He had to lose 3 kilos in a day to be in the saddle. And he took it up as a challenge; played golf all day, walked all night, sat in a sauna for long hours and starved himself like a refugee. And eureka, he had shed cellulite and was ready for the race.
That about describes the anorexic trials and tribulations of Ryan Marshall (27), the Chennai-born who is in Bangalore for the past 14 years. “My two uncles Lloyd and Sinclair Marshall were veteran jockeys who guided me all the way and very soon I decided to take it up as a profession after my tenth standard,” he says. “I initially took part in the Gymkhana races in Chennai before moving to Bangalore for my schooling. After that, I became an apprentice with trainer Dara Shah.”
That was in 1991.
Today, he is the vice president of the Jockeys Association of India alongside master riders Pesi Shroff and YS Srinath. And if Srinath is a jockey today, it’s all due to Marshall. “Both of us started at the same time,” recalls Marshall. “I used to bug Srinath that he was such a waste and that prompted him to join me on my training.”
The gamble paid off.
Both did very well on the race course. Marshall standing tall at five-nine-and-a-half has over 235 wins (including 2 classics) to his name. And his greatest has been the 2000 Guinness in Bangalore in 2001 and the Allied Forces in Maharaja Cup in 2000. “I love my horse, nothing else interests me,” he says. “I rode a horse when I was 7 and today, I have ridden for Vijay Mallya, Deepak Khaitan, Dr MAM Ramaswamy and Darius Biramji.”
Dedication has helped him sail through. “I come to work even when I am not well,” says Marshall. “And I am very weight-conscious.”
His weight was put to test when he was to acquire his riding licence. “I was 59 kilos and Srinath was 61 and there was no chance we could get a licence, so we used to walk from the airport to the race course, walk around the race track 3-4 times and again walk all the way back home. At the end of one and a half months, both of us lost 11 kilos. We got a licence, but we still do it.”
Holidays are rare, but when they do happen, they indulge and end up putting on weight. And they are back to a diet (usually fruits and juices) and a hectic fitness routine. “On so many occasions, I almost gave up trying to be the good jockey, but then I just carried on,” says Marshall. “Alcohol is the worst thing for a jockey. You get up late and ruin your morning that’s supposed to be spent on training the horses. And your weight goes up making you unfit until you correct your weight.”
Not that Marshall is far from romantic. He fell in love with a girl over whiskey and beer. “I went to meet my friend who was a DJ at a pub and he introduced me to a girl. It was love at first sight and we have been married for the past five years. She gave up drinking the moment she married me and I gave up only two years ago because it interfered with my weight and career.”
His friend Srinath (27) fell for a horse owner’s daughter. “I was seeing Rachna for over five years before getting married to her,” says Srinath. “She was the daughter of my trainer Sidney Moses good friend Vasant Ponnappa. It was love at first sight. After she finished her B.Com, we got married, I bought a three bedroom flat on Race Course Road and we moved in.”
Another professional hazard is accidents on the course. “I have had a slip disc because of several falls,” he admits. “I am scared to fall again because I don’t know if I will be able to ride after that.”
Srinath agrees: “My greatest weakness is falls, even a small finger injury can be a big problem during racing.” He’s never had a bad season, except for falls. “In Jan 2001, I was out of action for 8 months because of a road accident that damaged my neck and collarbone. The pain recurs whenever I fall off a horse.”
His beginning was impressive and that’s what has kept him going. “I recorded 40 wins in 13 months to qualify for the licence,” says Srinath. “In all, I have had 750 wins, including 9 classics. My best winning 30 races in 2000 when I was in Hong Kong and Macau. I also won the Bangalore derby in the same year.”
Srinath intends to go on jockeying for another 5-7 years before settling down with his family business of running a cinema hall (Movieland) and an Andhra-style restaurant (Akshaya), both in Gandhinagar. But riding is what gives him a kick these days. Some of the horses he’s ridden on include The Godfather, Sugar in the Sand, Prawn curry and Zamzam.
Harish Kamathi (23) rode on Chandan ka Palna, Cape Martin and What A Girl and has recorded 157 wins till date, including 8 grade 2 races (which almost qualify as a classic race). Coming from a family of jockeys (two of his uncles are top jockeys and one is a trainer), he was retained by horse owner RR Byramji for two years. “Now I freelance for various owners including him,” says Kamathi, whose career best was winning the Maharaja’s Cup in 2002. “My horse named If Looks Could Kill beat YS Srinath’s The Pelican.”
