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ROYAL CALCUTTA TURF CLUB: A HERITAGE SUSTAINED

Home to heritage, sport and greenery, RCTC has pioneered horse racing in the country since mid-19th century – today, with impractical GST rates, the industry and, in turn, the club is witnessing an unfortunate backlash

ROYAL CALCUTTA TURF CLUB: A HERITAGE SUSTAINED

Few, if any, racecourses in the world will compare with the scenic beauty of the lush greens laid out by Royal Calcutta Turf Club. Nestling in the heart of busy urban Kolkata, it has oft been called the 'lungs of the city' – particularly for its unending expanse of greenery, punctuated with the magnificent Victoria Memorial as backdrop. Walking through the turf, one can almost hear gentle whispers pouring through the swaying grass – once the land of the reigning monarchs of colonial Britain, it has been home to many a lineage that has embraced the City of Joy as its very own, gracing the turf to watch the 'sport of kings' from the stands that remain tall even today.

Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC), founded in 1847 in Calcutta, British India, had been the country's premier horse racing organisation during British Raj. In fact, at one time, it was the governing body for almost all racecourses in the subcontinent, defining and applying the rules that governed the sport. 1847 was a milestone year for Calcutta, as the establishment of Calcutta Turf Club lent wings to the city's bustling racing scene. The club fulfilled important roles in regulating the protection and promotion of racing and the turf in Calcutta. Elections to the club were conducted on ballot and a committee of five was appointed to manage the club's everyday affairs.

Calcutta, the first centre in the subcontinent, hosted a Derby race called the Calcutta Derby Stakes in 1842, with a prize of Rs 5,000 for the winner – a lofty sum for that time. During its heyday, the races it organised were among the most important social events of the calendar, opened by the Viceroy of India.

There appeared in Calcutta in 1860 a man who was responsible, more than any other, for the birth of a remarkable new era in the life of Calcutta racing. For the next 25 years, Lord Ulrich Browne, ICS, was to dominate the racing scene in the same way as Admiral Rous influenced English racing at about the same period. By this time, the stature of Calcutta Turf Club had gained renown. By 1889, its jurisdiction extended to all courses of India, excepting Bombay, Pune, Karachi and Khelapur, which raced under Bombay, and there were as many as 52 courses in India (and Burma) at that time.

The appointment in 1908 of a stipendiary, for the first time in India, was also an innovation of Calcutta Turf Club. In the same year, Maharaja Dhiraja Sri Bijoy Chand Mahtab of Burdwan became the first Indian to be elected to the full membership of the club. In due course, his son, Sri Uday Chand Mahtab, was also extended full membership, among other important personalities such as Sir Biren Mukherjee and Sachin Chowdhury (later Finance Minister, Govt. of India).

Thereafter, in 1912, came the granting of the appellation 'Royal' to the title of the Club, following King George V's second visit to the Calcutta Races. The extensive stands of the Calcutta Race Course, white amidst lush green open space, have a special charm. Away on the horizon rest the high-rise city buildings and, nearer, the white marble grandeur of Victoria Memorial sitting in its well-planted park. This magnificent edifice stands sentinel as it did in the year when Calcutta Races was honoured by the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – on which occasion, she presented her own trophy, which she continues to donate every year.

RCTC has been graced by the visit of a galaxy of dignitaries. In earlier days, Viceroys and Governor Generals, with the exception of Lord Wellesley, were active patrons of racing in Calcutta. The visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in February 1961 has been the greatest event in the history of RCTC. A race was run in her honour and she presented the first Queen Elizabeth II Cup. Every year since, a new cup is sent from Buckingham Palace to Calcutta.

On a brilliant sunlit February afternoon, there is a confluence of history, heritage, tradition and sport at Royal Calcutta Turf Club as Queen Elizabeth II Cup takes centre-stage. Not many races in the Indian racing calendar can compare with this prestigious event which dates back to 1856, when it was run for the very first time as the Governor General's Plate. Buckingham Palace sends the cup to the winner from Her Majesty.

The racecourse today has three viewing stands. The main pavilion has three tiers, with elaborate turrets and railings of wrought iron. Across the grounds from the stand, to the east of the racecourse, is Victoria Memorial, a marble monument dedicated to Queen Victoria. The stand is now open to all members of the public. The public can buy tickets to attend the races. RCTC, today, has around 400 horses that are well-maintained and trained.

The Centre's move in to impose 28 per cent GST could kill the sport. When it comes to the horse racing industry, many believe that the sport is cash-rich and an absolute display of luxury, given the fact that it is only the ones with deep purses who can afford these beautiful thoroughbreds. The Supreme Court had said racing is a game of skill and is not simple gambling. Punters have been affected and their investments have lessened. The livelihood of people surviving and sustaining their families in this industry has been threatened. This move perhaps nourishes the illegal quarters which run parallel with the totalisators and official bookmakers. The ground reality and outcome sadly is still far away from the objective.

In fact, today, the very existence of horse racing in India is under serious threat with the Centre's decision to impose 28 per cent GST on betting, virtually dragging the sport to its knees. From July 2017, the slide began and, since then, collections have gone just one way – spiralling downward. In 2016-2017, Gross Collection on Race Betting in India was Rs 3,954 crore. In 2018-2019, it will not even cross Rs 1,900 crore. Turf authorities, in an impassioned plea to the government, have done all they can to highlight the plight that threatens to throw the 'sport of kings' off the rails.

However, Turf Club is a premier club in the country with a major centre of interest.

Royal Calcutta Turf Club continues to glorify the city's, and indeed, the country's, rich heritage and will do so in the years to come. While changing taxation dynamics are imperative for a growing country, they can never come at the cost of an industry – particularly one that is so intrinsically linked to heritage and historic livelihoods.

Puja Banerjee

Puja Banerjee

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