Royal Calcutta Turf Club
Calcutta Turf Club race course stands before 1905
|Location||Kolkata, West Bengal, India|
|Race type||Horse racing|
The Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC), founded in 1847 in Calcutta, British India (now Kolkata, India), became the premier horse racing organization in India during the British Raj. At one time it was the governing body for almost all courses in the sub-continent, defining and applying the rules that governed the sport. During its heyday the races it organized were among the most important social events of the calendar, opened by the Viceroy of India. During the 1930s the Calcutta Derby Sweeps, organized by the club, was the largest sweepstake in the world. It is still an exclusive private club and still operates the Kolkata Race Course.
Calcutta was the first base of British power in India. With an army based on cavalry, sports such as hunting, polo and racing were naturally important. Organized horse races were first held in India on 16 January 1769 at Akra, near Calcutta, where they were held for the next forty years. At first they were run on a rough, narrow, temporary course. Governor Lord Wellesley prohibited horse racing in 1798, but five years later the Bengal Jockey Club resumed racing at Akra. The races moved to the Maidan area of Calcutta in 1809, where they are still held. In 1812 the club laid out a new course at approximately the current race course location. The race course is in the southwest part of the Maidan. A viewing stand was built in 1820, later to be extensively modified.
Races were run in the comparative cool of mornings just after sunrise, usually in five heats of 2.5 miles (4.0 km). The idea was to test both the speed and the stamina of the horse. If the result was not decided in the morning the heats were resumed after sunset. The British press regularly published the Calcutta race results. In 1825 the Calcutta Welter, the main horse racing event in India, was moved to the new course. The Calcutta Derby Stakes began in 1842, where maiden Arabs ran over 2.5 miles (4.0 km) for exceptionally high prizes.
Foundation and growth
The Calcutta Turf Club was founded on 20 February 1847. The purpose was to regulate all aspects of horse racing in Calcutta. Members of the club were elected by ballot. A five-person committee ran the club, and five stewards ran the races. In 1856 the Calcutta Derby was replaced by the Viceroy's Cup. Spectators of this race were admitted by invitation only. In 1860 Lord Ulrich Browne came into the Calcutta racing scene, which he would dominate. He was responsible for redrafting the racing rules and revising the weight-for-age scale. In 1879 the first Monsoon Meeting was held on a specially constructed course inside the main flat course. In 1880 public interest in racing grew when races started to be held in the afternoons, and new stands were built.
The Calcutta Turf Club came to have the same authority as the Jockey Club in England, the arbiter on matters concerning the rules of racing. Thus a notice for a January 1863 race meeting at Muzaffarpur showed it was run under Calcutta Turf Club rules. In 1883 the British House of Lords discussed a case in which Surgeon-Major Thornburn had been accused by the Lucknow Race Course of causing a pony to be pulled, and the Calcutta Turf Club upheld that decision. A court of inquiry looked into the matter, and the Commander-in-Chief of India held that the evidence confirmed the decision of the Calcutta racing club. Thorburn was refused a court martial and was forced to return to England and to retire. By 1899 the Calcutta Turf Club was the authority for rules at all of the 52 courses in the subcontinent and Burma apart from Bombay, Pune, Karachi and Kolhapur, which were under the jurisdiction of Bombay.
In the 1880s the Calcutta Turf Club held polo matches, open to both Indians and Europeans. The club continues to hold polo matches on the grounds in the middle of the racecourse. From 1886 to 1897 Sir William McPherson headed the racing organization. He upgraded the rules of racing. He also struck an agreement with the Bombay Turf Authorities under which any course in India that held races under the rules had to submit to the authority of Calcutta or Bombay. Sir William introduced various other changes. Jockeys could not bet and professional handicappers were introduced. Steeplechasing was brought under the jurisdiction of the Calcutta Turf Club in 1888. The first Grand National in India was run in 1895 at the course at Tollygunge. Steeplechasing was one of the main events in the racing season.
Lord William Beresford, a member of the viceroy's staff, won the Viceroy's cup in 1881 with Camballo, his black gelding. He later won it three more times on Myall King. Apcar Alexander Apcar, a wealthy merchant whose family owned the Apcar Line of steamers, owned a stud of Australian race horses. For some time he was president of the Calcutta Turf Club. Apcar was a great rival of Beresford, who strongly believed in the merits of English thoroughbreds. Apcar's Great Scott won the Viceroy's cup three times, as did his Mayfowl.
When Christmas race week opened, an important social event, the Viceroy of India and his wife would drive in state past the grandstand. In 1905 the Prince of Wales, the future King George V, attended the races. In 1908 the Maharaja of Burdwan, Dhiraja Sri Bejoy Chand Mahtab, was the first Indian elected as a full member of the club.
Apcar Alexander Apcar played a large role in having a new grandstand erected at the club's racecourse, modeled on the Longchamp Racecourse grandstand. The stands were built between 1905 and 1907, and stand membership was opened to the public. In 1910 the current Monsoon track was added, designed to drain extremely quickly. The club added "Royal" to its name in 1912 after King George V visited the races for the second time. In the early 20th century the Calcutta Turf Club held races on twenty eight days each year.
