Galloping to glory
Text and pix by Hiranthi Fernando
The thunder of hooves and the excited screams of the spectators filled the Nuwara Eliya race course as 'Ancient Warrior', 'Crowning Star', 'Nicodamus', 'Court of Appeal', 'Libo Queen', 'Turn to Gold', 'Avaglow' and other impressively named thoroughbreds raced for glory in the Governor's Cup.
Death race
The sudden death of a horse competing in the Governor's Cup cast a damper over the festive atmosphere of the New Year race meet. Laktara, a five-year-old thoroughbred from the Monaro stables collapsed and died soon after completing the race. The owners of the horse, Mrs. Santha de Zoysa and Mr. Ajantha de Zoysa said the death was due to a heart attack.
Dr. Anil Pushpakumara, a Veterinary Surgeon from Peradeniya University who was at the meet said death could have been due to a heart attack or a rupture of a blood vessel. He was unable to confirm this as a postmortem was not done. Such unfortunate deaths, although rare, could occur in horses due to excitement and exhaustion, he said.

Horse racing, which had been in decline in Sri Lanka since the 1960s is now being revived and last Sunday's races, the Nuwara Eliya New Year Meet, one of the highlights of the 'season' drew a colourful and enthusiastic crowd. Spectators turned up in their numbers sporting stunning fashions, complete with fur-trimmed umbrellas and feathered hats. (See also Ascot in the hills )Prizes were awarded for the best-dressed ladies, smartest and prettiest 'fillies' as well as for the best hats. The Turf Club too looked its Sunday best with the flower beds all ablaze with colour. After many years, much to the organizers' satisfaction, the April horse races at Nuwara Eliya seemed to be indeed regaining some of its lost popularity.

The prestigious 'Governor's Cup', the main event of the day had a line-up of ten beautiful horses, who walked smartly round the paddock, glossy coats gleaming and heads held high. Another attraction at the meet was the presence of the internationally known jockeys from India and Ireland.

"We have made many improvements during the past two years," said Bernard Halahackone, Chairman, Board of Stewards of the Sri Lanka Turf Club. "This building is 111 years old. We want to bring it back to what it was." Indeed, many improvements could be seen. The broken railings around the course had been replaced with new white painted railings and overgrown trees and shrubs cleared so that spectators would have a clear view of the entire course from the grandstand. A sand track has been laid for the horses.

The polythene-covered carnation plots, however, remain an obstruction and eyesore. "The cultivators have been given alternative land for their flower projects but they have still not removed their sheds and vacated the premises, despite representation to the Municipal Council and the Minister," Mr. Halahackone said. He explained that after the carnation stands are removed, they would turf the centre of the course to give spectators an unimpeded view.

At present some 30 - 40 unemployed youth earn their living by providing pony rides for children outside the course, as they are not permitted inside the race course. Mr. Halahackone said they planned to make two rings within the premises for the pony rides to enable these boys to make a reasonable living. He added that they intend to improve racing in Nuwara Eliya as an added tourist attraction.

Tracing the history of horse racing in the country, Mr. Halahackone said the 37-acre Nuwara Eliya race course was originally taken on a 99-year government lease, with the first signatory being Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike.

Horse-racing was at its height in the 1950s. After the 1960s there was no thoroughbred racing for 10 to 15 years. When the import duty on horses was raised, the sport died. With the reduction of the import duty in 1978, interest in the sport was revived and people once again began importing horses.

It was through the efforts of the late Upali Wijewardene, then Chairman of the Board of Stewards and Bernard Halahackone that thoroughbred racing was reintroduced. Mr. Halahackone said his association with the Nuwara Eliya race course goes back 62 years, for aged just three, he had ridden a pony there. "My father who had the best Arab horses in Sri Lanka, was a successful private owner and trainer and good rider as well," he reminisced.

There are over 100 racehorses in the country now, thoroughbreds, half-breeds and locally bred thoroughbreds. Next year, 30 locally bred thoroughbreds are expected to race at the meet.

Rajan Sellamuttu, also a Steward of Turf Club started breeding horses in 1987. Since then several other Turf Club members have done the same. Mr. Sellamuttu owns the Argyle stud farm in Kotagala, where he has about 30 locally bred and imported horses. "We bought six to seven-year-old stallions from India and crossed them with mares from Delft in Sri Lanka," he said. The stallions cost around Rs.150,000 to Rs. 250,000. They also had some Indian mares and have bred thoroughbred foals as well as cross-bred foals. " It is an industry that creates much employment for instance, horse keepers, trainers, farriers, Turf Club employees," Mr. Sellamuttu said.

The coveted 'Governor's Cup' was won by Ancient Warrior, a thoroughbred imported from India by Nigel Austin. In his spotlessly clean and well-maintained stables at the Nuwara Eliya race course, Mr. Austin has 12 imported thoroughbreds. The thoroughbred is a special breed of horse, fast and most suited for racing, evolved in England in the 17th and 18th centuries by crossing imported Arab stallions with English running horses. Mr. Austin however, does not breed horses but imports them from India.

"Eight or nine years ago, there were some Australian horses coming in to Sri Lanka," he said. "During the last three or four years, the imports have been from India, where breeding goes on in a big way."

Horses over five years are sold to Sri Lankan importers. The Sri Lankan horse owners have connections with trainers in India, who recommend the horses offered for sale. His current winner, 'Ancient Warrior' was bought at six years. The price depends on the horse, he said. With freight, the cost of importing a horse is around Rs. 250,000 to Rs.300,000. As a commercial enterprise, Mr. Austin said the Nuwara Eliya course would not be viable unless it is a second course.

S.D. Lalith who trains and maintains the horses in Austin's stables said they have a staff of ten to look after the 12 horses and stables. "We do daily track work with all the horses for half an hour," Lalith said. Two to three weeks before the races, the horses are given regular gallops in the trotting ring or on the track to keep them in form. The horses are brushed and groomed daily. Twice a day they are fed on oats, mixed with horse feed, carrots and equine additions which include vitamins, worm treatment and so on. These requirements are imported from India and Australia.

This was the second Governor's Cup win for the stables. In 1998, another horse, 'Boomerang' clinched the trophy. Lalith himself an experienced jockey, has ridden to victory in '93, '94, and '95 on Sandy's Queen with another stable.

Five horse racing meets were held in Nuwara Eliya during the April season. Meets will also be held in August and December as the Sri Lanka Turf Club strives to revive the sport of kings in Nuwara Eliya to its past grandeur.

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