Cyrus Poonawalla: horse breeder and vaccine king

Asian Racing Report talks to one of the world’s richest men about how horses set him up to make an inconceivable fortune, his passion for breeding and racing, and the present threat to Indian racing.

Cyrus Poonawalla in Melbourne for the Asian Racing Conference. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Cyrus Poonawalla takes a seat on one of the soft-cushioned sofas located in the lobby outside the hall at the Melbourne Convention Centre where a session of the Asian Racing Conference is ongoing: perhaps a presentation from the stage about racing and the Metaverse, or some such, that likely left most feeling a mixture of befuddled and awed.

He is making friendly small talk, relating quite matter-of-factly how difficult it is for him to get to Melbourne from western India, that the flights are too long and tiring now that he is in his 82nd year. Images of a long-haul commercial flight flicker in the mind’s eye and recede rapidly as the obvious dawns: the world’s 56th richest man doesn’t fly Qantas.

Try a Bombadier Global 6500, or two. He owns a pair of the luxury jets, flying range 6,500 nautical miles with a top speed of Mach 0.90: that’s a bit below the speed of sound at about 690mph, if you’re wondering.

“I preferred the two (Gulfstreams) we had before, but my son (Adar) didn’t like them as much so we changed to the Global 6500,” he tells Asian Racing Report at this impromptu meeting on the fringe of the February convocation.

Horse racing has long been the plaything of extremely wealthy men and women. If the racing bug bites hard, they’ll invest their wealth in expensive yearlings, then start breeding from a few mares, then buy a stud farm, invest in stallions, and if their fortune holds, create a legacy.



Cyrus Poonawalla with actress Mallika Sherawat at Mahalaxmi racecourse in Mumbai, 2006. (Photo by Prodip Guha/Getty Images)

Poonawalla did all that, but he did it a little bit back-to-front. In fact, it was the horses that came first: the horses at Poonawalla Stud Farm back in the 1960s provided the raw means for him to build a lucrative business of far-reaching global significance, and it did not come from racing them or selling them.   

“Horse serum. I went into the business of making serums and then vaccines,” he says, and relates how after taking on the farm outside Pune that his father Soli Poonawalla – an avid racegoer and owner – had established in 1946, he realised there was not enough money to be made in just breeding horses.

“The serum was the foundation,” he continues. “Some serums in those days were made out of the horse blood, it was worldwide. So, what happens is that you give a vaccine to a horse – could be a mouse but you need a bigger animal so you get more blood out – and from the blood you process the active serum, which is then sterilised and processed, it’s a long story, and then you make the product.”

The Poonawallas had been sending their retired horses to a government facility that extracted blood for serums. Poonawalla, a college dropout in his 20s with an innovative mind, figured out that he could cut out the middle man and produce the serums himself from his own horses. It was 1966 when he and his younger brother Zavaray Poonawalla established Serums Institute of India: the business now comes under the Poonawalla Group umbrella, and is the maker of the Covid-19 vaccines Covovax and Covishield.

“It started with a capital of US$25,000,” he says. “We grew from serums because there was limited use, and moved to vaccines: diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, pneumonia, measles, a whole range, including the Covid vaccine when Covid came along.”

Cyrus Poonawalla's father Soli Poonawalla established the family stud farm in 1946. (Photo supplied)

Cyrus Poonawalla, Chairman of Serum Institute of India Limited in Pune, 2007. (Photo by Madhu Kapparath/Mint via Getty Images)

When Covid struck, it was, in a business sense, like a ‘49er turning a corner into a cave and finding a rich seam of exposed California gold, there for the taking. In 2019, before Covid, Poonawalla wasn’t doing too badly as India’s 12th richest person and the world’s 76th richest, with a fortune estimated by Forbes to be US$9.1 billion. By the end of 2022 he was India’s fourth richest person, his fortune having expanded to US$21.5 billion and climbing: it now stands at an estimated US$22.4 billion.

“We are one of the largest competitors to Pfizer; we are the world’s biggest vaccine producer by number produced and sold,” Poonawalla says, offering context. “I’ve been a philanthropist throughout, so our price is low, I’ve been giving vaccines at 50 cents a dose and nobody could compete with this, and we were pre-qualified by WHO (World Health Organisation) and MRHA (Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency), so on that basis we could make three billion doses of vaccine and that included a lot we produced because of Covid.

