This story begins in the early years of the 1930s. “Steve Donoghue (the famous jockey) tipped me on the shoulder, ‘Marcus,’ he said, ‘I’d like you to meet the Maharajah of Rajpipla’,” so wrote Marcus Marsh, the future trainer of Windsor Lad, in his book Racing with the Gods (Pelham Books Ltd., London, 1968). Marsh continued, “The Maharaja was small and dark and handsome and possessed of considerable charm. He steered me into a quiet corner. ‘I would like you to train for me,’ he said. I came to know him very well in the months and years that followed. He was very kind-hearted and you couldn’t help liking him. The racecourse crowds were particularly fond of him and referred to him affectionately as ‘Mr. Pip’. He had a big Victorian mansion outside Windsor and lived in a romantic twilight world of the Charleston, champagne, and the like. Whenever I think of Pip, I see him in my mind’s eye emerging from his chauffeur-driven Rolls, beautifully turned out, a cigar in his hand.”
By then, of course, Maharana Shri Sir Vijaysinhji, KCSI, Maharaja of Rajpipla, had already come a long way. When he was born as Kumar Shri Vijaysinh on 30th January 1890, his grandfather Maharana Gambhirsinhji was the 34th Gohil Rajput Raja of Rajpipla, the British Empire was at its zenith and Queen Victoria was in the 53rd year of her momentous reign. Automobiles were just about being invented, and kings, warriors and men of means still rode horses. Infant Vijaysinh’s parents, the then Yuvraj Chhatrasinhji and Yuvrani Phul Kunverba, daughter of the ruler of Wankaner, could not have realised at the time that their son’s reign would turn out to be the pinnacle of the 600-year sway of the Gohils over the principality, and Rajpipla would appear indelibly on the map of the racing world.
Like his father, young Vijaysinh received his schooling at Rajkumar College, Rajkot, and like all princes learnt to ride and shoot at a very early age. As The Illustrated Weekly of India noted many decades later in its Coronation Supplement dated May 9, 1937, the prince “even as a boy, showed great skill as a sportsman having himself ridden a horse to victory and won a reputation as a marksman when not much over 10 years of age.” By then he was already Yuvraj, or heir apparent, of Rajpipla. He went on to become head boy of Rajkumar College in 1908, a recognition of his allround excellence. Military training followed at the Imperial Cadet Corps, Dehra Dun.
When his father Maharana Chhatrasinhji passed away suddenly in 1915, Vijaysinhji succeeded to the gadi or throne of Rajpipla at the age of twenty-five. His accession took place up above in the hills of the western Satpuras, and deep in the forests, in the mediaeval fort at Juna Raj or Old Rajpipla. Even as he carried out several reforms and initiated numerous works of public utility in his 1,518 square miles (nearly 4,000 square kilometres) first-class State in the Rewakantha Agency of the Bombay Presidency, lying largely between the rivers Narmada and Tapti, Maharana Vijaysinhji’s fascination for horses only grew stronger. The end of the First World War saw the young ruler come into his own. Success on the turf came to him early. His horse Tipster won the first-ever Indian Derby, held in Calcutta in 1919. On 1st January 1921 the British bestowed on him the hereditary title of Maharaja, and increased the permanent gun-salute from 11 to 13-guns.
In 1922 Maharaja Vijaysinhji set sail overseas and extensively toured the United Kingdom, Europe and United States of America. He saw his first Epsom Derby, which kindled in him the intense desire to one day bag this blue riband of the turf. He registered his colours in England in 1924. Soon, on 1st January 1925, he was knighted (Order of the Star of India). He was barely thirty-five years of age then.
Triumphs abroad too did not take long to come. His horse Embargo won the Irish Two Thousand Guineas, and the Irish Derby at Curragh, in 1926, ridden by the famous Steve Donoghue. Embargo next won the City and Suburban, and the Grand International of Belgium at Ostend, in 1927. He also ran second as a three-year-old for the Royal Hunt Cup. The Maharaja’s eyes were now set firmly on Epsom.
