Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’ ….. 4 – Pre-race scene on Derby day

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The Windsor team was quietly gaining in confidence, and that included not just the Maharaja and his colt. The jockey Charlie Smirke looked completely self-assured, and Marcus Marsh too began to get an inkling that this was indeed the big chance. He wrote: “I immediately rang the Maharajah of Rajpipla and told him that I considered it worthwhile having a bet on the Derby at long odds. I was to put on £250 each way at the best available odds, which were 40-1, as the stable commission.”

Time magazine, on its part, further emphasised the significance of the Derby: “Epsom Derby, as everyone knows, is much more than a horse-race attracting the biggest crowd in the year. It is also a means of deciding one of the three huge lotteries of a Dublin Committee for the benefit of all the hospitals in Ireland. For this year’s Derby the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes took in $14,373,000, of which it was ready to pay out $9,137,000 in prize money. Few days before the race, the committee with elaborate ceremonies picks ticket-holders for each horse in the race. The value of each ticket varies with how its horse finishes the race: holders of tickets on the horses finishing first, second and third win $150,000, $75,000 and $50,000 each, respectively; ticket-holders on the remaining 68 horses entered get $2600 each on a $2.50 investment. A person holding a ticket on Colombo last week would keep it on the chance that Colombo would win the top prize for him or he could sell it, in full or in part, for a sum based on the bookmaker’s odds against Colombo winning.”

“The biggest firm of racetrack bookmakers in the world is Douglas Stuart Ltd.,” explained Time “which employs 400 clerks in its entirely legal offices at Stuart House, Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Douglas Stuart, whose motto is ‘Duggie Never Owes’ is not a person but a syndicate. Busiest member of the syndicate is breezy, dapper, dark-haired Sidney Freeman, who once worked with novelist Edgar Wallace on a South African newspaper, and who would ‘rather trust an English bricklayer than a foreign nobleman,’ in the matter of bets. For the last three years Bookmaker Freeman has been coming to the U.S. to buy up Irish Hospital tickets, leaving his associates to handle the domestic business which this year gave ‘Duggie’ an interest of approximately $2,500,000 in the Derby. By the time the horses lined up at Epsom Downs last week, Sidney Freeman in his Ritz Carlton suite was busy computing what profit the firm stood to make out of his U.S. commitments – over $100,000 for tickets of timid ticketholders.”

Though the Marquess of Zetland had suggested that the hopefuls cast their eyes eastwards, not everyone was convinced. As Time reported, “The man who had more real interest in the race than anyone else in the world thought so little of the Marquess’s tip that he did exactly the opposite. Week before the Derby Sidney Freeman boarded the S.S. Washington and sailed west for Washington.”

Derby Day arrived, and as Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla made his way slowly through the multitude in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce towards the iconic racecourse, accompanied by his cousin K.S. Prithvirajsinhji, many in the crowd recognised him and offered their good wishes for the race.

Lincolnshire Echo reported, “Elaborate arrangements had been made by the police to deal with the thousands of people who arrived by car. All along the roads to the course policemen were on duty controlling the traffic and directing the cars to the many parking places. Overhead an auto gyro, with a traffic officer in it, directed by wireless messages the control of the long moving line of vehicles. The pearly ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ moved through the crowd carrying collecting boxes on behalf of charity. The famous hill resembled a gigantic fair ground with roundabouts and cocoanut shies. The great trek to Epsom began very early, as with the break of dawn people were already arriving on the Downs. Picnic breakfasts on the Downs were indulged in and itinerant vendors of comestibles found early and eager buyers. The flow of motor coaches carrying loads of passengers and motor-cars set in at an early hour and there was keen competition for good parking positions on the rails from which to obtain a good view of the race. The gipsy encampment on the hill had awakened very early and race cards were being sold to buyers an hour or so after dawn. People arriving by cars provided their own amusement. In one of the car parks a party of fashionably dressed women breakfasted to the strains of a gramophone; while nearby another party sat in a car and played bridge. While the roads to Epsom were filled with cars the Southern Railways carried their quota of racegoers from the London terminal, more than 130,000 passengers having been conveyed by train at ten minutes’ intervals before 11 o’clock. Lord Derby, who always entertains on a lavish scale on Derby Day engaged a special train from Victoria for his guests.”

One of the few accidents of the day befell the 77-year-old Earl Lonsdale, the uncrowned king of British sportsmen, whose car skidded into a ditch in Ewell, Surrey, outside of Epsom. Lord Lonsdale was not hurt and continued his journey in a friend’s car which overtook him immediately after the accident. He was soon in the royal box being congratulated by the King and Queen and their entourage on his escape. Two buses collided while on their way to Epsom and five people who were in them were injured.

