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BRINGING ASIAN RACING TO THE WORLD
Jockey Neeraj Rawal has long been a fan of English racing and has been laying a path this year that he hopes the next generation of Indian riders can follow.
Neeraj Rawal steps through the halfway-open gates and into the street outside Warwick House Stables. It is late August but he is wearing a dark blue top, zipped high to warm his neck, with the Johnston Racing livery embroidered on the left breast and his name, in gold, upon the right. He could be any one of the half-dozen or so Indian grooms working at the Middleham yard of Mark Johnston (and his son Charlie), Britain’s all-time most successful trainer by number of winners: but he is not.
An Indian jockey is a rare sight outside of India – Trevor Patel tried his luck in Queensland a few years back – and Rawal is aiming to play whatever part he can to change that. This is why he is standing in the soft-falling rain on a street in a grey-stone Wensleydale village, thousands of miles from his wife Nikita and their one-year-old son; it is why he has already spent two months learning and adapting; doing the hard graft necessary to earn the handful of rides, and the two wins, that have brought him a fragment of recognition on foreign shores, which he hopes will last more than the Warholian 15 minutes.
He has had that already this summer, after he partnered the Johnston-trained Jilly Cooper to earn his first British win at Lingfield on August 15 and then followed-up two days later for the stable on Gangway at Wolverhampton. His post and pre-race interviews were splashed around social media as he became that week’s curiosity.
But Rawal already has fame to a degree. At 35, he is a well-known and respected, albeit understated, rider within the Indian racing sphere and his several majors among more than 60 Group race wins include ‘India’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe’, the Indian Turf Invitation Cup, aboard his Indian Oaks winner Temerity.
Rawal in action in the 2021 Nizam's Gold Cup on Bisate at Hyderabad. (Photo: Mohammed Habib)
“India is a tough station but he would be right up there with the top five or ten jockeys; the racing is very competitive there, it’s fast and it’s tight; and Neeraj has worked very hard on his style and his strength,” says former jockey Colm O’Donoghue – now a work rider at Ballydoyle – who has a slew of Indian majors to his name after riding most winters there across a 16-year span.
Yet Rawal’s well-earned standing at home counts for only so much, given the peripheral status in which Indian racing is held by the world’s premier jurisdictions: it is barely referenced, being seen – fairly or not – as a winter benefit for European riders like O’Donoghue, David Allan and Paul Mulrennan, and, back in the day, Richard Hughes, even Lester Piggott.
“We are considered…,” Rawal orders his thoughts. “I guess I’m the first Indian to have a winner here but before, there have not been many Indians to come over and give it a try in the UK. This is the problem, so maybe after this people will notice us a bit more.
“I know it’s a big task for me,” he continues. “But while it’s good for me, after me there will be boys who will know that I did this and it will be good for others to follow after me. It’s like a benchmark or a path I have set, because we have talent in India but we don’t have that many opportunities.”
It is late afternoon and Rawal has just risen from a nap after riding out and doing his shift in the stables, from 6am until 12.30pm. He greets three of his compatriots as they walk down the hill through the light rainfall and enter Johnston’s Kingsley House yard on the opposite side of the road to attend to their duties.
Neeraj Rawal spoke to Asian Racing Report at Mark Johnston's Middleham stables. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
“We can go in here,” he says, and walks to the next building up the street, to a blue door, glass-paned, with a notice identifying it as the stable staff cafeteria. He unlocks the coded door, leads the way into the deserted, dim room and sits in a wooden chair at a circular table, which has a box of condiments at the centre: the room’s aroma is faintly vinegar and aged English timber.
“It is his English ‘escape’, I’ll call it,” says Bangalore trainer Sadakshara ‘Paddy’ Padmanabhan when contacted by the Report. “He has been trying for years to go and ride in England to improve his ability; he is already a very professional rider, he has ridden Group 1 winners for me and always tries to carry out instructions to the ‘T’, but he is going to come back a better jockey than he was.”
The pursuit of improvement has already taken Rawal to Andre Fabre’s stable in France, where he found communication difficult and did not secure a race ride, and then, in 2010, to Ireland and John Oxx where he had one ride: fourth of 15 on a 25-1 shot in a Curragh maiden. This time, he wanted to make much more of his visit so followed the advice of O’Donoghue.
“He came to me a few years ago and said he wanted to go to England and who should he go to? I’d ridden for Mr Johnston before and he’s a great man to ride for: he gives jockeys freedom and a lot of confidence when they’re going out on his horses. He’s great to give guys chances, especially someone like Neeraj who has a great outlook on life and wants to learn.”
Globetrotting trainer Mark Johnston. (Photo by Getty Images)
Jockey Colm O'Donoghue takes out the Falmouth Stakes aboard Alpha Centauri at Newmarket. (Photo by Getty Images)
Rawal arrived in Middleham on Sunday, June 27, the day of the Johnstons’ summer party: staff and their children, bouncy castles and food. He was welcomed warmly.
“I heard Mr Johnston has been the go-to person for jockeys who need a leg up, like Silvestre de Sousa,” he says. “He was the big factor in Silvestre being champion, he gave him opportunities. There are so many good jockeys but it’s the opportunities someone gives you that matter.”
Truth and loyalty
Rawal’s father was a military man whose sister is the mother of top jockey turned trainer Malesh Narredu and his brother Satish. The Narredu family also features among its number Malesh’s sons, the jockey Yash and trainer Dipesh, as well as his cousin, the current leading rider Suraj Narredu.
“We have nine jockeys in the family,” Rawal says. “They were an inspiration to me: Malesh won the Indian Derby and everything, so it was a big motivating factor for me to become a jockey; he rode in the Shergar Cup as well.”
