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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kinane and Shah

At 48, Mick Kinane was the oldest of the 19 jockeys in the Derby at Mahalakshmi Race Course on Sunday. On the other side of the coin was trainer SS Shah. In a 60-second post race chat with trainer Shah, I asked him how old he was. He shot back, “You make a guess.” My answer was 65. “I am 69,” Mr Shah said.

Six-time Irish champion jockey, Mick Kinane was winning the Indian Derby for the third time. Sir Bruce and Cordon Bleu were the other two horses that Kinane rode to victory in India’s most coveted prize in horse racing.

Trainer SS Shah, the oldest trainer in the Derby field and I believe I am making a safe assumption, was winning the Indian Derby for the second time. Mansoor was his other winner and the rider was the peerless Pandu Khade whose artistry in the saddle won the admiration of many a discerning observer.

May I say that the 2008 Indian Derby renewal was a triumph of experience over youth? It was only last Friday that at 49, Russell Baze reached the 10,000-winner milestone by riding a winner at Golden Gate Fields. Two days later, in India, several thousand miles away and in a different time zone, another history of sorts was made by a pair who, in normal circumstances, ought to be contemplating retirement.

This was my underlying thought as I posed this question to Mick Kinane. “At 48, when jockeys are considering other options in their lives, you are going round the world riding winners in big races. You have accomplished so much and what more needs to be done and how long will you do this?”

“I will keep going. I have years left,” he said. A friend interjected. “He will go another 10 years.”

“This is special. To come back to India and do this, it is great.”

Kinane has won the Breeders’ Cup, the Belmont Stakes, the Epsom Derby and every big race one can think of. The Kentucky Derby has eluded him but Louisville is a difficult target for an Ireland-based jockey.

Trainer Shah could not hide his glee. “This my second Derby win. I gave Hotstepper a big chance. There was no doubt in my mind he will stay. He came tough today. In the end, it was his staying ability that gave him the edge.”

As it turned out, it was a case of Hotstepper raising his game and a case of Bourbon King not being able to sustain his play level. Hotstepper responded spiritedly as the pressure mounted. Bourbon King ran on in the final 400 metres but he lacked the fiery acceleration that had stood him in good stead in his earlier wins.

Let us remember this. Mystical was beaten in the Derby. He came back with a vengeance to win the Invitation Cup. Southern Empire was beaten by Diabolical, a stablemate, in Mumbai. In the Invitation Cup, Southern Empire put daylight himself and Diabolical. Dr MAM Ramaswamy was prompted to declare, “Let me tell you. Southern Empire is better than Mystical.”

The trend continues. Favourites cannot get the job done in the Indian Derby. If history holds, in the last two years, beaten Derby favourites have redeemed themselves in the Invitation Cup. All I can say is that I am looking forward to my Malakpet visit.

Here are a few observations. The tote selling and paying system needs to be streamlined. The fixed odds concept is commendable, however. The clerks take forever to count the money, especially large sums. On Derby day, there were not enough windows to cater effectively to the fans.

The betting ring in the members’ enclosure is too small. On Derby day, I was able to penetrate the throng only twice. You could hardly breathe. On big racing days, the ring should be over a bigger area. This is important.

The 26% betting tax simply does not make sense. It is a legislative (political) matter but a movement should be launched. Racing is a revenue-producing game for the State Government. The racing authorities should do everything in their power to convince the Government that the goose that lays the golden egg is being deprived of oxygen.

The public address system needs correction. Mumbai has an excellent announcer. One can hardly understand the announcer. I do not know what is wrong. Audio experts should be asked to examine the system.

Here’s a suggestion. When there is a favourite at cramped odds, there should be what is called, ‘betting without the favourite.’ On Saturday, Vale of Leven was half money and marginally better. We can pretend that Vale Of Leven is not in the race and bet on the others. You will have a winner if you horse reaches the post first or if your horse is second behind Vale of Leven.

It is imperative that a post-race press conference be held. The winning owner, trainer and jockey should be there and it must be mandatory. Ten minutes would be enough. Have a moderator start off with a question. Then the meeting should be open to questions from the press corps. There is nothing like getting quotes.

There is another thing. The media department should ask a question or two of a beaten favourite, especially one like Bourbon King. Let jockey O’Donoghue respond to a question or two. Get the answers. Type them up and make copies and distribute them. Dissemination of information is critical to keeping the vitality of the game.

Finally, in the paddock area, there is open access. The paddock and the environs should be a privileged area and admission restricted to those authorized. This situation cries out for attention and correction.

I must express my sincere thanks to the Racing Secretary for providing me with passes for the weekend. I am looking forward to the 2009 Indian Derby.

I must offer a retraction. I had said in my piece last week that Frankie Dettori was riding in India for the first time. I stand corrected. Dettori was in India about 17 years ago for what was then called, ‘the Clash of the Titans.’ It was a contest between Indian jockeys and foreign jockeys.

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