The sprawling 226-acres of racecourse sits like a large emerald in the very heart of south Mumbai, occupying some of the most expensive real estate in the world. When the racing season is on, the Derby becomes the place where the rich, famous and powerful congregate and display their designer togs and baubles to a blaze of publicity.
But scratch the surface and you find that racing is nothing but a loss-making sport with dwindling spectator interest. The Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) manages horse racing in India and is controlled by an elite bunch of super-rich businessmen desperate to cover the sport’s loss-making status by generating revenue through other means.
A Turf Club veteran explains why racing doesn’t pay. “In the 1980s, average attendance was around 12,000-15,000 on a given day. It is now down to 4,000-5,000.” According to him, this is probably because both sports and wagering is far more diverse and accessible today, thanks to television and technology. “We make such a big deal about the present Derbys; but despite all the glamour and hype today, the highest attendance ever has not been more than 22,000. In contrast, the attendance was around 56,000 at the races in the early 1950s.’’ The amount of money that is wagered is also significantly lower. “The amount that was wagered on the 1951 Derby was 4.5 times the amount that is wagered today – this is in pure money terms. In value terms, it would be that much higher,” says our source.
Consequently, the RWITC does not make money from horse racing. Although it has turned profitable in recent times, the bulk of its profit is generated by hiring out the lawns for fancy society weddings as well as the income and royalty from catering and restaurants. There are several reasons why it is only a matter of time before people start demanding that the racecourse be shifted out of the city limits. Here are a few of them.
Not only does the racecourse occupy prime land, but the RWITC also attempts to obstruct several infrastructure projects, such as construction of flyovers or restricting the use of helipads on the claim that it would frighten the horses. Yet, the racing season in Mumbai only extends from the beginning of November to the end of April. Since the racecourse gets water-logged in the monsoons, the entire establishment of around 1,500 horses, stable hands and support staff move to Pune from July to October, where the RWITC runs a second racecourse.
Thirdly, the lease of land from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is set to expire in 2013 and the municipal corporation is already unhappy with the RWITC’s many attempts to hang on to the land in perpetuity. The BMC has already served two notices on RWITC for several constructions, pertaining mainly to the restaurants, which are in breach of its lease agreement. It also ran into serious trouble with the fire department with two successive incidents of fire gutting the stands in July and September 2008. In one instance, the 100-year old colonial structure that houses the members’ stands caught fire in 2008 and it was discovered that it wasn’t adequately prepared with fire-fighting equipment.
The RWITC probably anticipates this as well. That is why it has made several attempts to create permanent structures that will help it hold on to the land in perpetuity. Sometime in 2000, RWITC signed a Rs135-crore contract with Pegasus Clubs and Resorts to promote tourism and to construct a golf course within the racecourse, through a strange agreement that would hand over 70 acres of land to Pegasus. This was planned as a 30-year lease with the scope for extending it to 50 years. The deal created a huge controversy, ended up in litigation and seems to have been dropped.
The RWITC then decided to set up two new restaurants which would earn handsome profits. The 10-year lease of Gallops, one of the oldest restaurants, with large banquet/party spaces, has also been renewed (again controversially) to BJN group of restaurants. This has also earned the displeasure of the municipal corporation, since the lease of the racecourse land itself expires in 2013 and it has no right to enter into a longer-term sub-contract.
The bigger issue that is being raised by those who think that the racecourse land can be put to better use for public amenities is that at the core it legitimises gambling and wagering – that too by collecting paltry taxes (the tax is levied only on the bets and not the winnings). If horse racing is legitimate, then why stop casinos and other kinds of betting which have the potential to earn substantial revenues for the government and boost tourism?
Secondly, since the horses and the racing establishment have to move between two cities, isn’t it better to relocate the racecourse on the outskirts of Mumbai? As it is, it is only an expensive club, riven by public bickering and differences between its members on several issues and one that is blocking key infrastructure projects that will ease traffic congestion in south Mumbai.
Finally, there is the issue of the organisational structure of the RWITC, which is constituted as a limited company. Almost a decade ago, some members had written to the ministry of corporate affairs that the RWITC’s Memorandum and Articles of Association are in violation of the Companies Act. As a limited company, it cannot differentiate between various categories of members, but the RWITC reserves voting rights only to a chosen minority called the ‘Club Members’ – they alone can move resolutions or stand for elections. Even ‘Stand Members’ or Life Members are denied a vote. There are only 1,400 or 1,500 Club Members (voting members) and there are over 7,000 Stand or Life Members. This case too is pending before the government and could be activated at any time.
In sum, this seemingly elite and glamorous sport, with dwindling spectator interest, is occupying prime land in Mumbai because it has turned into a cosy fiefdom for its rich and powerful patrons. Should the ordinary Mumbaikar be satisfied with the tiny access granted to them by the RWITC for jogging, walking and yoga sessions? Or should we ensure that Mumbai’s green lung with all its restaurants is turned into a public space that is freely accessible to everybody like New York’s Central Park or even Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park?