February 2012


Riders Of The Wind
February 2012




The hat-trick winning Joanna

Five velvety snouts poked out of their individual stalls and five pairs of intelligent eyes peered at the visitor. Their ears twitched and they sniffed curiously. As I walked through the stables at the Sri Lanka Turf Club in Nuwara Eliya, I was only vaguely aware of the minor spectacle I made of myself, staring awestruck and open-mouthed at these magnificent creatures of the wind.

Words Haseena Razak | Photography Menaka Aravinda

The Sri Lanka Turf Club is home to almost 35 horses. Several of them are race horses and compete at the Club’s various horse racing events. The five horses I was introduced to were some of the stars of the racing track. The satiny brown Joanna is a hat-trick winner, which means the mare had won three races in a row. In a stall next to her was a chestnut gelding with a white patch streaking down between his eyes. This was Cafe Coffee, last year’s champion of the most prestigious horse racing event in Sri Lanka, the Governor’s Cup. As the stables reverberated with the stamping of hoofs as the horses tried to rid themselves of the incessant flies, I couldn’t help but wonder at the power that these magnificent creatures could unleash on a racing track when they thundered towards the winning post.

In an enclosure close by, about 15 horses walked gracefully round in a circle; each led by a handler. Their hoofs clip-clopped on the hard earth. Evening sunlight poured through a window creating a shapely silhouette of each horse as it passed by the window. They seemed to exude a diligent air as they took part in their light evening exercise. Further into the 40-minute walk however, the relative peace of the rhythmic hoof sounds was broken. A brown horse, perhaps a little exasperated with walking round in circles, stepped out of line. Clinging tightly to the horse’s bridle, the young handler yelled out as if to simultaneously reprimand the horse and appeal for help from the more experienced handlers. Sensing the slight commotion, all the other horses stood still and waited until the agitator was persuaded back in line.

On the racing track, dressed in his bridle and saddle, was Red Key Point, a dark chocolate hued stallion, preparing to canter

As I followed the horses out into the crisp evening air, one of the trainers commented on the distinct character traits and personalities of the horses. Those who worked closest with these horses – the handlers, groomers, jockeys and trainers – understood the varying temperaments of the animals and were able to guide them accordingly.

In the care of one of these capable handlers was a black mare with her captivating little colt in tow. The bright eyed, four-month-old had a black coat and a thick, unruly mane that gave him a mischievous air. As young as he was, there was a world of expectation in the eyes of those who gazed admiringly at him: the little colt was a thoroughbred, his father a powerful stallion. In three to four years, he would take to the racing track and probably be a champion race-horse as a result of his flawless pedigree. At present though the baby stallion, still shy of strangers, broke into an alarmed trot whenever he fell too far behind his mother.

On the racing track, dressed in his bridle and saddle, was Red Key Point, a dark chocolate-hued stallion, preparing to canter. Appearing a little too full of energy, he paced and stamped as he waited for the signal from his jockey. The sound of his hoofs on the turf was distinct as he came pelting down the track. In my mind’s eye I imagined the track on a race day, horses bearing lithe jockeys, the Grand Stand packed with spectators. For today though, the lone Red Key Point cantering down the track would have to do.

Back at the stables the horses were being treated to their daily grooming ritual. To wipe their bodies clean of the perspiration from the evening exercise, the handlers brushed them, rubbed them down with a rag and finally massaged them with a ridged glove. Joanna stood patiently, while she was being brushed. Pancho Pete, a coal grey stallion standing next to her, was less tolerant of the grooming and, as soon as his nostrils had been rubbed clean, exhaled a volley of mucus that sent everyone diving for cover.

Having been returned to each of their stalls, it was time for the horses’ evening meal. Each stall had a generous helping of a special type of grass, grown on the grounds of the Turf Club, as well as a tub full of horse pellets mixed with garlic and water. As the stables filled with the sounds of crunching, I was informed that their special diet was designed to minimise the onset of colic. Each horse’s body weight is regularly checked to ensure they were receiving the appropriate diet. On race days, the quantity of pellets would be increased and sunflower oil would be added. This diet would sometimes be supplemented with oats.

Pancho Pete, a coal grey stallion... was less tolerant of the grooming

Outside, more horses were walking single file, presumably to their own stables. The striking appearance of a dusky stallion, with white flecks on his face and the front of his body, captured my attention. He resembled a midnight sky full of stars. Without the least warning, he reared up – the rider clutching the reins – and tried to gallop away from his equine companions. With much skill – and some yelling – the rider managed to keep the black stallion in check. Perhaps this is the fascination that these arresting animals hold, in addition to their majestic beauty: their wild, feisty spirit that can never be entirely tamed.

The Sri Lanka Turf Club
Established during the time of the British, the Sri Lanka Turf Club manages the stables and race course in Nuwara Eliya, and organises horse racing events. The Club rents out stable space to horse owners, who hire the groomers, trainers and jockeys required to care for the horses. In addition to race horses, the Club also houses riding horses for visitors.

Race Track
The race track is 1800m - or 10 furlongs - all the way around. The word ‘furlong' has been retained since British times and is used to indicate the different categories of horse racing.

Grand Stand
The Grand Stand accommodates visitors, members of the Turf Club Committee and Board of Stewards, horse owners and trainers. There is a special platform here where the award ceremony takes place. During the most popular meet of the year, the Governor's Cup, the Grand Stand is occupied by spectators decked out in all their finery; the ladies in cocktail dresses and intricate hats, the gents in suits and top hats. Competitions are held for the Best Hat, the Best Dressed Lady and the Best Dressed Gent. Between races, fashion shows and musical performances are held in front of the Grand Stand.

Racing Paddock
Once the horses have been saddled, they are brought here to be walked for about 10 to 15 minutes. Only the handler, trainer, owner and jockey can enter the Racing Paddock. After being walked, the horses are led to the racing track, where the jockeys mount and wait for the start of the race.

Starting Gate
The Starting Gate, which is also called ‘starting stalls', is a machine that ensures that there is a fair start. The horses, mounted by the jockeys, are led into the stalls. The gates of all the stalls open simultaneously, indicating the start of the race. The placement of the Starting Gate varies, depending on the length of the race.

Judge's Box
The Judge's Box is located adjoining the race track, directly opposite the Finishing Post. Here, the judges are able to easily identify the winning horse, in the event of a close finish.

Races
Races are generally held at the height of the Nuwara Eliya tourist season in April. However, the first race of 2012 will be held in February.

• The Independence Cup - February 5, 2012
• First day of Horse Racing Carnival - April 7, 2012
• The Governor's Cup - April 14, 2012
• Final Day of Horse Racing Carnival - April 22, 2012

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    A horse being led back to the stables after his evening exercise

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    Ready to canter – Red Key Point is dressed in bridle and saddle

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    The Race Track at the Sri Lanka Turf Club

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    Red Key Point canters down the Race Track

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    Pancho Pete reluctantly endures his grooming session

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    The Grand Stand at the Sri Lanka Turf Club

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    Chowing down on the greens

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