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Indian Derby gaining international recognition slowly but surely - By Tom Krish

Posted on - 04 Feb 2011

Indian Derby gaining international recognition slowly but surely

By Tom Krish
Another Indian Derby is days away.  The English have the Epsom Derby, the mother of all Derbies. The Americans call their Blue Riband, The ‘Kentucky Derby.’ The French appellation is the Prix du Jockey Club. There is an Italian and a German Derby. Every regional course in America has a Derby. In India, we have Derbies hosted by Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Pune. The list is endless.

With the rare exception of the Indian Derby, the Epsom, Kentucky and French Derbies are for sophomores. In India, the Derby is for four year-olds. Freshmen in India do not start racing until late November or December. In the US and Europe, two year-olds begin their careers early in the summer.

What about the distance? The Indian Derby is run over 2400 metres. The Epsom Derby is also over 2400 metres. The Kentucky Derby is contested over 2000 metres. The Prix du Jockey Club is now run over 2100 metres. Until 2005, the French Derby was run over 2400 metres.

Kentucky Derby is run over (natural) dirt at Churchill Downs, in Louisville. Kentucky is the name of the State (like Maharashtra, Karnataka) where Louisville is located and the race is always run on the first Saturday in May. Derby Day at Churchill Downs attracts a throng well in excess of 130,000. Appropriately, the Kentucky Derby is referred to as the ‘greatest two minutes in sports.’ Another widely used phrase is the ‘Run For The Roses’ and this is because the winner of the race gets a garland of freshly-cut roses. The Kentucky Derby has a limit of 20 runners. Eligibility is determined by money earned in stakes competition.

The Epsom, the French and the Indian Derbies are run on grass. Mahalakshmi is right handed. Epsom Downs is left handed. Chantilly, where the French Derby is run, is right handed. Churchill Downs is left handed.

The Indian Derby is run on the first Sunday in February. The French Derby is run on the first Sunday in June. The British version is on the first Saturday in June. Until recently, the Epsom Derby was run on the first Wednesday in June. Saturdays have generated a much bigger attendance. The Epsom Oaks is run the day before the Derby. The Indian Oaks is run two weeks before the Derby. The Prix Diane (French Oaks) is run a week after the Derby. The Kentucky Oaks is run on the Friday before the Derby.

Epsom Downs deserves special mention because of its undulations. There is a 600-metre run in. Leaving the gate in the Derby, horses climb 412 feet (the height of the Nelson column in Trafalgar Square) and then run down hill as they approach the final turn called the Tattenham Corner. As they race to the wire, horses run uphill. If there is a challenging (demanding) course, Epsom Downs takes the cake by a mile. In 2010, Workforce won the Epsom Derby by five lengths. In the Arc, Workforce, a King’s Best colt ridden by Ryan Moore, was 19th turning for home and took top honors. Epsom Downs, without doubt, is the most difficult course for horses and riders. A horse that does well at Epsom will find other courses less challenging.

Chantilly has a magnificent backdrop. As the horses thunder past the backside, you see a medieval castle. At Chantilly, horses go uphill 600 of the last 800 metres but it is not as demanding as Epsom Downs.

Epsom Downs is in the countryside. It is a vast expanse and double decker buses are parked in the infield to let fans have a good view of what is happening on the course. At Churchill Downs, revelers pack the infield area and their wagering needs are catered to by windows set up in the infield. In France and the US, all the betting is done on the tote. India and England have bookmakers too.

The first Indian Derby I saw was in 1966 when Red Rufus came away victorious in the hands of jockey Raghunath. Red Rufus, after having won the 2000 Guineas, was the public choice. Back then, I took bus 124 from Colaba. It was a 45-minute ride and you could alight in front of the main entrance at Mahalakshmi.

I have attended several Epsom Derbies. Going to Epsom has always been a special experience for me. Traveling to London and taking a train into the heart of the town provided treasurable moments. From Victoria Station, you boarded a train to East Croydon and took another train to Tattenham Corner. Then it was a 12-15 minute trek to the Epsom Grandstand. The highpoint of the Derby weekend was the press conference held after the Oaks and the Derby. It was also a time to see and say hello to India-visiting jockeys. The most memorable Derby for me was in 2007 when Frankie Dettori broke the duck by steering Authorized to an authoritative win.

I have been at Chantilly almost every time I have been at Epsom. Generally, the Chantilly showpiece is a day after the Epsom Derby. I take the Eurostar early Sunday. We arrive at Gare du Nord from where I board a suburban train to go to Goveas Chantilly. Then it is a 15-minute walk through the woods. It is an emotional walk. The press meeting after the Derby is not taken too seriously in France. It all depends on what mood the winning connections are in.

Louisville is six hours by car from my house in Chicago. It is a crisp drive and early May is a pleasant time in America. At Churchill Downs, there are two areas for the media. We are taken care of very well. The press conferences are ‘religion’ in America. There is an elaborate set-up. The connections make a statement and take questions.

All The Derbies have sponsors. For a long time, Mitsubishi Motors sponsored the Prix du Jockey Club. Investec, an investment banking behemoth, offers the prize money in England. Vodafone ended a long partnership three years ago. Yumi Brands, known for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, sponsors the Kentucky Derby weekend. We have United Breweries (headed by Dr Vijay Mallya) taking on the task of making the Indian Derby one of the best endowed events.

In India, the media role is evolving. The realization is sinking in that dissemination of information is helping the sport. Vivek Jain of the RWITC is in the vanguard. Talk of being front and centre, Vivek Jain is ubiquitous.

There are 12 runners on Sunday in the Indian Derby. On paper, Ocean And Beyond looks hard to beat. The S K Sunderji trainee ticks all the right boxes. The Wadhwan camp sends out Moonlight Romance, fluent winner of the Indian Oaks. Then you have Xisca who has gone from strength to strength. Her run-away win in the Kolkata Derby thrust her right into the mix. More on all this, when I give you my ten cents’ worth of what I think about the Derby in my next report.


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