Horses, gambling, fashion and the class divide at my first Derby.
Until yesterday I had always pronounced derby as duh-bee. It's daa-bee. I learned the hard way. At an actual Derby – The Mumbai Derby. I also learned how much of a ganwaar I am inspite of being a city girl.
Who says Indians don’t wear fancy hats and designer dresses to the Derby? Image source: hautekutir.com
The first struggle, as it would be with almost any girl, was wardrobe. The only idea I had about what to wear at the races was via pictures of the Ascot. Was it de rigueur to wear that strange headgear and designer outfits to the Derby? My schizophrenic wardrobe, which is one-part Jabong and two-parts Lokhandwala market, had nothing to match that. And the only headgear I own is a freebie cap that I once got at an event.
I opted for a dress – something not too showy, but showy as well. You know, for sex appeal. And heels. You can't go wrong with a dress and heels.
The Mahalaxmi Race Course was bathed with sunlight, from a 12 PM 'fuck your freckles' sun. The generous exposure of my dress allowed my skin to be roasted to a medium rare after 4 hours. This was why the hats were necessary. But the hats that were being sported were in no way capable of battling the sun – a tuft of fur so soft it was dancing in the air perched on top of someone’s head… A half veil pulled down the face like a widow at a funeral… A single long feather poking out of the head. No, not a fedora, a feather just tucked into the hair and spread out like a peacock in the rain! And there were men in suits. And dapper sunglasses. And (I have to assume) ball sweat! Partly from the heat, partly from the money lost.
My betting partner for the day!
Clubs like these have always reminded me of clubs back home in Kolkata. Almost all the clubs there have a strong colonial hangover. Restaurants with `Ayas and servants not allowed’ boards. Caddies lugging golf kits behind members. My friend told me that in Kolkata’s Royal Calcutta Golf Club there is a tradition of the horse caretakers calling the horse trainers ‘maalik’. Even the `Powder Room’ (not ‘Toilet’ mind you) that I went to, had a version of a lady-in-waiting. For what? Tying the laces to my corset under my Victorian gown? I wish. (I wish corsets were still in actually) Clearly not a lot has changed since the British Raj. Every time I’m in these clubs I have a strange ringing in my ears that goes “teen guna lagaan!”
Experts gauge horses by their gait
Before the first race started my friend took me to this little amphitheatre where the horses are paraded before going on to the race course. This, to my knowledge, was the pageant equivalent of the swimsuit round, talent round, and Q and A, all put together. This was where the horses strutted their stuff. The horses were beautiful, no doubt, but what the hell did I know. I only had the Juhu beach counterparts to compare them to. But the regulars were experts at this; they could gauge where a horse would place by just looking at their gait, sometimes even their last name (Dewans come second).
Oh, and about the names. They had some of the weirdest names ever – Strong Rumours, Cloudy Sticks, Rambo Asharfi! My friend explained how horse nomenclature was quite a science. “You take the first name of the father and the last name of the mother, or something like that,” he says. “So if the father is Strong Winds and the mother is Flying Rumours, you get baby Strong Rumours!” Why is the father's name first, I just had to ask. “We'll cross that bridge when we get there, Smriti,” my friend smiled. The dress was working. Anyway... If the horse's parents were thoroughbreds, the chances of the horse placing were high. The race course is one place where name and pedigree really matters.
A game of numbers and names
TBH I'm not the gambling kind. How do you stake your hard earned money on the capabilities of a horse? Or cards? Or even the lottery? I keep my money where it's safest. In the bank. So what if I can't touch it till the government lifts withdrawal limits. The illusion of it keeps me calm. Carrying on... I have always been unlucky at gambling. I’m the one who loses at every Diwali card game so I’ve just stopped playing. So when my friend suggested we bet on a horse, just for fun, I guffawed. Me? Gamble money? Yeah right!
