Sena and the Mayor want to turn Mahalaxmi Race Course into a recreational area

The Mahalaxmi Race Course could soon turn in to a recreational park on the lines of Central Park in New York and named after the late Bal Thackeray. Even though the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) refrained from commenting, the ruling Shiv Sena endorsed the idea of setting up such a park on the 225-acre land in the heart of Mumbai and has asked the State government to not extend the race course’s lease, due to expire on May 31.

Uddhav Thackeray, Sena president, on Monday said there is nothing wrong in naming the race course after his father, the late Bal Thackeray. “It will be better to name the place after Balasaheb, than Rajiv Gandhi,” he said. He added that the city has been craving for open space and such a garden would be a relief to Mumbaikars.

“We had no such plan of building a memorial on that place, but if the people are of this opinion, then we will welcome it,” he said.

The Royal Western India Turf Club Limited (RWITC), one of the oldest and most well-known clubs hosts horse racing at Mahalaxmi. It is facing trouble on the renewal of the land’s lease which belongs to the BMC and partly to the State Government. Earlier, the lease was renewed by the BMC in 1994 till May 31, 2013. Sunil Prabhu, the Mayor of Mumbai, was the first to oppose the renewal of the RWITC’s lease.

Mr. Prabhu alleged that the race course is not open for common public and the growing population need the open space in the city.

“Since the lease of the racecourse is about to expire, we can turn the land in to a garden which will benefit citizens. The garden will be at par with the international level, the one that is in New York,” Mr. Prabhu said.

Asked about the race course’s resettlement, he said the State government should decide on this matter.

K.N. Dhunjibhoy, chairman, RWITC, said: “It is open to the public throughout the year barring only for few hours during the afternoon when the racing season is on for six months. RWITC has used this land for 100 years and maintained it very well with no cost to the BMC. Hence, we have applied for the renewal to the BMC and expect to get it renewed for the next 30 years.”

“The government of Maharashtra earns almost Rs. 50 crore through the betting tax from the 43 race days which are held during November to April. As far as we are concerned, there are no outstanding infringements on the Club. However, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has assured the Club that the matter will be settled amicably in two weeks,” he told The Hindu.

Captain G. Hall, Sir Charles Forbes, A. Campbell, P. Hadow and others formed the Bombay Turf Club in 1802 and they acquired land in Byculla to conduct horse racing. The balcony of the clubhouse was used as a private stand for the members. Shortly thereafter, the name was changed to the Royal Western India Turf Club.

For the major part of the 19th century, racing continued to be held at Byculla until in 1883 when the venue was shifted to Mahalaxmi on a reclaimed land made available by Sir C.N. Wadia and the race course and Grand Stands were built there which is the replica of the Melbourne race course. The Mahalaxmi Grand Stands have recently been accorded Heritage Status.

RWITC conducts racing here and in Pune. Racing in Pune is held for four months (July to October).

The Club also maintains the public garden in the centre of the course and also recently upgraded walking/jogging track which is daily used by thousands of citizens. The lawns of the race course are rented out for weddings and other outdoor events and the helipad is regularly patronised by industrialists and ministers. The profit from these is shared by the government and BMC.

The RWITC has around 8,000 members, 600 Owners, 45 licensed trainers, 80 jockeys, 1,400 horses and more than 1,000 syces and stable management staff. For professionals like trainers, jockeys and syces, this industry is the only source of their income.