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Derby comes down from its high horse

The event sheds its elite bent and woos middle-class crowd with cheaper tickets, reports Kiran Wadhwa.

india Updated: Feb 05, 2007 15:20 IST

The whiff of Chanel No. 5 coexisted with the Rexonas and El Pasos at the Mahalakshmi Race Course of Sunday. You could literally smell the changed times in the air.

“Earlier, the Indian Derby was class, now it is crass,” was Bunny Khattau’s reaction to the multitude that stormed the Derby this year. A veteran at the Derby for 56 years, Khattau remembered it as a place for the maharajas.

In a sort of coup on an exclusively upper-crust affair, the event has consciously and palpably shed snobbery to accommodate the masses.

Left: Dressed up spectators. Right: Liquor baron Vijay Mallya.

So, the McDowell India Derby threw open its carved doors to the hoi polloi. With a registration fee of Rs 250 for the VIP stands and Rs 30 for regular stands, the race course witnessed a staggering 27,000 people this year. This is approximately 10 per cent more than last year.

Making the Derby accessible was a calculated move. “To popularise a sport, it is necessary to broad-base it and involve greater participation from all walks of life. With rising aspirations of all sections of society, the Derby too should be made accessible. We included several activities and allowed children to make it a family weekend rather than a betting sport,” said Alok Gupta, Assistant Vice President, Marketing, United Spirits.

Even others agreed it was a healthy beginning to popularise the sport. “It is terrific to have so many people here and such enthusiasm,” said Dinesh Visariya (name changed), a regular at the races since 1963, adding, “While the old days had their own charm, lots of people participating makes the experience better.

So as the rich sauntered around with their beers and boots, ordinary people also placed reasonably high bets. B.M. Irani, a seller at the betting stall in the regular stands, was amazed at the betting sums. “Even the poorest of the lot are not betting less than Rs 100. They are placing bets only on wins (the first place) and not on the safer option of the first three or four places,” she said.

Another reason for the high turnout was loads of first-timers. Bookmakers’ stalls, much to their chagrin, were swamped with first-timers. Harshal Dhenesha, too, was a first-timer trying to figure things out. Eight-months pregnant Dhenesha decided to let her baby hear galloping horses. “I came here to check out the scene. I won’t bet too much, it’s more for the fun of it,” she said.

The betting amount went up substantially to Rs 2.44 crore this year from Rs 1.93 crore last year. “The trend is changing. Horse racing is no more a sport for the elite. We have tried to pull in all sections with better promotions, a relaxed dress code and attractive prizes like a Mercedes Benz,” said Vivek Jain, Chairman, The Steward and Marketing.

Meanwhile, race course veteran Khattau continued to lament the loss of class even among the rich who come to the Derby today, “wearing the best brands but littering everywhere”.

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First Published: Feb 05, 2007 14:40 IST