Like many other firsts, Madras also holds the record for the first ever race meet in India. This was in 1780 and held on the Island. But it would appear that Guindy was the area earmarked for racing as early as in 1777 when 81 cawnies of land was taken from the villages of Velacherry and Venkatapuram for the construction of a racecourse.
Almost from 1790 or so the Assembly Rooms on the racecourse were a landmark of the city. William and Thomas Daniell did a painting of the building in 1792. The racecourse stood to the left of the Assembly Rooms, where it still is, and according to the Daniells, “the amusement took place in the cool season, when the ladies of the settlement are invited to a splendid ball.” Racing in the early years began at six in the morning and ended by ten so that people could get to work. The sport received a setback during the Mysore Wars and was revived in 1804. Land amounting to 35 cawnies was added facilitating the laying out of a second and smaller track meant for training horses.
It is not clear as to who managed the races in the early years. The Madras Race Club was set up in 1837 and functioned till 1875 when the Prince of Wales, afterwards Edward VII, visited it. It faded thereafter, to be revived in 1887 by Lt. Col. George Moore, President of the Corporation of Madras. A new Madras Race Club came into existence in 1896, taking over the assets and liabilities of the earlier one.
Racing suffered during the First World War but was revived in 1919 thanks to the efforts of the Governor, Lord Willingdon. The Bobbili and Venkatagiri stands were constructed a year later. The Guindy Lodge, built initially for the club Secretary, and now the home of the Madras Race Club proper, came up in 1931.
An article on Guindy by the humorist S.V. Vijayaraghavachariar (SVV) appeared in The Hindu at around the time and this is what it had to say:
“Guindy is the place where races are held at stated seasons of the year. On race days the whole city gets empty and congregates at the course, from HE the Governor of Madras down to Muniammal, the vegetable seller. A racecourse is the most democratic place in the world. It would be nothing surprising if a Secretary to Government should take Muniammal aside and request her to whisper in his ears the name of the winner. And mind you, Muniammal knows the birth, upbringing and idiosyncrasies of every horse that runs in the race even better than the owner himself. It is really staggering what an amount of money passes from the hands of visitors through the small apertures of the ticket-selling windows. Guindy is the bottomless sink into which all the wealth, earned or borrowed in the city, disappears without leaving a trace behind.”
SVV may have felt it was classless but going to the races was considered a social grace in the upper echelons of society till at least the late 1960s. This was also the time when certain well-known figures of Madras society cut a dash at the turf – M.A. Chidambaram (MAC) and the Janab Ravu Janardhana Krishna Ranga Rao, the Zamindar of Chikkavaram, being two such. MAC was to be steward for long and it was at his initiative that classic races were introduced in Madras in the 1950s. In 1953 he united the five race clubs of South India – Madras, Mysore, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Ooty – and formed the Southern India Turf Club which, once again thanks to him, was recognised by the Royal Calcutta Turf Club and the Royal Western India Turf Club. In 1966 the SITC was broken up when it was felt that Madras and Bangalore could be independently run and the Madras Race Club became a turf authority by itself. It was also under MAC that modernised tote machines were imported from Australia and installed in Madras, a first in the country.
The biggest setback to racing in Madras came in August 1974 when the then State Government through an ordinance banned it on the grounds that speculation over it caused the ruin of common folk. Statues were erected on both sides of the Anna Flyover to commemorate this. But in 1978 the Supreme Court struck down the ordinance. There was a scare in the 1980s when the betting activities were taken over by the Government of Tamil Nadu’s Racing Department and talks of a ban resumed. An arbitration panel appointed by the Supreme Court voted in favour of continuing racing and it has since functioned unimpeded. Litigation concerning various aspects of horseracing, however, remains endemic to the Club.
Racing is conducted in Madras mainly from November to March. A smaller monsoon season, ranging from August to October has been recently initiated. Around 540 horses are registered with the Club. The Madras Race Club is also independently a thriving social club with many amenities. Sadly, the original Assembly Rooms, which survived till the 1990s, were demolished despite pleas from heritage conservationists. Imagine destroying what the Daniells once painted!
You can also read about other landmarks of the city: