The day: June 6, 1934. The event: the Epsom Derby. The winner: Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla.
Commemorating this victory is A Maharaja’s Turf by Indra Vikram Singh. The 130-plus page glossy book is profusely illustrated. The pictures, belonging as they do to the 1930s, are in black and white. There are also 20-odd pictures in colour, appended at the end of the book, of the family in the palaces — the Indrajeet Padmini Mahal, known as the Vadia Palace, and the Vijay Palace — in recent times, including during the birth centenary celebrations of Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji in 1990.
The book is a vivid account of the Epsom Derby of 1934 and how the Maharaja got to become the first and only Indian owner to win the Derby — the blue riband of the turf — since it began in the year 1780. The race is supposed to be the severest test of jockey and horse.
The Maharaja had a passion for horses and sports like horse racing and polo. “Like his collection of Rolls-Royce cars and priceless properties, a part of Maharaja Vijaysinhji’s fortune was in the stables that housed some of the finest horses one would ever find anywhere.” He went on to own the Irish colt, Windsor Lad, so named as the Maharaja’s home in Britain was in Windsor, that won him the English Derby. What is singular is that the Maharaja won the first-ever Indian Derby (1919), the Irish Derby (1926) and the English Derby (1934), a unique hat-trick.
The author has described the Epsom Derby and the fanfare associated with it with no thrift to detail. In fact, a quarter to half million people descended on the Epsom downs from around the world on the day of the Maharaja’s historic win. Windsor Lad finished the mile and a half race in 2 minutes and 34 seconds. And with the victory of “Mr. Pip”, for that is how he came to be known, an abbreviation of the state he ruled, the cheering crowds roared “Good Old Pip!” And to receive the congratulations of King George V and the British royal family, the Maharaja went to the Royal Box high atop the finishing post.
Colombo, the horse that was pitched to be the winner, given its nine previous victories, had been trounced. The bookies had fumbled and experts gone wrong.
The author has pointed to the intriguing prophecy of a soothsayer, Mrs Boswell (Gipsy Lee), way back in 1868, and the coincidences of the Maharaja’s lucky number 13.
The book has extensively reproduced news items, and include quotations from articles published in numerous magazines and newspapers on the 1934 Epsom Derby and the Maharaja’s historic win. The more than three score newspapers and magazines that the book has drawn upon are well catalogued in the bibliography. There are articles by the Maharaja himself on the Derby and his win. The trainer of Windsor Lad, Marcus Marsh, has been quoted from his book, Racing with the Gods. The lucky combination of the owner, trainer, jockey (Charlie Smirke) and horse has been pompously detailed.
The author also takes the reader through Rajpipla of former times and its royal family. The Gohil Rajput clan has been traced by the author from its beginnings in the year 558 AD, and in Rajpipla from the fourteenth century. In describing various aspects of life in erstwhile Rajpipla, the author has included an article on the Rajpipla State’s first-class postal system, written by Prashant Pandya, a well-known philatelist based in Baroda. In fact, a special postal cover commemorating the platinum jubilee of the Maharaja’s Derby win was brought out in 2009.
This book is for those who love sports, and fancy learning about the lives and ways of royalty.