Steve Moran

A day at the races in Bangalore and a wild taxi ride to Delhi

I received a perfunctory but polite reply noting that I could find all I needed to know about the 9 June meeting at their website.

Hence I parted with 40 rupees for general admission. That’s about 80 cents. I joined a battalion of men – there was hardly a woman in sight – which might have numbered 3000 to brave the misty rain and the capricious nature of the punt.

For a further $2, I could have accessed a better enclosure (the members’ I think) but opted to stay with what looked a battle-hardened lot of GAs. They were absorbed in their ‘kites’ (form guides) and betting on a professional racing show albeit in a very dated facility. They weren’t especially friendly but punters are an insular lot wherever you go. Certainly not threatening in any way… but nonetheless corralled by tall, cyclone wire fencing.

I was, of course, looking for some sort of illicit activity after three days without a drink. I mean a proper drink. I couldn’t figure out whether this was to do with Ramadan, an election or some special holiday, I just knew it was dry. I was out of luck – no alcohol, no narcotics (see photo). I have now learned, in the subcontinent, to travel with toilet paper and alcohol.

The racing surface itself looked just fine and the circuit has a decent run home. The crowd was relatively subdued which surprised me and I was also surprised to see some horses ridden in the pre-parade. There was no shortage of tote windows so getting on certainly wasn’t an issue. Nor, apparently, finding a winner with only one of the eight winners a longshot, as best as I could tell.

If anything the racing was a little uncompetitive with big margins from first to last and most races dominated by the first two to three. Hence the need, no doubt, for some imaginative programming.

The first, the Moonlight Romance Plate was for maiden horses three years old only but further restricted to these “who have run at least thrice but not placed second, third or fourth even once ineligible”.

The form card, interestingly, listed those jockeys not carrying a whip. There were none in the first but two in the second and third races. The form carried videos of all previous races and interesting graphic displays (see The morning newspaper carried just three or four pars buried at the bottom of its broadsheet sports spread.

The second race, incidentally won by an Ocean Park, was for four-year-olds and up, rated 0-20, handicap. The top weight had run 19 times for one win. Hence we can conclude the standard is not that high but, in the end, whatever the standard of horses there will always be those acclaimed as the best. The horses were predominantly USA or Irish bred and the prize money ranged from around $2,900 to $5,800 to the winner.

Bangalore itself is remarkable if perplexing. Modern urban dwellings and international hotels sitting alongside a rural suburbia in places. It’s crazy and chaotic. Beautiful in places, ugly in others… with apologies to readers who know so much more of India than this first-timer.

“Take a stroll around our beautiful lake,” says the hotel concierge. I do as instructed but am mortified to see it surrounded by tonnes of litter on one side and a putrid canal on the other. Perhaps this is just my suburban, middle-class sensibilities being offended.

Perhaps not as I am heartened by various campaigns, most notably driven by students, to rid the city of plastic waste.

The Ulsoor Lake is a stone’s throw from grand hotels like the Hyatt and Conrad and yet they are juxtaposed with a bizarre semi-rural, suburban setting where cows are tethered in laneways immediately behind the hotels; horses are picking small bundles of grass along the lakeside road and goats are picking through the rubbish.

One man appears to be living in a corrugated iron shack, albeit new and shiny corrugated iron, next to the lake. He cuts an incongruous pose, brushing his teeth outside his dwelling as joggers and would-be footballers (carrying their own goals) pass by.

The football provided one of the great sports stories, last week, in India. It was well covered in the Times Of India, a great newspaper full of fascinating copy, which also carried – on the back page – the news of the death of the February Indian Derby winner Rochester.

Rochester, the 15/1 Derby winner, had to be euthanised after rearing and falling in a track work accident. He was by Phoenix Tower (by Chester House) who ran second in the Lockinge, Prince Of Wales’s Stakes, Eclipse and Juddmonte International for Khalid Abdullah and Henry Cecil in 2008.

After winning the Derby, he was quaintly referred to as the ward of trainer Sheraz Sunderji.

But the story of the week centred on the Indian football (soccer) team and its captain Sunil Chhetri, before FIFA 97th world-ranked India played Kenya (111) on a rain-soaked pitch, in their second Intercontinental Cup fixture, in Mumbai. Australia is ranked 40, by the way, with England 13 and Germany one.

Chhetri had appealed to the Indian public to support the team after the stadium was near empty for the first match and rarely have I heard a sportsman speak with such conviction and realism.

He said, after thanking the few brave souls who did attend match one: “I am going to speak and appeal to all of you who did not come. To everyone who is not a football fan, please come and watch us for two reasons. One, it’s the best game in the world and two, we play for our country…

“To all of you who are fans of big European clubs and support European clubs with so much passion, thinking that this level is not the same. Agreed, our level is not the same, it is not even close. But with our desire and determination, we will make sure your time is worth it… please come and watch us… you have no idea how important you are and your support. Encourage us, watch us, abuse us, criticise us… and talk about the game.”

Chhetri’s pleas were taken up by the nation’s leading cricketers, headed by friend Virat Kohli and consequently the match was a sell-out and India obliged with a 3-0 win which included a double from Chhetri.

I watched the football in a pub called The Bootlegger which was western in its orientation and menu but entirely filled with locals, bar me.

With that pub classic from Dexys Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen”, setting the music tone, you could well have been anywhere. The men are dressed in western mode, including some younger guys sporting the ubiquitous USA baseball cap… backwards. However, it is refreshing to see many younger women wearing traditional garb and not looking remotely out of place in the so called hip and cool establishments near Brigade Road and Church Street.

The short trip to these bar precincts took longer than expected as the traffic is bedlam and the accents so strong among many of the rickshaw drivers that is impossible to understand a single word even though their English is probably damn fine. Guess could just as easily be in Gloucester or Scotland

In the end, the traffic would drive me just one place and that’s out of it.

My sojourn had taken me to the wonderful historical site, Hampi, which is almost unconditionally recommended. It is a mission to get there but in terms of historical appeal it sits well with Angkor Wat and the like.

My trip to India ended with a brief excursion to Delhi. Again I learned some lessons. Do not book a cheap hotel in Delhi and make sure you have a car booked for airport transfer. I went with the “government-approved” taxi service which supplied with me a madman who genuinely endangered my life.

The hotel from hell, at least, offered me a beer. It was room temperature. A hot shower might be my salvation, I thought. It was cold. But I persevered with a bar of soap. Pardon, I hear you say. Well this is another of my pet subjects and one which was also covered in the Times Of India. Liquid wash is far more expensive and far more environmentally unfriendly than the good old bar of soap. You’ve all been conned. And research has shown that no detectable bacteria is found on hands (and presumably bodies) washed with what may even look a ‘scummy’ bar of soap. Not even in India.

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