The bell rings. The starting gates open on an overcast Sunday evening in Bangalore, and 17 of India's finest racehorses lunge forward. The Kingfisher Derby - the race that offers the largest prize money in the country, Rs 2.36 crore - is underway. The crowd is silent as the horses cover the first few hundred metres of the 1,950-metre race. But as they reach the last stretch, decibel levels in the jam-packed galleries rise to a deafening roar.
Race enthusiasts in Bangalore
Every punter bellows the name of the horse he or she has put money on. Lovely Kiss and Star Marquess were the bookies' favourites, but neither is in the lead as the race reaches its final, climactic moments. Finally, in a last-minute burst of energy a horse called Pronto Pronto pips the others to win the Derby. Those who bet on Pronto Pronto will earn six times the money they had wagered.
The substantial prize money, the large crowd, the carnival-like atmosphere, are all testimony to the fact that horse racing in India is regaining some of its lost charm. The stigma associated with the betting aspect in horse racing - which labelled it as mere gambling - appears to be dying. "Over the years people have accepted that horse racing is a sport where skills are more important than luck,'' says Mohit Lalvani, horse racing consultant for the UB group, which sponsors the Derby.
A bigger challenge for horse racing is the set of archaic laws that govern it, and policy indifference. "If racing in India has to achieve global scale we need to open our doors,'' adds Lalvani.
Existing rules allow only Indianborn horses to participate in races like the Kingfisher Derby. "The rule was put in place soon after Independence to protect the Indian breeding industry which could not have survived international competition then,'' says Zeyn Mirza, Managing Director of the racehorse breeding company, United Racing & Bloodstock Breeders.
"But over the past 20 years, especially after liberalisation in the 1990s, breeding in India has improved by leaps and bounds. Today we are ready to take on competition.'' Not all agree. Some believe the sector still needs protection. "We have not reached that stage yet. We need more depth in breeding to take on international competition,'' says Farook Wadia, President, National Horse Breeding Society of India.
There are also challenges in taking Indian horses overseas for races. "Many countries do not allow Indian horses," says Wadia. "Or they put stringent entry conditions for fear of their horses getting infected by glanders - a disease prevalent among the country-bred horses in India." Indian racehorses are thoroughbreds and do not suffer from glanders, but many countries are unwilling to make the distinction.
Heading for the gates before a race
In 2004, for instance, an Indian racehorse named Classical Act had to be flown all the way to California and then spent 10 days in quarantine before it was allowed to participate in a Dubai race. But there are ways out. A far worse ailment, African Horse Disease, is common among horses in South Africa. But South Africa overcame the problem of acceptance abroad by zoning - creating special zones which were checked and demarcated as diseasefree.
Horses strut their stuff at the paddock
Horses bred in these zones do not face the restrictions other South African horses do. "We are working on a similar zoning system in India too,'' says Wadia.
The shackles holding back horse racing in India frustrate Srinath Surendra, the jockey who rode Pronto Pronto to victory. "I want to compete with the best,'' he says. Unfortunately, his confidence is not shared by many others.