235 years on, city horsing around in betting circles
Chennai – nee Madras - has had a long and chequered history with horse racing, the only sport on which betting is legally allowed in India.
The city is home to the oldest race course in India, and has hosted horse races for around 235 years with a few interruptions in between.
Despite challenges that arose against the races in the mid-1970s, Chennai remains an important element on India’s horse racing map.
The race course was established in 1777 and races have been held here continuously ever since, except for a few breaks in the late 1700s enforced by the war between the British and Hyder Ali, and then again in the 1870s.
The Madras Race Club, established in 1837 was revived in 1887 and has been organising the races since then.
There was a lull during the First World War but races resumed in 1919.
In the meantime, another race course was built in Ooty to host races in summer.
After a period of growth and consolidation, racing in Chennai received another shot in the arm when the Madras Race Club became a turf authority in 1966.
Then came the biggest jolt — an ordinance passed in August, 1974 by the then Tamil Nadu government that banned horse racing in the State on moral grounds.
The logic: racing and betting were luring the working class into a cycle of debt and ruin.
To commemorate the ban, the government even erected statues on either side of the then new Anna Flyover.
The statues, however, have outlived the ‘achievement’ they were meant to mark.
The Madras High Court stayed the implementation of the ordinance and horse races were resumed in 1978.
Then in 1996 the Supreme Court struck down the Tamil Nadu government’s contention to ban horse racing.
Horse races are now held by the Madras Race Club in Chennai in winter and in Ooty in summer. The sport is today among the two most prominent forms of betting allowed in India, the other being rummy, ruled by the Supreme Court as a game of skill and not chance.
Many now want the same argument to be extended to legalise betting in cricket.