What makes the Epsom Derby such a coveted race? Run for the first time in 1780 at the Epsom Downs in Surrey, in the southern outskirts of London in June each year, the race got its name when the previous year Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, and Sir Charles Bunbury spun a coin which dropped in favour of the former. Poetic justice, however, prevailed as Sir Charles’ horse Diomed won the inaugural Derby. Initially run over a mile (1609 metres), the distance was increased to 1 mile and 4 furlongs (1 ½ miles or 2414 metres) in 1784. The official distance was corrected to 1 mile 4 furlongs 10 yards (2423 metres) in 1991. It is a race for three-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies (although the latter have rarely participated in recent years), each carrying 9 stones (126 lbs). The race is the second leg of the English Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, preceded by the Two Thousand Guineas Stakes, and followed by the St. Leger Stakes.
These are the bare facts, but the Epsom Derby is not just a horse race. It has given rise to 300 other derbies around the world. Derby Day has been a carnival for Londoners of all hues, from royalty to the man-in-the-street. They would arrive in their hordes, complete families, some in exquisite landaus, but many, many more in packed stagecoaches. The inauguration of railways afforded the opportunity to people from all over the country to make this annual pilgrimage. Even after live television pictures began to be beamed into every home, no less than 100,000 people still descend on the chalky downs on this extraordinary day, which is wonderful fun with musicians, jugglers and tumblers providing the sidelights. The German statesman Otto von Bismarck articulated the magic and the aura surrounding the Epsom Derby when he told the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, “You will never have a revolution in England as long as you keep up your Derby racing.”
Another British Prime Minister, the inimitable Sir Winston Churchill, when asked what would remain for the English with the sun setting on the Empire, remarked: “Epsom, Wembley, Wimbledon and Lord’s.” Indeed, and winning the Derby is akin to wresting a Wimbledon title, or the 100 metres race in the Olympics. It is the most prestigious horse race in the world. Queen Elizabeth II has not won it in 56 years.
It is reckoned that The Derby is considered ‘the blue riband of the turf’ because it is the severest test of jockey and horse. As the publication West Africa noted in 1934, “The mile and a half course is marked by variations and elevations. The first few hundred yards is a rise; then it drops; then there is a much longer rise to the top of the hill. After that, about seven furlongs from home, there is a gentle drop, then the last furlong is a continuous rise to the post. There are two bends, one the famous Tattenham Corner. It is generally accepted that a horse not well placed here has no chance. The jockey needs to know the course and must use every bit of his skill, whilst none but the stout hearted and speedy horse can triumph.”
At a very early stage, Maharaja Vijaysinhji decided to follow his passion, horse racing. And the ambition of every owner of thoroughbred racehorses is to win The Derby, the pinnacle of triumphs at the courses. It is a remarkable story of a man pursuing his goals relentlessly, with patience and perseverance, intelligence and commonsense, and with single-minded determination. He sought the advice of everyone who mattered. As a consequence he bought a thoroughbred yearling colt or two each year. He even started a small stud farm in England with his Irish Derby winner Embargo as sire.
As Marcus Marsh observed in his Racing with the Gods: “In the state of Rajpipla, Pip ruled a-quarter-of-a-million subjects and his every wish was their command. They would fight for him, and, if need be, they would die for him. So naturally enough, his outlook differed from ours. Racing success had come to mean a great deal to him. He had the desire for it. He had the money for it and he could not understand why the rest shouldn’t follow. I only wish it could have been that simple.” Sure, it was not that simple. Maharaja Vijaysinhji always spent his money wisely even when he was chasing his dream, and notwithstanding the fact that he earned sizeable sums from the sport. He did not own hundreds of horses like some other Indian princes. Rather, he chose experts to pick out colts that could win the big races. In addition to his ambition to win classic races, Maharaja Vijaysinhji knew that thoroughbreds make a very good investment. As Michael Seth-Smith wrote in Country Life, “…..bloodstock is accepted as an international currency on a par with gold, silver and diamonds.” Like his collection of Rolls-Royce cars and priceless properties, a part of Maharaja Vijaysinhji’s fortune was stables of some of the finest horses one would ever find anywhere.
(Author Indra Vikram Singh, grandson of Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla, can be contacted on email email@example.com).