It’s a game of numbers and probability. The regulars had the math all figured; they bet on the odds, and went for the big game only in the big races. They knew the horses well, the riders and their handicaps. They played safe, mostly. But even to ‘play safe’ you needed money, which I did not have. Not at the start of a month when you get the text of your salary being credited, followed by a series of messages where your EMIs and bills have been debited. That’s the math that keeps my wallet deep in the folds of my purse. That’s the math that kept me from getting the Chicken Shawarma being sold at the stall for Rs. 380 (Why? Because the chicken was thoroughbred?) and instead opt for the Kheema Pattice that suited my aukaat more. I, for sure, couldn’t afford to pay ‘teen guna lagan’ for a Chicken Shawarma.
Kheema Pattice @ Rs. 80!
I still accompanied him to the ticketing booth because he wanted to place a small bet. And for a moment I felt like I was in a subzi mandi in suits. '50k on Cezzane!' A gentleman, who could’ve passed off as the complete man Raymond endorses, was shouting at a booth like an auto driver screaming for his desi tharra outside a theka on NH 10. 50k! When so much money exchanges hands it makes me nervous! I really don’t know if demonetization helped or not, but I could sniff black money exchanging hands. The booths were where you could feel the pulse of money, like standing in the middle of the trading floor of a stock exchange. You could smell the money, hear the urgency, inhale the greed for more… It was intoxicating…
I pulled my wallet and scooped out a new crisp Rs. 2000 note that I had stood in queue for the day before. ‘I want to place a bet’ I told my friend. He raised his eyebrow, “Are you sure? Go for 500 bucks or something.” I was feeling bold. People were placing 50k, I could afford two measly grand at least… I did okay, for my age… I could bet 2k without thinking twenty times… I had to raise my aukaat God dammit!
Money talks in booths
“No!” I spat out, a little too impatiently, to my friend. “Place it on…” my eyes hovered on the board... “Rider in the Storm” My friend was impressed, “What? You think it’s a thoroughbred or something?” He checked in the race booklet we had bought outside for 30 bucks. It wasn’t. Riders in the Storm was my favourite song. “I have a feeling about it…” I told my friend. “Ooh! You’re turning into an expert I see… Gambler’s instinct and all…” I waved it off with a subtle gesture of my hand. I saw a hatted girl do that, not more than 5 minutes ago.
We headed to the tracks outside. You could feel the anticipation in the air. It was like Lakme Fashion Week meets Eden Gardens at a KKR match. The cheering, the excitement. People were crowding around the bamboo fences. The screen up front showed us the horses lining up at the opposite end of the ground. They would pass us towards the end of the race. I was confused. I didn’t even know which my horse was. “Which one is mine?” I poked my friend in the ribs. “How do I know? YOU’RE the expert na?”
They were off. Some 7-8 horses took off the moment their gates flung open. One brown thing clearly had a head start. He was at least a couple of feet ahead of the rest. My heart raced. Maybe this was my Rider in the Storm! I could be going back with double my money! Screw all those Diwali nights, this time I was gonna get lucky!
It's like Fashion Week at the Indian Derby! Image source: topnews.in
And the brown one won! The crowd erupted in a mix of cheer and ‘fuck yous’. I wasn’t sure which category I belonged to. I asked a girl next to me, “Where did Rider in the Storm place?” She squinted at the screen, “Rank 7, I think”. What? Second to last! How was he a rider in any sort of storm when he couldn’t even place in a race! Could you sue horse namers?
I was fuming. My friend patted my shoulder, “Chill ya… It was just two thousand bucks…” I was too grouchy for sympathy. I excused myself to go the ‘Powder Room’.
It was empty. Except for the woman in waiting. She seemed happy. “Kya madumb? Bet lagaya kya?” I nodded gravely. She understood. “Oh jeeta nahi” Why was she so cheerful? “Apne bhi bet lagaya tha kya?” She nodded excitedly. “Haan… Cezanne pe… 500 ka lagaya tha ab 1500 milega!” What? It must be dumb luck. Or could it be that she was a smarter gambler than me?
“Cezanne pe kyun?” I couldn’t hold my curiosity.
“Breeding hai na. Aur uspe odds bhi kam tha…” She explained to me like the Raymond man was explaining to his friend. I looked at madumb self in the mirror behind her and let out a sigh. For all our classist behavior, there was lots we could learn from the masses.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Smriti Dewan
Photographs by Zulfakar Sadriwala