Ruffina has the best credentials for an encore in Sprinters’ Cup; Stayers’ Cup wears an open look

The Hyderabad Race Club has the honour of hosting the 57th running of the Indian Turf Invitation Cup, which returns to the ‘twin cities’ after a lapse of five years, this weekend.

It would be horse racing at its finest, bringing together the very best of horses, professionals, owners, breeders and aficionados from across the country for two days of unbridled excitement and pageantry. Four Grade 1 Races and one Grade 2 make it a connoisseur’s delight and the prize money of ₹3,86,40,000 makes it the richest weekend of Indian racing.

Adverse effect of GST on betting

But while this is the ‘Weekend of the Year’, the very existence of horse racing in India is under serious threat with the government’s decision to impose 28% GST on betting virtually bringing the sport to its knees.

The slide began in July 2017 and since then, the collections have gone just one way – downward! In 2016-2017, the gross collection was ₹ 3,954 crore and in 2018-2019, it will not even cross ₹1900 crore. The turf authorities have done all they can to highlight the plight that threatens to throw the ‘sport of kings’ off the rails.

But for now, let’s enjoy the moment. Saturday will see the weekend blast off with the Sprinters Cup, a blinding test of speed over 1200 metres, and that will be followed by the Dr. M.A.M. Ramaswamy Stayers’ Cup over a gruelling 3000m.

The Sprinters’ Cup was run for the first time in Mumbai in 1979 and a grey 4-y-o colt named Every Time emerged the champion. The Stayers’ Cup made its appearance two years later in Chennai and the inaugural running was won by one of India’s all-time greats — Own Opinion.

Overwhelming first choice

Thirteen horses will line up for the Sprinters Cup with Ruffina (Excellent Art ex Miss Danehill) towering above the rest. She won this race last year in Kolkata and has proved time and again to be one of the best speedsters ever.

With 12 wins from 14 starts, she is bound to start as the overwhelming first choice and the crowd would love to see her triumph. Trained by Dallas Todywalla, Ruffina will have jockey Sandesh steering her fortunes.

Of course, there is no such thing as a certainty in any sport and racing can highlight that with unerring regularity. The other dozen are certainly not going to let the ‘Flo Jo of the Indian Turf’ have things her way.

Corfe Castle, her younger brother, is in great nick and has the home advantage too. It would be an amazing sight to see a brother and a sister run against each other in a Grade 1 pot-boiler. Mauritania and Tutankhamun are the other two who will be right there and as always, it’s going to be an absolute thriller.

On the other hand, the Stayers’ Cup is wide open. It boasts of 14 runners — the highest on record since it was first run in 1981.

Dominant trio

In fact, it’s quite intriguing to note that in the first eight runnings of the Stayers Cup, the race was won by three of the big guns amongst the owners. The late M.A.M Ramaswamy won in 1981 and 1982. J.P. Goenka had a quadruple of wins between 1983 to 1986 before his son-in-law, the late Deepak Khaitan, won it back-to-back. Khaitan then went on to emulate his father-in-law with a quartet of wins from 1999.

I doubt if any owner has ever staked a stronger claim to the Stayers Cup than these three stalwarts (18 wins out of 38 times).

Mr. Goenka gradually eased out of the game and both Mr. Ramaswamy and Mr. Khaitan are sadly no more. But the colours that their horses carried to victory will stay vividly in our minds for years to come.

Just three horses in the 38-year history of the race have won it back-to-back. Aztec set the trend by winning in 1984 and 1985. Then a big strapping chestnut colt named Ardiles took the honours in 1987 and 1988. One had to wait until 2014 before Astapi pulled out all stops to win by whisker in Hyderabad and followed it up with a win in Mumbai next year.

Fast and furious

So what’s it going to be on Saturday evening? It’s anybody’s guess. With 14 horses in the field, this is bound to be a fast and solid run which will test the stamina and endurance of all the contenders.

It will also be a pointer of things to come the next day as five four-year-olds take on older counterparts. Their performance would be watched closely as it could well highlight what unfolds in the Invitation Cup on Sunday.

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