month after the death of her parents.
“I could see that people were surprised. They thought I would panic and sell cheap, but I had my father’s price list with me. I sold all the horses in that auction and at prices that my father would have approved of. It helped me to establish myself.”
The hurdles, however, were not over. Even though her horses began winning races and breaking records, “I found that I had to be twice as successful as my male counterparts to prove that I was really on top,” says Ameeta.
In 2004-05, Ameeta says, buyers suddenly stopped showing interest. “I came to know about a cartel from an old client who decided to break it. I was shocked but determined to wait it out and hold my ground. Once people realized that I am a no-nonsense person and I had results to back me, buyers’ attitude towards me changed.”
Dealing with hard-nosed buyers is, in fact, the biggest challenge, she says. “The farm part, the day-to-day operations are there, and then we have to deal with deaths and diseases. But those challenges are few and far between. The bigger problem is to go each year to the auctions and make sure you’re not getting fleeced by the businessmen who have come to buy horses.”
Payments tend to be delayed and are sometimes not cleared in full, says Ameeta, though she has been lucky on this front. A major reason is the quality of horses. “When you’re at the top of the game, and Usha has been lucky to be there thanks to the horses’ performance on the tracks, you have choices and you can decide who you want to do business with. I refuse to do business with people who are sloppy. And over time, people in the industry have understood that,” she says.
It has perhaps helped that she is a woman. “I remember when I had to take over the business, I saw my father kept the accounts running for years. There were no closures. The first thing that I did was clean up the accounts. It is like housekeeping, really, and the difference is the way men and women look at it,” she says.
Ameeta doesn’t socialize much, or “waste time networking”. She devotes most of her time to the stud farm. She also spends a lot of time at The Gnostic Centre, a charitable centre that she co-founded in 1996 to promote Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. In the little spare time she has left, she meditates, plays tennis, composes music on the piano and goes for walks. Her house is called The Presence—she lives there with some of her staff and a pug named Monk. “Monk is my son and heir,” Ameeta says, smiling.
“Nothing fattens a horse more than the master’s eye,” Ameeta says as we get ready for “horse darshan”, a daily routine at the three farms that sees the horses being paraded one by one before Ameeta.
“It is not how much you feed a horse that makes it thrive and excel, but the amount of time, attention and care you provide that really helps it develop to its fullest potential,” she elaborates.
As their names are called, and statistics such as date of birth, overall weight and gain/loss over the last fortnight are tallied, Ameeta inspects the horses for injuries and illnesses. Any unusual movement in weight is noticed and measures are taken. In her absence, the residential vets and managers take charge.
“Normal weight gain for a horse is about 8-12kg in a fortnight,” Ameeta tells me, her eyes not shifting from the horses for even a second. She pats the neck of one horse, rubs her palm against the head of another. Their eyes lock and they seem to be deep in conversation for the briefest of moments. The horses snort, neigh and nuzzle close to Ameeta’s face, as if sniffing her.
“These are very gentle creatures, the horses,” she says. “They are one of the most peaceful ones. When I think of horses, I think of gentleness and nobleness.”
If the weather is good, the horses stay out on the farm day and night, Ameeta says, patting one of the animals.
Walking past Razeen’s grave, she recalls the time the horse came to the farm. “When Razeen looked at you, you felt as if a laser beam is going through you. What a look it was! Sharp, intelligent eyes that spoke….
“I still remember the first foal (newborn) sired by Razeen. They were bigger than the usual foals, had bigger heads and looked ugly. My father and I started doubting our decision of buying Razeen. But the foals grew up to be beautiful animals,” says Ameeta.
And then Indictment, which was sired by Razeen, won the Indian Derby in 1997.
“My aim is to send my horses abroad to race,” she says. Indian horses have run abroad but not in the top derbies, not on a consistent basis or in numbers that matter. “We have won all the major derbies in India and have set records. The target in the next couple of years is to send them to the UK, Dubai and other places overseas.”
HORSE RACING IN INDIA
Horse racing in India is more than 200 years old. Today, there are nine main racing centres in the country—Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, Delhi, Mysuru and Ooty—and five turf authorities: in Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. But there is no single governing body for horse racing.
Each centre holds its own racing events, which include the five “classic” races—the Derby, the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas, the Oaks and St Leger.
Each race is different from the other in terms of the length of the course, weightage and prize money.
The most prestigious race is the Mumbai Derby, also known as the Indian Derby, which is held on the first Sunday of February at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse. The first Indian Derby was run in 1943.
The 2016 Derby winner Desert God, bred at the Kunigal Stud Farm, earned its owner Rs.2.19 crore.