Tracking the history of the country's oldest race course

A large iron horseshoe welcomes visitors at the entrance of the Madras Race Club (MRC). Televisions hang from metal holders before many booths where bets are placed and names are staked. At the MRC, not much has changed and a layer of chalky dust remains on the scoreboard.

Even though the club was officially constituted in 1837, its origins go back to 1777, when 81 cawnies of land were granted by the government to conduct races. There is proof of this in a letter written by the then Collector of Chingleput dated June 22, 1825, mentioning the grant. The land was taken from the Adyar villages of Venkatapuram and Velacheri.

Racing became irregular and almost stopped soon after it had begun in the 1770s. This was a result of Hyder Ali, who came within striking distance of Madras. A few years later, 35 cawnies were added and two race courses came up — a smaller one to train horses and the other with a stand to watch the races.

The club functioned till 1875, when the Prince of Wales Edward VII visited Madras. Racing again went through a tough phase and finally in 1887, the Club was revived. A balance of 11 rupees, 13 annas and 12 paise was carried forward to a new club called Madras Race Club with 50 members.

“This is the oldest race course in the country and we completed 200 years recently,” says B.K. Amanullah Khan, secretary, Madras Race Club. “In those days, there were no electric trains and the race course used to be near St. Thomas Mount, much further down from where it is now.”

In the 1900s racing continued, but on a low key. World War I brought it to a temporary halt till Lord Willingdon, the Governor of Madras, revived it in 1919. In 1920, a stand was constructed with funds provided by two patrons, Maharaja of Bobbili and Maharaja of Venkatagiri.

In 1931, the Guindy Lodge was built in the club premises for the secretary and in 1933, the weighing room was constructed. In 1966, the MRC became an independent turf authority.

“Till 1952-53, the Madras Race Club was under the Calcutta Turf Club after which it came, like all race courses in the south, under the South India Turf Club. As each one gained a separate status, the South India Turf Club became redundant,” says Khan. “The Ooty Race Course, the country's only course on a hill station, is under the MRC.”

Classic races were introduced in 1958-59 . “We have five classic races for the fillies and colts. The weight that the female horses carry is slightly lesser than the male. While things went on from there, in the 1970s we had another setback when the Government banned racing. We went to court, received a stay and racing continued. After 1985, the Government took over racing and this lasted a decade. M.A.M Ramaswamy was the backbone of MRC during this time, he not only went out of his way to help win the case but has supported us throughout our journey. Our bi-centennial stand is named after him,” he says.

The club now has about 625 horses in station, three stands and boasts of the best race track in the country. The racing season begins in November and goes on till March after which races are conducted in Ooty between April and June. A monsoon season has been introduced with races being conducted between August and October. “Sir Lester Piggott, who is considered the world's greatest jockey, has ridden here and commented that MRC has the best track in India,” says Khan.

Some others:

The Madras Club began in 1832 in a garden house and is the second oldest social club in India after the Calcutta Club. By the 1850s, the club became a hub for British social life. Almost all writings on Madras of that time mention the club.

The Madras Boat Club is said to have been founded in 1867 on the backwaters of Ennore and moved to its present location on the banks of the Adyar River in 1892. The club's coat of arms and monogram, which is still in use, was adopted in 1898.

Cosmopolitan Club began in 1873 for the local elite since the Madras Club was almost an exclusive British club. This club was considered the ‘best Indian Association in the whole of India' and was first located at Club House, Moore's Garden, Nungambakkam. It moved to its present location on Mount Road in 1882.

Madras Gymkhana Club was started in 1884 on Island Grounds. In the beginning, membership was limited to Garrison members, British officials and Indian royalty. The club recently passed an ordinance through which women can become independent members.