A Royal Hustle to cheer about!

Team Chronicle

The hustle began as the stalls opened near the outer peripheries of the Victoria Memorial as seen from the Grand Stands. The palpable excitement in and around the Royal Calcutta Turf Club reminded one about the most important event in the racing calendar. A lingering suspense, a furious gallop of hooves, a rush of blood and a blur past the finish line.

Success trotted back with Suraj Narredu astride, frothing and sending sharp bellows of air from the nostrils. In the wide hazel eyes was the look of an untamed joy. The 17,000 odd crowd cheered lustily as the winner’s name was announced.

Winning is a big business in horse racing and the Vijay Singh-nursed Success lived up to her top billing and kept her tryst with destiny by annexing the WOLF 777 Calcutta Derby Stakes (2022-2023) here at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club.

The oldest racing club of India was in flow glow. As far as organised racing in India is concerned, the Royal Calcutta Turf Club is the pioneer. RCTC was born in the year 1847 and in a short span of 40 years, RCTC was bestowed with exclusive rights to administer horse racing throughout the subcontinent. At one time, the club exercised full control over as many as 73 racing centers ranging from Peshawar to Mandalay.

As a matter of fact, RCTC was the first centre in the entire subcontinent to stage the Derby race in the year 1842. However, in the year 1856, the Derby stakes made way for the Viceroy’s Cup and again after a long 105 years came to be known as Queen Elizabeth II Cup. As the stature of the Club grew bigger and bigger, it was thought appropriate to bestow the Club with the title “Royal”. Thus in the year 1912, the Calcutta Race Course was rechristened as the Royal Calcutta Turf Club.

The Royal Calcutta Turf Club has a checkered history and the British royalty like His Excellency King George V had visited this hallowed club in the year 1905. The club being a pioneer as far as Derby races in the subcontinent is concerned, was the first to undertake the construction of the existing Monsoon tracks. The track was unique and in those days perhaps a-one-of-its-kind track in the world in that it was one of the quickest draining track one could imagine. The Royal Calcutta Turf Club also introduced the state-of-the-art “Randwick Rails” which is now universally used by race courses all over the world. But, in those days, the Randwick Rails were a novelty. The huge stands of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club amidst the lush greenery and the architectural grandeur of Victoria Memorial on the distant horizon standing like a beacon of hope makes for a truly kaleidoscopic vignette.

The number of horses has gone up from 300 to over 600 now and competition is more intense. After renovation, the 153-acre race course now has a stable capacity for 700 horses. On an average, around 5,000-6,000 spectators take their place in the 30,000 capacity galleries on any racing day. On big days the number swells to 15,000-20,000. Incidentally, the races are viewed through satellite across all the race courses in the country. The lush green race course is divided into five tracks with a helipad, polo ground, golf course and a serpentine lake in between. Around 6,000 people are employed in the race course alongside 5,000 others doing related jobs.

But RCTC has also had its twists of fate before it finally got rolling. Shifted out of the city, the Race Course at Akra was to all accounts, a rudimentary affair marked out for the day over a rough narrow course because it seemed not more than four horses could race at a time. Nevertheless, the cool breeze blowing off the adjacent River Hooghly must have been a pleasant change for race-goers from the hot and dusty atmosphere around Fort William and Writer’s Building.

As a result of the then Governor Lord Wellesley’s narrow outlook and reformist attitude, racing in Calcutta came to an abrupt, but temporary halt in 1798 and it was only five years later that it was resumed by an organisation called Bengal Jockey Club which had been formed with the sole object of keeping the sport going on a sound basis. In 1809, the venue shifted from Akra to the Maidan area which is virtually the centre of the city and here it remains until today.

But it took more time for RCTC to step into its elements. In 1812, the new course was laid out in Calcutta roughly where it is located today and interest now moved to this major centre. The Calcutta Welter, at the time the most important event, had however begun of all places at Barasat. But thankfully the race was transferred to Calcutta in 1825.

Perhaps the one most significant event to happen in the history of Calcutta racing took place in 1847 when the Calcutta Turf Club was officially born. The first ever Derby race here was called the Calcutta Derby Stakes, in 1842. It was confined to maiden Arabs over a distance of two miles and carried the then fabulous prize of Rs. 5000/- for the winner.

The state has seen it all post independence. Starting with political turmoil to industrial segregation and RCTC has had to bear the brunt. But recently with a more positive ambience, patronage returning to the members’ gallery, successful tackling of equine epidemic and high stakes at the races, RCTC is set for a U-turn.

As we leave the cheers behind and the microphones roll out an Elvis masterpiece “Can’t you see I love you…”, one cant help thinking that happy days are here again. Or what good is a horse shoe charm for!