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Unbearable lightness of being

It?s a glamorous job where the professionals watch their weight with religious fervour.

india Updated: Aug 27, 2006 03:50 IST

This profession would be Vandana Luthra’s delight. It’s a glamorous job where the professionals watch their weight with religious fervour. They hardly have a choice — the lighter they are, the faster they can be on their steeds. And if they aren’t shy of the 55-kg mark, they are likely to be history. Even Bollywood isn’t that severe.

Take Rajinder, the champion jockey at the Delhi Race Club for eight seasons on the trot. This year, his weight has moved up from the usual 52-53 to more than 56. It’s three weeks into the new season, and Rajinder hasn’t won anything yet. Worried, he has decided to double his workout. R Pramod, another of the 38 full-fledged jockeys in Delhi, shed 8 kg in one and a half months before this season started.

Ramandeep ‘Mickey’ Singh Bal, a 19-year-old apprentice, doesn’t want to tempt fate. He starts his day with two dry toasts, and follows it up with two hours of riding, a 3-km walk in warm clothes (sweating is a ritual of the ‘religion’), no lunch, a short mid-day nap, and a session at the sauna. Dinner comprises two rotis and sabzi. Cold water is a luxury. “It adds weight faster,” says the class-9 dropout who dreams of being a full-fledged jockey by the time he’s 25. For Mickey and his cohort, this daily routine is de rigueur for nine months of the year.

For the hopefuls, this routine starts when they are in their teens. They shun school and start as riding boys under the auspices of a trainer when they are 12 or so, and keep walking horses or lunging (practising balance and movement while riding in tight circles) for five-odd years. For graduating to apprenticeship, they go through a mock race. Then they have to muster 40 wins by the age of 25 to get the whip, that is, to become a full-fledged jockey. “While going for this glamour, they inevitably break a few bones,” says Vikram Singh Parmar, Mickey’s trainer and a third-generation descendent of Purtu Singh, the first Indian licensed jockey.

The glamour is also ephemeral. Most jockeys either bloat up or burn out by 35. When they retire they get Rs 2 lakh from the Jockeys’ Benevolent Fund and the Club. Most of them become trainers or hunt for happier grounds in the Middle East, England or Australia.

Semi Khan, a 42-year-old who has been working in Qatar for the last 6 years, says, “When I was in Delhi, there was no such payout. Things are improving. The mounting charge (payment for each race) was a meagre Rs 100; it’s Rs 1,000 now.” How much does it add up to? Alim Khan, a top trainer who has 70 of Delhi’s 400 racehorses in his stable, says, “The top jockeys, some 10 of them, can easily earn Rs 50,000 a month. The rest often beg or borrow to make ends meet. Many stay in the slums near the course.” Truly, even Bollywood isn’t that severe.