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RCTC: Horse Racer’s Paradise of the world

9 November, 2022 11:07:32
RCTC: Horse Racer’s Paradise of the world

More than 150 years ago around 1847, a club was found in the heart of British Kolkata that would go on to inspire horse lovers and horse racers of the world. Though horse racing in this second capital of British empire was popular even before Royal Calcutta Golf Club, popularly known as RCTC came into existence. Races were run at a place called Akra near Garden Reach; and then around 1809 moved to Maidan.

RCTC was formed at a meeting held in 1847, almost 100 years before India would drive away its colonisers with J.P. Mckilligan in the chair. Mr W.F. Fergusson read a paper proposing among other things ‘the formation of a permanent association to regulate all matters concerned with Racing and to protect the interests of the Turf.’ Thus the Calcutta Turf Club came into existence with 36 original members and remaining members of the old Bengal Jockey Club.

Around 1889, the club acquired premises for an office and club facilities at 29 Chowringhee Road. By 1893, they shifted to 33 Theatre Road where it remained till 1920 when they moved to the present premises, that was bought after Sir A.A. Apcar’s death. Apcar’s house at 11 Russel Street was acquired by J.C. Galstaun, along with the property at 9 Russell Street and 5 Middleton Row. For each property the club paid Rs 2,30,000. The last property to be acquired was 10 Russell Street. Later the walls between the properties were pulled down and the whole place turned into one big premise with two entrances on Russell Street and one on Middleton Row. Fifty years later, 9 and 10 Russell Street were sold off, one of them houses the Meghalaya House complex.

The RCTC Club House and office today is an imposing two storey house with beautiful columns supporting the roof on the first floor. Much has changed, but the memories remain of Viceroys, Maharajas, kings and Queens who frequented this place. The horses, owners, jockeys and trainers and also the punters, some celebrating their jackpot wins, the losers drinking to the dregs to drown their sorrows, all are intertwined in those memories.

On the western side of the clubhouse was another imposing building standing on plot 5 Russell Street. This was a historic house with a large compound. It was used as the Bishop’s Place between 1825-1849. The British Government rented this house from Mr James Pattle, member of the Board of Revenue, as the official residence of the Bishop of Calcutta, at a rental of only Rs 600 per month on a lease for eleven years. This house has a wonderful façade. It was a typical Grecian structure with a long, deep colonnade to each storey on the southern front to protect it from the sun, and each verandah fitted with green blinds made of cane. The rooms had good sizes just like the building of RCTC, the largest one was however the dining room, that happened to be a double cube with windows fitted with venetian blinds. The entrance to the house was from a spacious covered portico, under which carriages drove in.

RCTC started its polo matches from late 19thcentury, and hosted English-style gambling too. The Calcutta Derby Sweeps, organised by the RCTC, was the world's largest sweepstakein the 1930s. After the closure of the Tollygunge racecourse, a new racecourse was opened by the club in Barrackpore during the 1920s; it was unsuccessful due to poor attendance. Grandstands were built at the Maidan racecourse; Kolkata Race Course had three in 2020, including a three-tier main grandstand. Races were usually organised in the relative coolness of the morning (just after sunrise) and consisted of five 2.5-mile (4.0 km) heats. If a race was not decided in the morning, the heats resumed after sunset. The British press regularly published Calcutta race results. In 1825, the Calcutta Welter (India’s main horse-racing event) was moved to the new course. The Calcutta Derby Stakes, in which maiden Arabians ran 2.5-mile (4.0 km) for valuable prizes, began in 1842.

The club came to have the same authority as the Jockey Club in England (the arbiter on horse racing in that country),and a notice of a January 1863 race meeting in Muzaffarpur said that it would be conducted under Calcutta Turf Club rules. In 1883 the British House of Lords discussed an accusation against a Surgeon-Major Thornburn by the Lucknow Race Course of gambling irregularities which was upheld by the Calcutta Turf Club. A court of inquiry at Lucknow looked into the accusation and the Judge Advocate General in India analysed and passed it on to the Commander-in-Chief of India confirmed the ruling by both clubs’ stewards. Thorburn, who was refused a court-martial, was forced to return to England and retire. The Calcutta Turf Club was the governing body by 1899 of all of British India and Burma’s 52 race courses except for Mumbai, Pune, Karachi and Khelapur (now Kolhapur), which were under the jurisdiction of Bombay’s Western India Turf Club.

One of the important dates was Viceroy’s Cup Day held from 1910. The Club conducted polo matches for Indians and Europeans. Sir William McPherson(1886 – 1897) upgraded the racing rules and reached an agreement with the Bombay Turf Club that any race course in India which held races under the rules was subject to the authority of Calcutta or Bombay. He introduced other changes: jockeys could not bet, and professional handicappers were introduced. Steeple-chasing was brought under the club’s jurisdiction in 1888. The first Grand National in India was run in 1895 at the course at Tollygunge, and steeple-chasing was one of the racing season’s main events.

Lord William Beresford, a member of the viceroy's staff, won the Viceroy's Cup in 1881 with his black gelding Camballo and won the cup three more times with Myall King. Apcar Alexander Apcar, a wealthy merchant whose family owned the Apcar Line of steamships, owned some best racehorses and was president of the Calcutta Turf Club. Apcar was a rival of Beresford, who believed in the merits of English Thoroughbreds. His Great Scott won the Viceroy's Cup three times, as did his horse Mayfowl. At the opening of the Christmas race week, the viceroy of India and his wife would drive in state past the grandstand. The Prince of Wales, the future King George V, attended the races in 1905.

The Maharaja of Burdwan, Bijay Chand Mahtab, was the first Indian to be elected a full member of the club in 1908. The new grandstand, built between 1905-1907, was open to the public along with stand membership. First timing device was also introduced in 1907. The monsoon track, designed to drain quickly, was added in 1910. The club added ‘Royal’ to its name in 1912, after King George V attended the races for the second time. During the 20thcentury, the Calcutta Turf Club organised races on 28 days per year. At one time, the club had jurisdiction over 73 racecourses across the Indian subcontinent.

The Calcutta Turf Club imported the English practice of gambling on races, and named their Derby and St Leger after the English races. A mildly-disapproving 1866 account called the betting practices ‘lotteries.’ In early Indian horse racing, betting combined a lottery and an auction. One hundred ten-rupee tickets were typically sold, and the money placed in a pot. A ticket was drawn for each horse in the race. These tickets were auctioned, with the ticket holder getting half the winning bid and the other half going into the pot; after the race, the pot was divided among those with tickets for the winning horses. Parimutuel betting began in 1872.

The Calcutta Turf Club Derby draw was started as a private sweepstake in 1887 by Lord William Beresford. Shortly after World War I, the sweepstakes awarded prizes of £75,000, £35,000 and £15,000 for the top three horses in the club’s Derby. The Calcutta Derby Sweepstake was well known worldwide, with the pool reaching almost £1 million in 1929 and 1930. Forty percent of the pool went to the first-prize winner, twenty percent to the second and ten percent to the third. Tickets for unplaced horses also received a share, and the club kept 10 percent. The sweepstake was open only to members of the RCTC, or to friends who could ask members to place a wager. Although methods were developed to make it easier for gamblers in other countries to place bets, the Calcutta Derby Sweepstake could not compete with the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstake (introduced in the 1930s) even though the expected payout was higher.

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