Excerpts from ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’ ….. 11 – Aftermath of the triumph of Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla in the Epsom Derby 1934

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In his book Pageant of Life (Wilfred Funk, Inc., New York, 1941), Lowell Thomas wrote, “They had a big time in England. The three things that solid Britain took most seriously were the King, the Empire and horse racing, and the jockeys rode the galloping ponies in the Saint Leger Stakes, one of England’s major racing classics. The winner was Windsor Lad. As Windsor Lad had also won the Derby his victory in the Saint Leger Stakes made him England’s greatest horse. It also made an Indian Maharajah England’s greatest horseman. The Maharajah of Rajpipla, the wealthy prince of India who owned Windsor Lad, was the toast that night of England’s horsey millions. He was the ruler of a kingdom not far from Bombay, with powers of life and death over a quarter of a million people. He spoke perfect English and played polo. When he was in England, he lived next door to the King’s own Windsor Castle.”

In the aftermath of the race, Manchester Dispatch observed: “Within the special enclosure one ran across all the known men in the horsey world. Lord Derby, whose ancestor was responsible for establishing the most famous of all races, beaming amicably as usual; Lord Rosebery, who told me it was the grandest race he had ever seen; Lord Glanely, not at all down-hearted, who said that as he had won the Derby once he must not be greedy; Lord Crewe, Lord Lonsdale, Sir Walter Gilbey, wearing his funny curl-brimmed hat, and others with their pretty ladies – as fine a gathering of English gentle folk as you can find.” The Times of India reported that, “Among the notables who watched the race were General Bahadur Sham Shere Jung Bahadur Rana and other members of the Nepalese Mission.”

The Daily Mail had arranged loud-speaker equipment from the Brighton and Preston Relay Station, Ltd., of Brighton, which throughout the day had kept the crowds entertained with music. Batteries of giant loudspeakers were fixed on the grandstand and at the Tattenham Corner, and they had a range which enabled them to be heard for many miles around. After the Derby the crowds on the course were thrilled to hear Smirke describe how he rode Windsor Lad to victory. Describing his victory, Smirke said: “I got away very well and was always in the first five. I took up the running three furlongs from home and won very comfortably. I did not fear Colombo from the moment I reached Tattenham Corner.” 

The newspaper also described the ingenuity of people yearning to see the big race but unable to get leave from office: “You do not need to steal a day from your work to see the Derby nowadays. A city friend yesterday did all the morning’s work at his office. He left in his car at 1.15 p.m., when all the crowds had already arrived at Epsom. He found the roads almost empty and was in the stand before 2.30 p.m. He left as soon as the Derby was over, again met little traffic on the road, and was back in his office by 4.30 p.m.” That is how important the Derby is to the people of Britain and racing fans the world over.

Back in Bombay, The Dewan of Rajpipla, Pheroze D. Kothavala, was waiting in The Times of India office to receive the result of the race. The paper reported that he “broke into wreaths of smiles when told that Windsor Lad had won. He said that his connections were very optimistic regarding the chance of their horse gaining a victory, and as soon as he was told the result he cabled congratulations to the Maharaja and sent telegrams to the Rajpipla State, besides making numerous telephone calls.”

Considerable fortunes were made that day. Time magazine took a count: “Last week’s Derby was followed by the usual stories of sweepstake winners and their doings. In Manhattan a one-time Follies dancer won $150,000 with a ticket on Windsor Lad. A Holland Tunnel policeman who had sold “Duggie” for $6,500 a half interest on the winning horse got only $82,000. A 7-year-old Manhattan schoolboy won $75,000 with a ticket on Easton. A Long Island City mail carrier sold his ticket on Colombo for $51,000, the amount he would have won had he held it. A Manhattan janitor supplied variations in the usual story by discovering, after his name had been given to the Press as winner of $75,000 with a ticket on Easton, that the ticket was not really his but another one taken out in his name ‘for luck’ by his nephew.” 

“In the Ritz Carlton,” concluded Time, “where he heard the race on radio, Sidney Freeman counted his profits, gaily refused to reveal the result – except that for tickets on the winning horses, worth $225,000 to him, he had paid $100,000.”

Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla had carved out a niche for himself, and realised a lifelong dream. It had been a long journey, a learning process, of careful planning and heaps of patience. He would now be known not only as a ruler of an Indian princely state but also a world-renowned racehorse owner, winner of the first Indian Derby, the first Indian to win the iconic English Derby, and having the distinction of achieving a unique hat-trick of Derbys with brilliant triumphs at Calcutta, Curragh and Epsom. In 1934 he was still a young man of 44. He could now set new goals for himself.

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

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