Hyderabad: 250. Bangalore: 400. Calcutta: 80.
The crore count, in turnover terms, tells the canter from the crawl. While the youngest racing centre in the country touched Rs 250 crore in the last financial year and frontrunner Bangalore Turf Club crossed the Rs 400-crore mark, Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC), the oldest horseracing institution in the country (established 1847), is lying low at Rs 80 crore.
Even as the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC) remains out of bounds for golfers and the Tollygunge Club idyll is broken by placards of protest, RCTC is limping to the finish line. Plagued by a crippling cash crunch, inadequate infrastructure, a “woefully lopsided” labour structure, an endemic lack of involvement from members, and now, a void at the top (with both the CEO and general manager ready to leave), the turf club is slipping fast on the national stakes of organised racing.
Calcutta racing is clearly no longer considered “a saleable proposition”, and the stands are often more empty than full. “Attendance is linked to the quality of the field, which has, no doubt, suffered over the years, with so many owners severing ties with the sport,” says Rajya Sabha MP Gen. Shankar Roy Chowdhury, former chief of army staff and present chairman of RCTC. Gen. Roy Chowdhury feels the economic conditions prevailing in the state are “not favourable to nurture racing”.
Industrialist Deepak Khaitan agrees the economic climate must change if Calcutta is to regain its pole position in racing. “Look at the amount of IT investment Hyderabad and Bangalore are attracting, which, in turn, has helped their racing. It’s also a question of packaging the sport right by linking it with tourism and entertainment and freeing it of the gambling stigma,” observes the man who, along with Chennai-based M.A.M. Ramaswamy, owns more than 50 per cent of the racehorses in Calcutta.
The support-base for the sport has narrowed, with many prominent owners having bolted. And the ‘heritage’ institution, contributing more than Rs 7 crore to the state exchequer every year by way of various taxes, is struggling to meet galloping wage bills and has no money to invest in mechanisation. The loss of the Invitation Cup to Bangalore in 2000 has cost the club dear, scotching hopes of hosting the mega event in the near future.
“It’s quite a hopeless situation, precipitated by a combination of ills. Most of the members have never seen the gate of the racecourse, even though they get priority over the owners. Besides, there is no transparency in the way the club is run and wages are irrational. Where else would a clerk draw Rs 15,000 a month'” asks M.L. Choudhary, president, Calcutta Racehorse Owners’ Association.
Richard Alford, honorary president, Trainers’ Association of Calcutta, agrees the chips are “really down” at RCTC, and is not sure the club will turn the corner in a hurry: “The stake money is a pittance compared to the leading centres (Rs 3 crore in Calcutta for 28 racing days to Bangalore’s Rs 10 crore for 35 days), there aren’t enough horses on the tracks and the labour force calls a ceasework at the slightest pretext. Who would want to keep and race a horse here'”
The government, too, has taken note of the turf club’s plight. S.K. Bose, government-nominated steward on the club committee, says: “We are considering a reduction in tote tax (at the gate) to bring back the crowds.”