This is one great Mumbai landmark that really flies under the radar. This is one of the coolest places in Mumbai, but no one seems to visit it, talk about it or even know about it. The Mahalaxmi racecourse - headquarters of the RWITC - the Royal Western India Turf club - located on a humongous 225 acres of land in one of most expensive and desirable areas of South Mumbai.
Just the sheer size of this property makes this a Mumbai marvel - because the city is so crowded, so chockfull, so cramped, so gummed up - that even sardines in their cans feel relaxed and spread out as compared to Mumbaikars. The property prices are high enough to make even Doland Trump bhai suck in a breath and shout ‘We are winning so much that we will one day buy a plot in Mumbai! Agli baar, trump sarkar!’. Even Sheikh Chilli of Arabia thinks twice before investing in land here and the Sultan of Brunei shook his head and went back on his gold-plated private jet.
And in the midst of all this, we have 225 acres of beautifully maintained greenery which is used for races only for a few days in a year! Isn’t that amazing?
I don't think people in Mumbai really appreciate the historical significance of the place - but this racecourse is more than 150 years old, and is a wonderful heritage structure with a lot of historical value. It was built in 1883!
Horse racing was always a big thing with the British, and the first thing they built once they had taken over a town and pacified the natives was to build a...no, not a racecourse silly! The first thing was a fort, then a court and gallows to hang all those who opposed them, then a port for their ships to haul away their loot, a bank to store the money they stole from the locals...and once they were good and rich and safe - a racecourse!
The first racecourse was built in India in Guindy, Madras - in 1777! The East India Company had won the battle of Plassey in 1757 and conquered Bengal. The EIC further established its hold in India by defeating the Mughal armies in the Battle of Buxar in 1764 and had the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II by the balls and squeezed out huge monies and the ‘Diwani’ or ‘right to collect land tax’ of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa from him - making them the de facto owners and rulers of North and East India.
This led to a flow - a deluge, a torrent - of riches into the hands of the East India Company and its officers - and so they were able to lash out and buy the finest horses and go horse racing! The building of the racecourse in Madras must have inspired the British in other parts of India - including Bombay. Most of the 170 cantonments in British India – Meerut and Lucknow, for instance – used to have their own little racecourses and race meetings. The Madras Race Course, the oldest in the country, was established in 1777, three years prior to the running of the first British Derby in Epsom (1780). When the East India Company made Calcutta (Kolkata) the capital in 1772, it gradually turned into the de facto turf capital too.
The Bombay Turf Club was established and founded by Captain G. Hall, Sir Charles Forbes, A Campbell, P. Hadow and others in 1802. The four founders’ contribution to racing in Mumbai is commemorated annually through races named after them. The Club had acquired a land parcel in Byculla (a few kilometres from Mahalaxmi) for horse racing and the balcony of a clubhouse was used as a private stand for members.
The British and the bawajis were very tight in those days - and these lands in Byculla were given to them by the good offices of Dorabji Rustomji, the Patel of Bombay.
The British became the de facto and de jure power in Western India after defeating the Maratha empire in the third Anglo Maratha war in 1819 - and celebrated by organising the first horse race held in Pune with a 100-guinea cup donated by the British Resident – and later Governor of Bombay – the Hon. Mr Mountstuart Elphinstone.
This inspired the Bombay people to incorporate the Bombay and Pune turf clubs into one - the Western India turf club, and started looking out for suitable premises in Bombay. They must have leaned on the locals for free land - and another bawaji ...the Philanthropist and Industrialist Sir Cusrow N Wadia ‘donated’ 225 acres of land in Mahalaxmi for the racecourse in 1870.
Old Mr Wadia must have cribbed at the demand for so much free land, so he gave the worst and most useless land he had - marshy land in a far-away and deserted place called Mahalaxmi. The land was so bad that racing had to be abandoned after a single season in 1878 - it was marshy and slippery and had a terrible stink from the open drain nearby. Cusrowji must have been giggling into his beard.
But the Brits were made of stern stuff! They spent a lot of money and effort (not their effort and not their money...easy to spend) to drain the flats and make a fancy racecourse. It was modelled on the Melbourne racecourse in Australia - and it finally started racing in 1883.
The horses racing in India in the early days were cavalry horses and chargers imported from Great Britain and Arabia. The owners were mostly British, at times titled aristocracy and army officers. The first-generation Indian owners were the Maharajas of Cooch-Behar, Burdwan, Baroda, Idar, Morvi, Kolhapur, Rajpipla and Mysore among others. They started racing their horses at Mahalaxmi – and later also in Pune – after racing in Western India was started in 1880. Later on, industrialists like the textile tycoon Mathradas Goculdas and the Thackerseys joined their ranks. Some of them even had their horses running in England. Two of the then big owners in Britain – His Excellency The Aga Khan and Sir Victor Sassoon – also had some of their horses running at Mahalaxmi.
In 1935, the name was changed to the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC), after King George V, the then emperor of India, granted permission to add the prefix “royal” to the club’s name.
