Sometimes when I sit on the lawn in the evening and listen to birds sing and the wind rustling through the trees I think of those days in Karachi before prohibition, when gambling in public was still legal. One of the great forms of entertainment for rich and poor was horse racing. For the regulars, it had become an addiction, and the addicts waited a whole week to have a flutter. Those who played the Tote remained in the members’ enclosure and those who wanted to place their bets with the bookies slipped over to the first enclosure.
The racecourse was located in the Cantonment area, not far from St Anthony’s Church. Races were also held on Wednesdays and were known as Gymkhana, but the big crowd puller was Sunday… The horses came in many colours — dapple gray, chestnut and black. They galloped in the hot summer, the monsoon and the winter, and the Sunday outing had become something of a ritual and a carnival. There were some great horses that established records — Lily, Nero and Ripple. Some took part in the big cups like the Quaid-e-Azam Gold and the Agha Khan. But some of the most stirring and exhilarating races that generated a frisson of excitement occurred in the less publicised contests.
There was one race that I can never forget. It was a fast-paced duel between a thoroughbred named C’est La Vie, owned by Haji Dossa, who had imported an English jockey Vic Gardner to ride his prize-winning animal, and Sea Shore, ridden by a local jockey Nisar Dar, trained by Kasim Peshambey and owned by the notorious Kasim Bhatti, known as the King of Bhit Island, whose sense of charity was legendary. Perhaps, because his livelihood depended on it, he had a preference for titles that had something to do with water and so he bestowed monikers like Black Sea, Red Sea, Sea Raider and Sea Shore on his animals.
Coming back to the big race, the betting both at the bookies and the tote was excessive. C’est La Vie, which was a street corner tip and his firm favourite, was paying Rs110 for every 100 that was invested. A couple of others were quoted at five–to-one, while Sea Shore was quoted at eight-to-one. There were no starting gates in those days and the horses just lined up and tried to behave. It was a mile race and when the starter’s gun went off, one horse shot into the lead. It was C’est La Vie who was eight lengths ahead of the pack. Gardner was having an armchair ride. The animal was setting her own pace. When he passed the six furlong post he cast a sly glance over his shoulder and saw the lead had increased by another two lengths.
Suddenly an amazing thing happened. The fishermen gang in the members’ enclosure stood up and in one voice shouted at the top of their voices “Sea Shore”. A big black steed suddenly shot out from the bunch in hot pursuit of the leader. Gardner must have sensed something was wrong for he gave his filly a crack with his whip. But it was too late. Dar urged his mount forward and the steed responded magnificently. With 30 yards left, C’est La Vie put in a terrific sprint. But Sea Shore had a lot of sprint in him too. And with the machiwallas’ battle cry ringing in his ears Dar kept up the relentless pressure, drew level with Gardner. And when there were two yards left, overtook him at the winning post in a photo finish. That night we all ate Palla.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2016.