How to Breed a Champion Horse

“Are you really sure he likes me, Shivaji,” I ask, hoping the rotund, benign-looking man will catch the quavering hint of despair in my voice. No one has ever displayed affection by nibbling on my forearm, so I’m understandably concerned. It also doesn’t help that my intensely handsome admirer weighs nearly 500 kilos and has teeth that are about three inches long. The thought that he can knock me down with a thwack of his magnificent tail is making me sweat.

“Haan, madam, of course he likes you,” says Shivaji, a little injured that I doubt the intentions of his ward, a bay-coloured two-year-old colt named Rapid, who is now slobbering all over my clavicle. Rapid’s friends, all of whom come from exquisite Australian and British parentage, are also closing in on me and I’m struck by a tragic realisation: I’ve never been surrounded by a group of such personable, if skittish, young aristocratic males and even then my instincts tell me to fly.

I leave my suitors who return to their post-lunch business of making the dry, red dust fly around their white-fenced enclosure, one of several at the gorgeous Poonawalla Stud Farms, sprawled across five acres. Until September 2015, the farm had registered 68 wins at the five “Classic” Indian races, which include 1000 and 2000 Guineas, as well as the Indian Derby.

I am struck by the absence of stables at Poonawalla Farms. Instead, all I see around me are large enclosures, lined by raintrees and bougainvillea. Rapid lives with a better view than I ever will. He and his boys have the run of the farm after the wet months of May and June. That’s when the tracks are softer; on dry, cracked land, the youngsters run the risk of getting the equivalent of a tennis elbow and Rafiq, the head trainer, is intensely protective about their bones. “After a horse turns one, its bones can’t be moulded,” he says. “They become like glass bangles.”

So instead of the open tracks, Rapid and his friends are shimmied down a huge mechanised track every day at 9 am. They go at their treadmill at alternating speeds for about half an hour. After this vigorous morning exercise, they cool off for a bit, get a thorough rub down, and a bath. Then it’s time for some horseplay. They lounge around for the whole day – some lie on their backs with their legs in the air like toddlers (it’s a myth that a horse lies down only when it’s about to die) and mess with each other like teenagers. Their witnesses are their egret friends, who, when bored of watching the proceedings from the bleachers, occasionally swoop in to spice things up a bit.

World Animal Day

After a vigorous morning exercise routine, these beauties cool off for a bit, get a thorough rub down, and a bath. Then it’s time for some horseplay.

Karanjeet Kaur/ Arré

Watching these beauties play on this lazy Saturday morning is more invigorating than my shot of coffee. It’ll be a couple of years before these yearlings can enter the racecourse. Their lives for the next two years are all about training and grooming. The two-year-olds will leave the farm soon after they are auctioned off to individual owners in a short ceremony held in a secluded bower at the farm.

Prospective owners – who are often from Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, and Mysuru, where an active racing scene still exists – gather at the little, shady garden, as the caretakers bring out one precious ward at a time. The youngsters strut their stuff, trot around the garden for a bit, and are then taken back to their enclosures. Neither Shivaji nor Rafiq will disclose how much these prime catches go for. The last published figure, in a 1989 India Today report, suggested 37 lakh but even the stingiest adjustment for inflation will take that figure up at least tenfold.

Shivaji tells me all this as he and his team of 15 caretakers prep for the horses’ fourth meal of the day. Everyone is busy mixing oat and rice bran with vitamin supplements, sectioning the feed into individual bags that will be slung around the horse’s neck, to the accompaniment of Mohammad Rafi songs blaring over a tannoy.

This is the driest food they will eat today; their breakfast and lunch usually consists of fresh, fragrant lasuni ghaas or garlic grass, considered a natural repellent to many pests and diseases. I watch Rapid and the youngsters chomp away, this time from outside the fence, and then observe the quiet satisfaction on Shivaji’s face: I can’t help but feel that I am intruding on a private companionate moment between man and beast, so I decide to head to the other outpost of Poonawalla Farms, where the foals are born.

At the horse clinic, I get a long, detailed lesson in the basics of horse-breeding from the dynamic Dr PS Raja, but I find myself slightly distracted by the bittersweet tang of horseshit entangled with top notes from veterinary medicines that pervade the entire farm. Dr Raja does more than just ensure that his wards are always in the prime of health. He is the man who oversees the all-important breeding programme – right from mating to foaling.

The entire horse-breeding industry, Dr Raja tells me, works on the principle that the union of two champions will yield another. “A teacher’s child may not turn out to be a scholar, but we still continue to believe this breeding myth,” he says. Judging by the winners Poonawalla continues to churn out, this probably isn’t a myth. The farm has 135 mares and only three stallions to “cover” them. It’s a penny-drop moment – I realise the full potential of the word “stud”.

India’s thoroughbred industry allows only natural mounting, and artificial insemination is considered a criminal offence. But the industry isn’t devoid of romance: While the breeding season begins in January, the covering period officially kicks off on Valentine’s Day.

It is Dr Raja’s job to ensure that the mares and stallions are getting it on, and later, closely monitor the 11-month pregnancy. At Poonawalla, he keeps track through the surveillance cameras installed in all the love sheds. Within a fortnight of this equine congress, he is able to declare if the mare is with child – or two. If the lady is about to have twins, Dr Raja is forced to take the difficult decision of crushing one of the two to save the mother.

From Dr Raja’s long and detailed responses, I gather that he loves his horses to bits. When I ask him if he has a favourite, he tells me I am asking him to choose between his children. “But I am very proud of Mystical,” he finally admits. The name sounds familiar. It’s the one all the caretakers have been bandying about, so I head back to the Hadapsar farm to say hello before his bedtime.

Back at Hadapsar, Shivaji nearly prances all along the way to Mystical’s enclosure, where he stays solo, on sinecure. I have to bow through a sectioned wooden door to reach the majestic Mystical, who is being walked by another caretaker. He appears smaller in size than the other horses I have been hanging around all day, but no less imperial.

The bay steed is owned by the Poonawalla family and inspires uniform respect and love in everyone at the farm. Of the recent exports from Poonawalla, Mystical has had a charmed career: He was declared India’s Horse of the Year in 2005-’06, after scoring victories at the four major races, including the Indian 1000 Guineas, the Derby, as well as the Indian St Leger. The following year, he ratcheted it up with thrilling wins at the Dubai International Racing Carnival.

But that’s not the only reason Shivaji seems to love him. I sense in Shivaji, a deep and abiding reverence for this beast. He encourages me to pet Mystical and offer him a little treat, which the horse gently takes from my hand.

“Of all the horses we have had, Mystical is the best racer because he has the coolest, calmest disposition. He has earned a lot for us, madam. It’s time for him to spend his days, resting and enjoying himself,” Shivaji says, stroking his flank.

I like Mystical too, but my deepest affections are still reserved for that young rascal, Rapid. Dusk has gathered around us, the embers of the day are finally beginning to cool and I have to bid a final farewell to my young beau. I go over to Rapid’s enclosure and find him pottering abound the field. I wave at him from the fence, and for a moment, I think he pauses to look at me too – then he gets back to his friends. It then dawns on me that I have lost him because I didn’t jump at his nibbling affections.

I sigh as I leave. A fledgling love, I learn that day, is not a matter of horseplay.