The Mahalaxmi Racecourse has a 2,400-metre oval racetrack, with the longest straight of 600 m (from final bend up to the winning post) in the country. The beauty of its grandstands, a designated heritage structure, is that the spectators can view the whole mile-and-a-half race by sitting in one place without any obstruction. The racecourse land is now owned by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and partly the State government.
I had a very romantic notion of horse racing after reading the amazing series of books written by Dick Francis - a former jockey - which are a series of thrillers set in the equine world. Or a really fun view of racing from the works of P G Wodehouse - the adventures of Bertie Wooster, Bingo Little and other members of the Drones club as they bet their little all on the races - with hilarious results!
And a very colonial view of racing in the amazing ‘Noble House’ series by James Clavell, which talks about life in Hong Kong and details out how everybody in Hong Kong - whites and Chinese and everybody else- embraces horse racing as a wonderful carnival and wins and loses huge money on the races and has a lot of fun.
The racecourse was depicted as the ultimate symbol of prestige and power in colonial Hong Kong and the hero Ian Dunross was a steward of the club and kept blackballing the villain - Mr Gornt - and not giving him a seat in the corridors of power! (I love mixing metaphors!) The betting on the race really inflames the local people and they bet huge sums on strange terms like the ‘triple quinella’ or something like that and win and lose millions! What a story!
I have never read an Indian story that talks so lovingly about horse racing and tells us about the relation of Indians with horse racing. Did the locals also embrace the sport of kings and go about screaming about ‘a tenner each way’ or ‘triple quinellas’? There is no writing about it that I have encountered.
In fact it is somehow seen as a sin and vice. A place to lose all your fortune where you will be rooked by wicked people and stripped to the bone!
Whether it was the Gandhian guilt, or the Brahminical bias or the middle-class insecurity - all of which are against a person being happy and enjoying himself in any way at all -...the post-independence generation never really cottoned on to the ‘Sport of kings’.
The younger generation (which includes me! So not all that young I suppose…) doesn’t think of it at all! Horse racing has become something so remote and foreign and ephemeral that it doesn’t occupy any mind space at all. It became one with other ‘white sports’ like Polo and Golf, which were played only by the pampered rich and were not for everyone. Unlike cricket and hockey - which are equally ‘white men’ sports, but are loved by all!
This is strange - because the very essence of a race is something very accessible. One doesn’t need to be on the horse or know anything about horse riding or the rules or anything technical - all you need to know is who won the race!
I had attended a few races earlier - and it was great fun! The tickets were quite cheap, and it was great fun to sit in the stalls and see the horses thundering past! What a rush! What a thrill! It was much more fun than a car or bike race!
A day at the races either at Mahalaxmi or in Pune is always full of fun. The Club plans its racing programme in such a way that everyone will have something more to enjoy than just backing a horse or cheering a winner. The variety entertainment programmes, lifestyle events, contest of skills, bumper prizes and other add-ons make it a day to remember and cherish. RWITC is the only turf club in the country to actively encourage people to bring their children thus making it a family day of leisure & entertainment.
The Racing season runs from November to April, and the Mahalaxmi racecourse is home to the 5 Indian Classics (Indian Derby on the first Sunday of February) and race with cool names like 1000 Guineas, 2000 Guineas, Oaks, Derby, St Leger, Poonawalla Multimillion and many more.
The first Indian Derby was run in 1943 and won by a filly named Princess Beautiful — owned by the Maharaja of Baroda and ridden by Australian jockey Edgar Britt. In 1949, Kheem Singh became the first Indian jockey to break the monopoly of foreign jockeys by winning the Indian Derby atop a horse named Balam.
In 1985, the race earned a new avatar after the United Breweries (UB) Group decided to sponsor the mega event and it was named McDowell Indian Derby. In 2016, the event was re-christened as Kingfisher Ultra Indian Derby after the end of the longest alliances in the history of Indian sport. United Spirits Limited, which had been sponsoring the McDowell Indian Derby for more than 30 years, decided to withdraw its sponsorship and United Breweries Ltd. took its place, and has continued its alliance with RWITC for five years now.
Among the owners, trainers and jockeys in the racing fraternity who have won the maximum number of Indian derbies are owner Dr. M.A.M. Ramaswamy with seven winners, trainer Rashid R. Byramji with a record of 11 winners and ace jockey-turned-trainer Pesi Shroff, who achieved the feat of riding eight derby winners as a jockey.
A new chapter was added to horse racing in India on January 9, 2016, when evening racing was introduced in the country.
In 2016, Zavaray Poonawalla, chairman of RWITC, won the bid of ₹1.15 crore as a sponsor to the title rights of evening racing and hosted 19 evening race-days during that Mumbai season. The feature event of the opening day was the ‘Zavaray Poonawalla Evening Racing Triple Million’ — a race which offered ₹3 million as prize-money, and a glittering trophy worth ₹1 million to be presented to the winning connections. Since then, the Mahalaxmi Racecourse is the only racing centre in India where night racing is held and RWITC makes sure to conduct few evening races during the Mumbai racing season every year.
Sadly, most people know the Racecourse more as a wedding and event venue - or as a place to eat in the fancy restaurants like Gallops, Keiba, Tote on the turf and ‘The unnamed breakfast place’.
