It seems almost poetically fitting that horse racing-which plays such an integral role in England, from being the second largest spectator sport there with Royal Ascot and Cheltenham Festival-has a rich history with our own ‘Little England’ with John Baker’s introduction of the sport.
From the quality of the horses, to the thundering of hooves, to the closest of finishes, horse racing has provided the action packed, adrenaline pumping, crowd attracting face for the equine industry.
And this factor is what the Royal Turf Club Nuwara Eliya seems to be ‘betting’ on in being “committed to ensuring that the glorious sport of racing is returned to the prestigious position it has long held and is elevated to the highest standard of competition.”
The Royal Turf Club (RTC) was launched in the second week of February 2016 with Mr. Suranjith Premadasa at the helm as President. Mr. Premadasa who is no stranger to the world of horses or racing, being a horse owner himself and a veteran racing driver, seems to have been able to bridge his experience from both ends of the spectrum in this endeavour.
The RTC has also enlisted the services of Mr. Wayne Wood as their inaugural Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Stipendiary Stewards, and Mr. Sinclair Marshall as Thoroughbred Riding Instructor and Stipendiary Steward, in promoting their goal of racing at the highest standards. Both these gentlemen have had long and illustrious careers in horse racing on an international stage being specialists in the field and would undoubtedly be spearheading the RTC’s initiative together with Mr. Premadasa.
Furthermore the Royal Turf Club has invested heavily in this endeavour by renovating much of the old infrastructure, including the track, the Grand Stand, the stewards’ room and the jockeys’ rooms, which has uplifted the entire racetrack as a result.
At the Starting Gate
As this is the Sport of Kings, it is only fitting that the horses are treated in a deserving regal manner.
CEO Wayne Wood, who is a well respected and highly regarded member of the international racing community, emphasises that horse welfare was paramount.
“The RTC has a set of over two hundred rules covering many areas of the sport including the obligation of the trainer towards the horses, the care of horses etc. One major change has been the introduction of air whips. These whips are padded unlike the old fiberglass whips so that it doesn’t injure the horse and it is mandatory for all jockeys to carry this kind of whip. “Also the number of times a horse can be whipped has been restricted to eight throughout the entire race. Furthermore for the half-breed and three-quarter breed races, the jockeys can’t carry a whip at all. We have taken action against jockeys for excessive use of the whip on four occasions so far,” he said.
“We are also focussing on doping and have tested several animals up to date. Animal welfare and rider safety are the main concerns of the RTC. We also supply trainers to owners of race horses,” Mr. Wood said.
He also said that Sri Lanka was heading in the right direction in terms of horse racing.
“But there is a long way more to go. The track is a very good track and has greatly improved in the last six months, since I was here first. Improved fencing has been put up giving the horse a better sight. I also want to apply to the Asian Racing Federation and a number of other major racing bodies in India, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia so that Sri Lanka can join these bodies and benefit from the backing it gets.
“Through this we can share information with them and they can share information with us so that both parties can benefit. We are also very open-minded. Owners can even race horses from other countries like in the Europe and India,” he said.
“Another major change that has been made is that now a person can purchase a horse with several other people, so that they will all be joint owners of the horse. We want to make it the sport of the people so that everyone can come down to Nuwara Eliya and enjoy this event. We are open for business!”
The RTC Legal Advisor Panduka Keerthinanda highlighted the legal aspect of doping.
“There is a Convention against doping in sports as per Act 33 of 2013 and this law applies for horse racing as well. All steroids and substances injected to enhance the fitness, speed and endurance of the horse are banned. This rule will be enforced by the Anti-Doping Agency under the Ministry of Sports by testing urine samples of all the horses after the races. These samples will then be sent to India to be tested for any substances, which are banned under the World Anti-Doping Agency.
“If a sample has a positive match to any of these banned substances, there will be heavy penalties and legal action. This will be strictly looked at since the welfare of the horse is paramount and doping can lead to horses dying,” he explained.
“The RTC Nuwara Eliya also has a constitution that has been registered under the Companies Act and will be conducting these races according to published rules of racing,” Panduka said,
The Home Stretch
According to Mr. Suranjith Premadasa, President of the RTC, Royal Turf Club had introduced many procedures and regulations to ensure that clean, fair and ethical racing was carried out at the highest level.