“Just this week we exported six million doses of the Covid vaccine to Australia and three million to New Zealand. We got a contract through our American subsidiary to supply 100 million doses to New Zealand and Australia and we made about two billion doses worldwide when the pandemic was strong. Now it’s the last vestiges of Covid, I hope, for the world,” he says, and then laughs as he adds, “but that’s bad for me!”

As he observes, “the horse business in fact did help me,” and he in turn feels a responsibility to do what he can to help the thoroughbred industry. In his time, he has been vice chairman of the Asian Racing Federation, chairman of the Turf Authorities of India, and the Royal Western India Turf Club, and the Stud Book Authority of India, and the Indian Pattern Races Committee, to list a few of his roles over the decades.

A racegoer cheers on the action at Royal Western India Turf Club's Mahalakshmi Racecourse (Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/Getty Images)

Desert God wins the 2016 Indian Derby at Royal Western India Turf Club. (Photo by Arijit Sen/Getty Images)

But helping the Indian industry is proving to be a difficult task at present under the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi, which has imposed a crushing 28 percent betting tax on games of chance, under which horse racing is designated.

“It’s virtually impossible to sustain the tote, the jackpot and all that at 28 percent,” Poonawalla says. “Strong representations have been made to try and bring it down to the original 12, at most 18, but at 28 percent we’re finding it very difficult to meet the two ends of the finances.

“We have given (the government) papers, we have given them presentations that we have collected from the different Asian Racing Conferences, where we have shown them that the lower the betting tax, the higher the turnover, in multiple terms, so it compensates the lower tax. If tax goes down considerably, that doesn’t mean you lose revenue, the multiple effect of turnover is so high that it doubles or trebles your revenue.

“But this tax has resulted in a real dip in turnover: Thank God I’m not chairman of the racecourses any more, but I’m trying to help them wherever we can in sponsorship, so at least the prize money for the owners will be sustained even in these difficult times.”

One of the most interesting sessions at any Asian Racing Conference is the one about illegal gambling and the difficulties the race clubs and authorities around the world face in combating the illegal and grey markets that dwarf the legal. In India, it is a vast problem, exacerbated by a ban on all betting on the country’s favourite sport, the demi-religion that is cricket, which the ‘illegals’ are milking.

Racegoers scramble to get a bet on at the Indian Derby meeting at Royal Western India Turf Club, Mumbai, 2016. (Photo by Arijit Sen/Getty Images)

“We keep telling the government, if you legalise cricket betting and put just one or two per cent tax, the turf clubs have got the machinery. We can use our tote and our betting so they don’t have to set up a new venue (to bet) and cricket could be an example of how so much, maybe a few billion dollars, of revenue could come in.

“I’d say it’s falling on deaf ears at the moment, but there is a committee set up by the Finance Minister to look into the merits of our case (against the 28 percent tax), because we are telling them that more than the revenues going up, illegal activity has to be reduced. It’s very big, the illegal betting is about 90 percent of the market, only 10 percent legal, it’s so bad.

“We come to international conferences where they talk about illegal betting and how to counter it, but we’ve got a major challenge that is threatening our finances. Because of the government-imposed tax, we have underground and illegal betting that we can’t control.”

But India’s six turf clubs – Royal Western India, Royal Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mysore – must also battle cultural taboos and societal trends that have shaped and been shaped by the current government’s policies since it came to power in 2014.

“The issue is we are a country of predominantly Hindu religion, which is anti-gambling, and we’ve got 15 percent Muslim population, that’s another 150 million people and they are also anti-gambling. So, the stigma is applying and not common sense. The cultural stigma is strong,” he says.

Poonawalla was born into a Parsi family in 1941 and he shares with his brother Zavaray a passed-down passion for racehorses and thoroughbred breeding. Poonawalla Stud Farms, spread across three sites for now, has been India’s champion breeder 15 times and has produced the winners of 71 Indian classics including the Indian Derby ten times, and 373 ‘classics’ all told from around the Indian turf clubs.

Cyrus and Zavary Poonawalla. (Photo supplied)

Poonawalla homebred Missing You wins the 2019 Poonawalla Breeders' Multi-Million. (Photo supplied)

“We won the champion breeders award for 12 years in a row but this past year we slipped, because we were let down by our stallions. The stallion makes the farm,” he says.