Derby Day had broken the drought. London had clouds and showers. There was a dramatic change at Epsom. Hours of glorious sunshine counteracted the chilly easterly wind. Suddenly a big black cloud blotted it out. There was a brief shower of rain about 12.30 for a quarter of an hour, but not enough to soften the track, dry and hard after a long spell of rainless weather. The cloud passed and the sun reappeared. But more rain fell and the clouds greatly reduced visibility. Although the rain ceased the sky remained overcast with heavy clouds, but the sun did its best to break through, and there were fitful bursts of brilliant sunshine.

The rain did not appear to have dampened the enthusiasm of the crowd which moved slowly along both sides of the course listening to the cries of the bookmakers and many tipsters. Stafford Sentinel described the scene: “Umbrellas shot up and coats and mackintoshes were hastily put on, while those people who had neglected to bring either had to listen to the mortifying ‘What did I tell you?’ of their friends. But everybody was merry and bright and soon afterwards the sun was shining again. There was hardly any rain, however, to have any material effect on the course. More rain fell at lunch time. Policeman put on their glistening capes, and hundreds of people tousled their newspapers over their heads and made a kind of sou’wester of them. Others put up umbrellas, and the picnickers sitting on the grass hastily scrambled to their feet and finished their meal standing up.”

The Times reported on the racegoers’ fashions, “The Derby was run at Epsom yesterday in very dull weather. There were practically no brightly coloured dresses. Black and dark navy-blue were most generally worn, with some brown ensembles, long coats of these sombre colours protecting tresses of crepes and silks in black and white, and blue and white. Most of the hats were wide brimmed, and almost all of straw, with a few of the beret type of stitched or gauged crepe or light material.”

“It should not be imagined that Derby Day is an expensive amusement,” Stafford Sentinel assured, bringing forth the flavour of the Derby, “You can have the time of your life on the Downs for half-a-crown. First buy a tip for twopence, for which the top-hatted gentleman over there will sell you ‘a certain winner’, or the man in the professional-looking jockey cap with a little crowd around him is possessed of exclusive information ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’. Keep the winner ‘under your hat’, as the racegoers say and next put 1s. of the half-crown on it. The more you convince yourself that it must win the more excitement you will get waiting for the race – and in these uneventful days a thrill like that is cheap at a 1s., even if the horse stops half-way to nibble the butter-cups. Another shilling of the half-crown should certainly be spent at the fair opposite the grandstand. For a few pence you may slide on the mat, watch Rita, the motor racing lion, have a chat with the elephant-headed boy, or marvel at the dimensions of the largest live rat in the world, and meet the Yorkshire girl who claims to be the fattest ever known and to encircle whose waist a young man is said to require an arm eight feet long. These are only a few of the attractions which will lure from you the remainder of your half-crown if the vendors of fruit pastilles, monkey nuts, cockles, and mammoth oranges have not already done so. But, after all, the Derby is one of the finest entertainments of the year if you just watch the crowds without spending any money at all. Look at the eager faces in the long lines of motor-cars. Watch the vigilant semaphoring policemen, the bowler-hatted, raucous-voiced bookies, the gesticulating tic-tac men, the banners telling of the consequences of sin, the picnickers on the course, and thousands of other interesting things, too. It is cheering to report that there is no danger of the drought extending to thousands of people at the Derby. They can get a drink all right even if the poor course has not had one for weeks. In fact, if all the beer, vividly-coloured lemonade, tea and other beverages to-day were poured on to the course they would almost turn it into a river and the horses would have to swim for the winning post.”

Trevor Wignall of Daily Express, though, lamented, “I missed particularly the cornetist who, ever since the war, has played “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” just as the horses came into view for the parade. What has happened to him – is he dead? I missed, too, the itching palms of the gipsies on the Downs. What has occurred to them – have they lost the old habit?”

Also observing keenly was Ferdinand Kuhn jr., as he wrote in The New York Times, “Gipsy fortune tellers did a roaring trade, merry-go-rounds and the sideshows kept the crowd happy until the race began, and concessionaires had a busy time selling pork pies, jellied eels and tea to thousands.”

There was no dearth of celebrities either. Greenoce Tele noted, “From where I stood in the crowd below the Royal Box, all the leaders of what is called the “sporting world” could be seen going up the stairs to their places in the stands. Mr. Tom Walls, the actor (“Good old Tommy”, they shouted), and Lord Lonsdale seemed to evoke the most enthusiasm, and the Aga Khan the most interest.”

The Maharaja, on his part, gave a holiday to thirty of his employees and chartered special motor-coaches for them and their friends so that they might see his horse win, leaving just five behind to look after his estate at Windsor.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email singh_iv@hotmail.com).

A Maharaja’s Turf 

ISBN 978-81-901668-3-6

Distributed in India by:  Variety Book Depot, AVG Bhawan, M-3, Middle Circle, Connaught Circus, New Delhi-110001, India. Tel. + 91 11 23417175, 23412567.

Follow Indra Vikram Singh on Twitter @IVRajpipla.

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