The local people living in South Bombay use the Racecourse as an awesome place to go their morning walks! What lucky people!
The common Mumbaikar has access to the racecourse in the mornings and evenings during specified timings for exercising, walking or jogging in the inner lane of the main horse race track. The racecourse has also transformed many common Mumbaikars into Marathoners. Yoga sessions akin to Tai-chi are conducted in the garden situated within the race-track during the common permissible timings, akin to "Happy Valley Racecourse" in Hong Kong. Lessons for horse-riding are also provided by Amateurs Riders Club. In the evenings, dogs are also allowed to be walked, but one has to check the permissibility. On weekends it is common to find Aero-Modelling hobbyists flying planes on the polo ground, performing aerial acrobats with motorized radio-controlled planes during non-racing days.
The ground is also used as a heli-pad!
Since I was anyway on a mission to explore Mumbai with my Sunday Morning Rides - I decided to do the Worli circuit and check out Mahalaxmi racecourse - as it is right on the way from Worli Sea Face to Marine drive.
I togged up in my cycling gear and set out and had a most enjoyable drizzly ride from Chembur to Haji Ali via Worli sea face. I had passed on this road a million times - but I had never thought about entering the race course till now! How amazing is that!
Entering the racecourse was like entering a wonderland. Just reading the sign was so much fun...it started off like any normal sign, saying ‘Walking Jogging is allowed from 5 AM to 9 AM and 4 PM to 8 PM..’ but then went into the surreal zone by adding ‘Horses have right of way!’
Horses have right of way! Really? Horses? That’s so awesome.
And just as I was reading this sign and marvelling… I was startled by a ‘hurrrrrrmmm’ sound behind me - and saw a horse and had to give way!
There was a string of horses with jockeys walking calmly out of the gate! And on the gate was a sign saying ‘Amateur riders club’!
That is so cool...you can learn horse riding here. In Mumbai!
Can you imagine...asking a kid to list his hobbies - and instead of cricket and football, he says ‘horse riding’?
I went for a quick walk around the racecourse… it must be awesome to run here, I thought, and pretend to be a centaur or something. Unfortunately, if I ran here, people might think that it was a rhino on the charge and stampede in panic!
I looked around the usual group of walkers - some solo souls marching and waving their arms about energetically enough to brain any unwary neighbor, a bunch of gujju uncles talking share market and determinedly walking slowly in the fast lane - damn all to good manners! Some gossipy aunties glaring at the pretty young things in skin-tight lycra, some Baba Ramdev disciples trying to stand on one leg, some old buffers chilling out and admiring the flowers and so on.
I could see the old pavilion of the Turf club - it’s a heritage structure - having been built in 1874! The poor thing caught fire in 2008, but luckily it was controlled in time and was restored to its original glory by 2009.
As I looked around, the skyline was dominated by building after building. There had been so much new construction in the post-2000 boom, that I just could not recognise the skyline anymore!
As I looked at the fancy new buildings, I idly wondered how many crores each of those flats must be worth, and how many millions of dollars of brand-new real estate I was looking at. And in the light of that, the place I was standing in became even more amazing. A green lung of empty space in the midst of this expensive urban purgatory.
God only knows how long it will last. All the builders must be eyeing this plot with incredible avarice, and have promised the politicians untold amounts of money if only they would hand it over to them.
Already all kinds of schemes are afoot - RWITC’s 99 year lease of land of Mahalaxmi racecourse ended in May 2013. It has since then applied for renewal of the lease but the state government which is part owner of the land on which Mahalaxmi race course stands has yet to take any decision.
The Shiv Sena was against the very existence of such capitalistic things like a racecourse, and wanted to convert it to a theme park! A theme park! What a bloody stupid idea!
Of course, halfway through the permit process, it would suddenly turn into something else - with generous parcels being hived off to builders to make buildings. No doubt with significant fattening of political purses!
In 2013, soon after the Sena first proposed the idea of an amusement park and a memorial, Debi Goenka, executive trustee of non-profit organization Conservation Action Trust that lobbies for environment protection had said: “As far as we are concerned, this open space acts as the city’s lung and there should be no construction in the name of theme park and no convention centre, joy rides, hotels and such other construction should be allowed at the site."
All this action had happened in 2013 - and the BJP government wisely dropped the political hot potato and refused to take any action. In fact, a whole lot of municipal 99-year leases got over in 2013 and the BMC has done nothing about reclaiming any of them.
And now we are sitting in 2021… and that same Shiv Sena is now in power in both State government and BMC - although as part of a consortium of parties. So now god only knows what will happen. Luckily they have started construction of the Balasaheb Thackeray memorial in another location (and destroyed another historical landmark for that - the old Mayors bungalow) so at least that excuse is off the table.
I really hope that this beautiful place does not fall to the greed of politicians and builders and remains as it is. After all, how many cities can boast such an amazing place in the heart of it? A magical place to walk, run - and learn horse riding! In the middle of Mumbai!
Let us market and promote Mumbai as a horse racing destination and make that into an awesome tourist draw, rather than destroying this awesome place to make builders and politicians richer.
I just hope that horse racing can continue out here, and I will be able to come and enjoy a day at the races once again!
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!