But, despite family connections, Rawal’s opportunities have been found outside the tight ring of the Narredu brothers and cousins and he is not a go-to rider for their stables.
Rawal joined the apprentice school at Pune in 2002 – ‘I was in the very last batch before it closed’ – where the curriculum under Colonel K. M. Khan included show jumping, dressage and cross-country. He was apprenticed to Mumbai trainer Subhag Singh, who trained for the racing administrator and long-time owner-breeder Shyam Ruia.
Rawal has been Ruia’s retained rider for 17 years. It is a relationship rooted in trust and mutual respect, with Ruia being something of an old-style benefactor in ensuring Rawal has the opportunities to make the most of his career. The connection is deep and he speaks of ‘my owner’ and ‘my boss’ often.
“My boss has been very patient with me; he has given me immense chances; he has been very patient with me…,” he stops, swallows, regains his thread and continues.
“Many times, you get anxiety if you are not winning but he really has been the most patient man in the world, he’s that kind of owner. If the horse loses, he will say it’s ok, there is next time. He gives me that confidence.”
That trust was tested when Rawal was in a room with wires stuck to his chest. In a scene right out of an old cinematic spy thriller, he was hooked up to a lie detector as a result of a shock defeat in a two-horse race he was expected to win. He had ridden Temerity at Mumbai in February 2018 and lost narrowly after allowing the outsider B Fifty Two to dictate the tempo.
“She was ‘money-back’ to win it but I lost it by a neck, so the trainer, Pesi Shroff, doubted and said he thought I’d stopped the filly but my owner supported me. He had immense faith that I had not done anything wrong. But the trainer kept saying to my owner that I had to take a lie detector test because he thought I had definitely stopped the horse.
“I didn’t want to do that but there was another partner in the filly and they convinced my owner so much saying that if he had so much faith in me then why would he not ask me to do it. My boss told me they were pressurising him a lot so would I do it and I said: ‘You have faith in me so if you tell me to do it, I won’t back out.’ I knew I was clean.
When we lose in India, a lot of people think we stopped the horse.
“It was really a very stressful time that I was going through. They put this thing on your chest, like a pad, they ask questions and it reads whether you’re saying it right. I don’t know, it was some machine, a computer. I passed. But the first to contact me afterwards was my boss and he was so happy.
“When we lose in India, a lot of people think we stopped the horse.”
India and beyond
India has nine racecourses. The Mumbai area, where Rawal is based, has two tracks, Mumbai and Pune; Mumbai has ‘around 30 to 35 jockeys’ and ’15 to 20 trainers’. The main centres have their long-established roots in the British colonial period and the sport is a niche interest, little-known these days outside of a hardcore of fans and participants who have grown up with the tradition.
Racegoers crowded in to the grandstand of Hyderabad racecourse in 1888, during the days of the British Raj. (Photo by Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Orange William leads to the finish of the first of the Calcutta Turf Classics, 1925. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Indian track workers clad in sarees watch race action at Delhi Racecourse in 2004. (Photo by Findlay Kember/AFP via Getty Images)
Psychic Flame wins the 2004 Indian Derby. (Photo by Rob Elliott/AFP via Getty Images)
“When I go out and people ask me what I do, I say I’m a jockey and they think it’s a radio jockey; when I tell them I’m a horse race jockey, they don’t know what it is,” says Rawal.
The sport is struggling to emerge from the effects of Covid-19 when racing shut down, and is being hampered by a hefty Goods and Services Tax (GST), labelled a ‘sin tax’, which is levied at 28 percent on the total bet value placed on the tote; a further six percent commission is levied by the race clubs. This 34 percent hit is pushing bettors to utilise the widespread illegal betting channels.
“Racing was doing ok for a time but then they brought in the GST and that really knocked us backwards,” says Padmanabhan. “The government is practically making a gamble without investment.
“We have about 1200 foals born every year to go into training and with the two years of pandemic, a lot of horses have not been replaced, because during the pandemic we didn’t have any racing at all.”
Despite the issues in Indian racing and his love of the sport in Britain, Rawal says he will return home, although an exact date has not yet been set.
“My season is back on in India but I had a visa issue and arrived a bit late; my owner still never stopped me leaving, he said ‘pursue your dreams and do what you want to do’. But I have some promises to my owner to go back to India,” he says.
“After a couple of winners here my boss gave me a pat on the back and said I could stay longer, so maybe to the middle of September or even after to see if I can get a few more rides from the yard and maybe some outside rides also.
“But next year, I will come back with a better frame of mind because I know the system now, I know I’ve got to find an agent. I don’t want to waste this opportunity; I want to make the most of it because I know how difficult it is to get the ball rolling.”
Padmanabhan believes Rawal will be a clear ‘top-five’ rider when he returns to Mumbai. And, with the continuing support of Ruia and another summer in Middleham next year, he might yet fulfil his overarching ambitions: step out of the shadows cast not only by his cousins but also by western perceptions, and prove that Indian jockeys are capable of succeeding in ‘the big leagues’.
“Britain is the best place,” Rawal says. “The prizemoney is not good outside of the big races, but I have been a follower of English racing for a long time; I follow William Buick and Ryan Moore. Our racing is five hours ahead, so after I finish riding my races I go home and watch ITV Racing or whatever is on. In time, I’d like to ride here for longer, and then maybe after a few years, Australia.
“But you do have to adjust your mindset when you come here. The infrastructure of racing is much bigger, it’s different, it’s tough. You have to adapt.”
It might be tough but Rawal has shown throughout his career that he does not shirk what is difficult; and, in opting to go back to the bottom to learn the system and make connections in Britain, he is already earning the kind of trust in his commitment and ability that he believes will open up opportunities for him and for those Indian jockeys that he hopes will follow.
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