Indian stud appeal


Soon Bollywood's leading men will no longer be the only Indian studs to receive critical acclaim.

In "The Iliad", Homer wrote: "There is none who could sprint to make it up, nor close you, nor pass you, not if the man behind you were driving the great Arion, the swift horse of Adrestos, whose birth is from the immortals."

Arion's pedigree seemed impeccable as he was fathered by Poseidon, or Neptune, the King of the Sea, who was credited with having created the horse and, subsequently, horse racing. His mother was Demeter, the goddess of fertility.

Demeter was mourning the loss of her daughter Persephone, begotten of her brother Zeus, when another of her siblings began pursuing her relentlessly. To avoid Poseidon, she turned herself into a mare. But he was on to her and turned himself into a stallion. The two gods thus mated as horses and produced Arion, the immortal foal.

Ironically, despite having all the right bloodlines, which does count in horse racing, Arion would never have qualified in any of the Group One races. He wasn't a thoroughbred.

A thoroughbred horse must be able to trace its genealogy to one of three and only three stallions, the Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian or the Byerly Turk. In the 17th century, this trio of studs was imported into England from the Middle East to mate with 35 English mares, in order to produce the superiority in speed associated with Arabian horses. (Hence contrary to popular belief, thoroughbreds are not pure but rather cross-breeds.)

Now, 400 years later, thoroughbred racing has now become big business up and down the social ladder. Between the hapless millions religiously wagering their earnings, to serious horse-owners that groom the animals and their jockeys to glory, big money is passed constantly from hand to hand.

One of the greatest patrons of this sport is Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid al-Maktoum, one of the world's best riders of Arabian horses, who also happens to be the Vice President of the United Arab Emirates. Affectionately known as the "CEO of Dubai", Shaikh Mohammad took over as the ruler of Dubai from his older brother early last year, and runs Darley Stud, a thoroughbred breeding operation with 52 stallions in seven different countries.

Owning a stud farm is a venture perfectly befitting of an Arabian prince. It's a very costly business.

A widely sought-after horse can cost close to US$20 million, which was what the Shaikh forked out for one Snaffi Dancer back in 1983. Add to that initial outlay monthly expenses to train, feed, shoe, and treat the horse, that's another US$25,000 or more a year. And that's for one horse.

Now, should that one horse turn out to be a winner, the Shaikh will rake in at least 2%, or even up to 60%, of the winnings at each race. At the most prestigious of these races, the Royal Ascot Gold Cup, the purse is a cool £3 million. Since a horse starts racing at the age of two and can usually continue for a further four or five years, winnings could really add up.

Thanks to advances in horse obstetrics, a stallion can now also mate with 150 mares each season, up from 40 previously. At some US$500,000 per pop by a real stud, the takings from all this equine fornication could a very rich man make.

The trick therefore is obviously to own the next winner, and one way to do this is via genetics – breed a mare with a prize stallion and hope the foal turns out to be a champ. The key word is "hope" because even paternity by the best stallion is no guarantee of victory. One of the most successful recent racehorses, the Elusive Pimpernel, earned more than all his siblings combined in his first four months of racing.

Commiseration to those who got the wrong foal, and cue the entry of the proverbial non-elite dark horse, like Indian-trained Mystical. He came in tops in two races at the 2007 Dubai International Horseracing Carnival, and won his owner not just prize money but the opportunity of a lifetime. Shaikh Mohammad told horse-breeder Zavaray Poonawalla that he could have one of his mares mate with any of the Darley Stud stallions. For free.

Poonawalla already runs one of the top stud farms in India. The country's northern region, with its abundance of water, fodder and fertile soil, provides for an ideal horse-breeding environment. Poonawalla's stable has already won six "Champion Breeder" awards and 59 Indian classics.

India's tradition of horse racing dates back to the time of the British Raj, with race clubs like the one in Madras that celebrated its bi-centenary in 1978. However, restrictions make it difficult for Indian horses to travel, breed or race. It wasn't until 1994 that an Indian horse won a race on foreign soil. For Astonish to debut internationally at Hong Kong's Sha Tin Race Course, quarantine laws required him to be sent to the US for six months before he could set hoof on Hong Kong.

"We have worked so hard to expose Indian horses to international competition, and now its finally happened, " said Poonawalla.

"It's a victory for the Indian breeding and racing industry, it's a victory for India."

The Poonawalla family has promised to help increase Indian presence by participating more in the Dubai races and encouraging more Indian owners to follow suit.

The international horse-racing and breeding business is estimated to be worth almost US$100 billion and it is a high stakes game with no guaranteed returns. As a leading bloodstock agent Patrick Cooper puts it in an interview with the Spectator, "You'll probably lose all your money but you'll have a great deal of fun doing it, whereas if you lose all your money on the stock exchange, there's no fun to be had at all."

It is a heady mix of risk, big-time money and constant copulation that even Bollywood would approve of. So for all the nouveau riche out there, here is a new way to spend those brand new millions.

All the King's Horses

Of India's indigenous horses, the Mawaris used to be reserved for rulers and warriors. Originating from Rajasthan, they were considered divine and superior to all humans. Today, the horse is again popular with the elite. Thoroughbreds have joined choppers and Rolls-Royces as wedding presents, and, more importantly, as tools for rich Indians to flaunt their wealth at flamboyantly lavish Indian weddings.

India just imported its first Lamborghini, but a mid-sized Indian city of Ahmedabad (population 3.8 million) already boasts at least 20 horse owners.



First Published: 
July 2008


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dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

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