Talk turns to the horses he has raced and the stallions he has stood: the farm currently stands Excellent Art, Leitir Mor and Roderick O’Connor; Exhilaration’s Indian Derby win is his standout memory.

“It was 1990, the first time I won the Indian Derby,” he says. “As a yearling, I liked him and decided to race him and named him Exhilaration and he retired unbeaten.”

But Poonawalla is a pragmatic businessman and Exhilaration’s achievements were not sufficient to guarantee the horse a stallion role at his farm.

“All of my stallions were imported,” he says. “Indian stallions cannot match because of the huge difference in the breeding quality. You have a son of Galileo, for example, as a stallion, and then you have a grandson of Galileo, it will never be the same.

“I stick to a principle: first, performance has to be there, and then the main thing, he must be a son of a prepotent sire line; you can’t have a son of a champion who’s not producing champions.”

In the early 1990s he imported the Craven Stakes and Dante Stakes winner Alnasr Alwasheek – bred in the purple by Sadler’s Wells out of Someone Special – and that proved to be a big success. Then came Placerville – Mr Prospector out of the top-class US mare Classy Cathy – winner of the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes for Henry Cecil and owner-breeder Prince Khalid Abdullah; but Placerville’s 1993 Royal Ascot win came at a cost, a career-ending stress fracture.

Poonawalla Stud Farm's Excellent Art in his racing days, defeating Duke Of Marmalade in the St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. (Photo by Julian Herbert/Getty Images)

Alnasr Alwasheek at Poonawalla Stud Farms. (Photo supplied)

Horses at Poonawalla Stud Farms. (Photo supplied)

“Teddy Beckett used to be my original bloodstock agent and at that time was the general manager for the prince,” Poonawalla recalls. “He called me and said, ‘Cyrus it’s past midnight for you but get up and have a cup of coffee, I’ll give you one hour before we put the horse on the market; we don’t think the fracture will affect him but it’s a chance you’ll have to take, to be honest with you.’ So, I picked up the book and saw he was a top son of a prepotent stallion, and his dam Classy Cathy had won three Grade 1 races, you can’t go wrong.

“He was a bright middle-distance horse, so I said ‘Done,’ and the deal was done. Teddy said, ‘You’re taking the risk?’ and I said ‘Yes, I’ll take your word for it,’ and we bought the horse. There was a flutter of buyers the next morning and the prince said, ‘I have given my word, I won’t change it.’

“He was the best stallion I ever had. His sons won four Derbys (including a Triple Crown winner), six Invitation Cups, he was leading stallion for seven years in India.”

His pride in Placerville’s achievements is bursting out. He makes mention of his current star, the December 2022 Indian 2,000 Guineas winner, aptly, maybe cheekily, named Ahead Of My Time. Then there was the popular Irish globetrotting gelding Gordon Lord Byron that he bought into, another memory among countless spanning his lifetime.

Zavaray Poonawalla leads in Southern Empire at Mumbai. (Photo by Rajanish Kakade/Getty Images)

Gordon Lord Byron wins the G1 George Ryder Stakes at Rosehill in 2014. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Poonawalla is an Asian Racing Conference veteran. He has chaired the organising committee in the past and he is in attendance this time in his role as a longstanding member of the ARF executive council, representing the Turf Authorities of India. He is sharp, despite his repeated apologies offered for not being able to recall immediately the name of this or that stallion; he is engaging, easy in conversation, with a hint of boyish mischief to his humour, and what seems to be a contented – not smug, though – pride in what he has achieved in his life so far.

“I’ve been on the executive council since 1992,” he says with a glint, and during that time he has proven to be an influential ally of the current ARF chairman Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. “I’m the longest-serving member in the history of the ARF, but with gaps, you get tired. I’ve told Winfried, one year more and I’m done.” 

With that, he calls over his ever-attendant assistant. The folks from Magic Millions have descended and there is a teasing attempt to convince the multi-billionaire to visit their auction and invest some of his wealth. Poonawalla seems to enjoy the banter but declines.

The flight is too long to be coming back, he repeats. He is going home to Pune, not to Magic Millions or any other Australian sales house. And he is leaving on his own private jet plane.




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