He met his love interest on a train from Mysore to Bangalore. “I saw her sitting in front of me in the train but never spoke to her,” he recalls. “Then it so happened that she was living on the same lane as I was on Kumara Krupa Road and we got talking.”
Kamathi is engaged to her now and getting married next year. “I even went to her hometown in South Africa and rode in two races, though I couldn’t win any,” he says. “But people over here tell me that my riding style has changed and I have had 7 wins in the past 3 weeks.”
An average day in his life includes training horses in the morning, playing football in the evening and indulging in chess and computer games at night. “I love to watch National Geographic and read Archies and books on horse racing,” he quips. “Sometimes, I like to cook and my best is egg burji. In fact, I cooked for my would-be in-laws in South Africa and they loved it.”
Kamathi’s backup option is to either become a trainer or start a small business of his own. His fellow jockey B Prakash (24), however, is more set. He wants to be a trainer. And right now, he’s ruling the race course. He got his riding licence within 8 months (when it takes 2-3 years for some others) and has been retained by master horse owner Dr MAM Ramaswamy for the past three years. And that has helped him record 800 wins in 8 years, including 40 classic races. And that has involved a hectic schedule and plenty of travelling. “I travel an average of five days a week as Mr Ramaswamy has over a thousand horses and I have to travel for all the classic races that happen outside Bangalore,” he says. “When it’s light weight tournaments, I am on a complete diet like only soups, toasts and fruit juices.”
Prakash doesn’t smoke or gamble but occasionally drinks. “I love fishing atleast once a month,” says Prakash, who’s essentially a loner. ”I have very few friends. In Bangalore, my wife’s my only friend. She watches all my classic shows both in Bangalore and outside.”
And that has kept him in good humour. He has been adjudged the Champion Jockey of the Year for 2001 and 2002 by the turf clubs of Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai. He is now on to become the youngest jockey in India to reach the 1000 mark. “I think I will get there within two years,” says Prakash, who was never good in academics. “I somehow scraped through my tenth standard in Pune,” he confesses. “I always wanted to become a jockey because both my father and uncle were jockeys and I loved the sport.”
Right now, there are other people vying for his attention. His wife Sapna who is learning interior design and daughter Sana (1 ½ years). Says Prakash, sporting a scorpion tattoo on his right hand and fore arm: “I have asked Sapna to open a boutique and I will fund it.”
At the top of the heap right now is KPG Appu (28), who is closer to the 1000 landmark. He’s recorded 994 wins (including 12 classics) and is poised to reach his personal milestone by the end of this month. If he does that, he would be one of the 12-odd jockeys in the entire country. “When I saw the film Black Stallion, I decided that riding was going to be my full-time profession,” he says about his small beginnings. “So I used to go to the Bangalore Amateur Riding Institute for training. But after I learnt riding, my father stopped me from pursuing it further. I cried and troubled him until he gave in.”
By then, the institute shifted to the Bangalore Turf Club and he took part in equestrian, show jumping and dressage. “I won two competitions in 1985,” he says. “Then the institute sent me to Meerut for further training and I was introduced to trainer Z Dara Shah.”
Winning 40 races won him the jockey apprentice licence in 1992 (‘I won them in one stable under Shah and it’s a rare record’). Five years later, he represented India in Japan and a year later in Mauritius (‘I won the 2,200 metres race with my horse named Epoch in 2 minutes, 17 seconds, which was a record in Mauritius’). But his career best was in 96-97. “I had 57 wins in the Bangalore winter season and the champion jockey of the season in 94-95, 95-96 and 96-97,” says Appu.
Standing tall at 5.2 and weighing 48.5 kilos, Appu has everything going for him, except that he rarely gets a chance to compete in the classic races (‘For that, you need good owners who have good horses’). A collarbone dislocation in 1998 and losing three teeth in 2001 are some of the major accidents he has had in his career. But what he’s more allergic to is betting. Says he: “If we try to get into the habit, it affects your concentration and you end up losing more than what you could win. So I never bet on horses.”
Number of jockeys in Bangalore: 50+ (70 per cent are below 35 years)
Average annual income: Rs 1 lakh -10 lakh
Salary: Rs 1,500-10,000 a month + 7 ½ per cent of the prize money
Backup option: Trainer
Takes a few months to several years to get a licence
Most invest on property; stay away from betting and speculating at the stock market
The ideal weight of a jockey should be under 50 kilos
(First published in City Reporter, 2003)