“Among others, these include anti - doping testing, foreign officials and adjudicators and random checks to ensure the horses are being properly cared for. Steps are taken in a bid to ensure fair-play and to bring back the glamour and flair of the races. The sport of horse racing as properly conducted by the RTC will open many avenues for tourism and employment. I also believe that all competition and rivalry should be kept only on the track where it rightfully belongs,” he said.
“The RTC hopes to, in the short-term undertake, in line with international standards, a thorough exercise of recruiting and training people who will be involved in the sport. We will also set up a modern specialist equine hospital that will provide veterinary services to horses. It is vital that we ensure and uphold ethics through maintaining a zero tolerance policy towards drug and animal abuse.
“Among the long term development objectives of the Royal Turf Club is a drive to strengthen the sport’s growth avenues by engaging more young people through gainful employment on full, part time and seasonal basis. We will also undertake a drive to attract foreign investment, especially via global partnerships among racing enthusiasts,” he said.
Mrs. Nihara Jayatilleke, who is the Secretary of the Sri Lanka Equestrian Association, feels that being the Secretary of the SLEA and also a committee Member of the newly formed Royal Turf Club is a unique position.
“I wear both these mantles very proudly as I see a great fit between the two. With the revival of ‘horse racing at the highest level’, we could expect the birth of a whole industry associated with it. As in our neighbouring countries India and Pakistan, and other countries, there will be a boom in horse related tourism. This in turn will spur job creation in the area. We can also expect horse breeding farms to start. All these activities will ensure valuable foreign exchange is channeled into the country. To this horse lover, this is about the best news in a long time”
The Winner’s Circle
After all the races have been run, wines sipped and caviar tasted, the highlight of the Royal Turf Club’s initiative to breathe life into the somewhat hibernating sport of racing has been the attention given to horse welfare.
The care of the horses is priority as obviously must be in any equine sport and the RTC seems to be on the right path in relation to this. The Anti-Doping measures and Rules of Conduct during the races are strong responses to the animal abuse that can happen on and off the track and the fact that this is being implemented at these early stages of the Club itself gives room for further development to happen down the line.
It can be easy to oversee something as obvious as galloping horse in the midst of it all. Lest we forget, no horse; no races. Furthermore the enlistment of two renowned international personalities in the racing field means that racing in Sri Lanka will be worked on by internationally qualified hands. This benefits every aspect of the sport, from the starting gate to the finish.
However, the RTC cannot rest on their laurels. Animal welfare needs to develop and advance with the sport. This should be part and parcel of it as per the RTC’s plans for developing Sri Lanka’s horse racing environment. International exposure and the relationships that will be built with major racing bodies will not only make our racing circuit more advanced and developed but will also play a major role in the welfare of the horse which needs to cross the finishing line first at whatever cost.
Consequences of developing racing in itself, is threefold. First comes the benefit to the country.
Racing is a form of high-end tourism with all the glamour, fashion and the prestige; Fame and fortune.
High speeds and high pots. This is a dimension that Sri Lanka needs to pursue at this timely juncture, especially with our focus on the tourism sector as a tourist destination. And this in turn leads to all the other economic benefits to the country that come together with the planes and the ships that will start landing.
In addition racing itself generates labour. Especially in Nuwara Eliya, this is conditioned to that sort of industry. From the grooms, to the hoteliers to the farriers to the race track developers.
A farrier is a specialist in equine hoof care, including the trimming and balancing of horses’ hooves and the placing of shoes on their hooves, if necessary.
This will lead to more competition in the industry and a higher quality of skill and product. There will also be the development of Nuwara Eliya itself as a tourist hub in light of all this activity. This is even more so with the year-long calendar that the RTC has.
Last but definitely not least, is the development of equine related activities in general. The spillover effect of racing through the money pumped in, as the RTC has already done, and the equine knowledge gained will undoubtedly develop all other fields of horse riding, be it professionally or for leisure which Sri Lanka is in dire need of in comparison to other countries.
It is a shame that a country, which has been involved with horses for quite a long time and even have our own distinct Delft ponies, only know of horses as those that run in a race.
The development that is envisioned for the future can help the entire equine industry of Sri Lanka as a whole. But for now all roads seem to be leading to Nuwara Eliya. And the view is not that bad. Who knows, we might even be lucky enough to see the likes of the next Secretariat or the next Lester Piggott in a few years to come. Until then.