In 1915 the Tollygunge course was closed and steeplechases were ran at the Maidan course. In the early 1920s the RCTC became concerned about the lease of the course at Maidan and looked around for an alternative. An obvious choice would be to expand the existing Tollygunge course, but once the possibility became known the price of adjacent land became exorbitant. In 1922 a site to the north in Barrackpore, which included a race course, became available at an acceptable price. The RCTC decided to build a modern facility with new stands, stables and two courses, one round and one with six straight furlongs. The large grand stand would at first be partitioned between members and the public, and if the course was successful a separate members-only grand stand would be built. The railway agreed to provide a spur line to the course that could carry both horses and spectators. The new facility was inaugurated on 27 January 1928.
Grand Nationals continued to be run at the Maidan course until 1929, when the Grand National was transferred to Lahore, where it was held until 1938. In the period before World War II (1939–1945) the club looked to Australia for guidance rather than to England. Thus the Australian Harvey Roulston was hired as an administrator, the Australian "Gray" gate was used in place of English starting gates, Australian jockeys such as Edgar Britt moved to Calcutta to ride for Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the Maharaja of Baroda State and Australian horses were imported. Methods of detecting drugs such as benzedrine from urine or blood samples became available in the 1930s. The rules of the Turf Club were updated to insist that these test be conducted meticulously to detect cheating, years before such tests were introduced by the English Jockey Club.
Despite the fact that the Barrackpore course was technically superior to the Maidan course in many ways, it did not attract the public and consistently lost money. Races were held until 1941, when the army requisitioned it during World War II (1939–1945). After the war the course was rehabilitated, and races were run in 1947 and 1948. After that, the Barrackpore course was closed. In 1954 it was sold to the government in an arrangement that included renewal of the lease of the Maidan course.
Sir Uday Chand Mahtab became a Steward in 1947. In 1955 he was elected as Senior Steward, a position he held for twenty seven years. During his tenure, in the early 1950s the South India Turf Club was split off from the Royal Calcutta Turf Club to oversee racing at Bangalore, Chennai (Madras), Hyderabad, Mysore and Ooty. The South India Turf Club in turn divided into separate authorities based on Madras, Bangalore and Hyderabad. In the 1970s these clubs and the original Calcutta and Bombay clubs joined in a loose association of Indian turf authorities.
In February 1961 Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the course and presented the trophy to the winner. Attendance by the elite at the races was an important social event even in the 1960s, where the women would wear their most glamorous clothes. In 1971 Geoffrey Moorhouse placed the Royal Calcutta Turf Club in the first rank of clubs in the city, along with the Bengal Club, the Tollygunge Club and the Calcutta Club.
The Calcutta Turf Club imported English practices of gambling on races, named the Derby and the St Leger after the English equivalents. The club was organized in 1847 in part to regulate such gambling. A mildly disapproving account from 1866 described the betting practices, which it called "lotteries". In the early days of horse racing in India betting was through a combination of a lottery and an auction. Typically 100 ten-rupee tickets were sold, with 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 price of the winning bid and the other half going in the pot. Following the race the pot was divided among the holders of tickets for the winning horses.[a]
The Calcutta Turf Club Derby draw was started as a private sweepstake in 1887 by Lord William Beresford. Just after World War I (1914–1918) the sweepstake gave prizes of £75,000, £35,000 and £15,000 for the top three horses in the club's Derby. The Calcutta Derby Sweepstake became famous worldwide, with the pool reaching almost £1,000,000 sterling in 1929 and 1930. 40% of the total pool went to the first prize winner, 20% to the second and 10% to the third. Tickets for unplaced horses also received a share, while the club kept only 10%.[b] The sweep was open only to members of the RCTC, or to friends who could ask members to place a wager. Clumsy methods were developed to make it easier for punters in other countries to place bets, but the Calcutta Derby Sweepstake could not compete with the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstake, introduced in the 1930s, despite the expected pay-out being considerably higher.
The Calcutta Turf Club is now housed in the former home of the Apcar family, a two-story Palladian-style building dating to the early 19th century and maintained in perfect condition. The building has a portico on the north side and a veranda on the south. The floors of the ground level are marble, and the doors made of teak. The vestibule is two stories high, with an elegantly carved wooden staircase leading to the upper floor where the family had their private rooms. The building is at 11 Russell Street. With comfortable leather sofas and armchairs, it is an oasis of calm.
The race course 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 race course, is the Victoria Memorial, a marble monument to Queen Victoria. The stand is now open to all members of the public. The public can buy tickets to see the races. Races are run on Saturdays most of the year. The Monsoon meet from July to October is followed by the Cold Weather Meet from November to April.
- A Calcutta auction is an American term that is said to be named after the auctions of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. It is a form of betting in which the competitors in a tournament are auctioned off to bidders in a pool. The "owners" of the winning team split their portion of the pool with the players. Golfing Calcuttas were often rigged, with golfers faking their handicaps or accepting bribes to lose. As the result of a fake handicap scandal in a Calcutta at Deepdale Golf Club, in 1955 the United States Golf Association formally outlawed Calcuttas.
- In 1929 London's Stock Exchange Derby Sweepstake had a fund of £5 million, and paid two first prizes of £625,000 each. In 1930 this sweep was scaled back to 100,000 tickets of £1 sterling each. According to the New York Sun, this made the Calcutta Derby Sweep once again the largest in the world, with a total fund that normally exceeded £4 million. [The New York Sun may have confused pounds sterling with rupees, worth less than 10% of a pound.] The winning ticket in 1929 paid out Rs 1,600,000, or 40% of an Rs 4 million pool. In 1929 the second prize of ₤62,000 was won by a South African. The winning ticket in 1930 was RR-2859. Seven working men in Barnstaple, England had clubbed together to buy the ticket, and then sold a half share before the race. The men won £62,486.
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