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Legendary horsetrainer Rashid Byramji, who scaled heights unparalleled in equine sport

By Harsh Thakor* 

Rashid Rustomji Byramji or RRB as he was known, passed away at home about two years ago -- on the morning of January 29, 2022.
It is sad or a great regret that sport of horse racing in India is hardly given recognition or publicity, with its galaxy of stars hardly been placed before the public eye by the media. After passing away, sadly, Byramji’s photo did not come on the front page of the newspapers, or was barely given coverage.
No Indian trainer has schooled as many equine superstars, won as many classics or championship, or had such a long tenure at the top. He virtually dawned a new epoch in Indian horse racing. The laurels Rashid Byramji’s brought to Indian racing in the equine arena are comparable in terms of merit to the achievements by great sportsmen or actors. He possibly deserves a place amongst the 100 best Indian achievers of all.
Byramji manifested the greatness or glamour of the sport of horse racing by elevating the quality of the Indian thoroughbred to another pedestal, who could now stand on the international map. He testified it was not all about gambling, but artistic skill, suspense and beauty in regions of the sublime. His monopoly reminded on of an emperor like Alexander, conquering race engulfing every Indian racing centre.
Byramji’s sheer genius in schooling horses left a deep bearing on my psyche from the age of 9.He treated and understood horses like his very own children. The sight of Byramji leading in a winner carves a permanent niche in my memories. He was an absolute taskmaster in devising the appropriate training schedule for each horse, understanding the complexities of factors like temperament, traits etc.
Byramji was the shrewdest judge of horse flesh. No one was more adept in evaluating conformation of the horse and the pedigree, and thus a knack for picking horses. He could also turn horses not so fashionably bred into champions. No one was more adept in fine tuning a horse for race, varying the training technique or schedule, respecting the varied characteristics of a horse.
There was a time when the mere presence of a Byramji horse in a race would be enough for trainers to withdraw their horses because they believed that it was next to impossible to pose any challenge to his horses in big events.
After six decades as a trainer and over 40-years at the top of his game age caught up, the passing of his beloved wife Dolly a few years ago hit him hard and he began to slacken. Dolly Nazir was his support system and the two of them were inseparable.
Byramji quit the sport only to pave way for the career of his son Darius to blossom, as a trainer. Otherwise he would have continued his reign at the top..
He left behind his son Darius, his daughter-in-law Parvati and a grandson in Kian. He is also survived by his sister Pilloo.

Legendary feats

No trainer anywhere in the world ever has or ever will dominate racing in a country as he did. He saddled 3,115 winners in his career and trained the winners of 228 Classics, 10 Indian Derbies [13 if one were to count the ones he was not allowed to formally saddle], 12 Indian Turf Invitation Cups, 10 Bangalore Summer Derbies that shows the level that he operated at. Byramji set parameters which are hard to visualise any Indian trainer coming close to let alone equal or surpass.
Byramji started his career under FK Irani, and his first winners were Volcanic and Bold Venture. In 1965 he trained his first classic winner, Radhapyari. In 1972 he won his first ever Indian Derby, with Prince Khartoum, owned by actor Sanjay Khan, and in 1974 won the race with Topmost.
Byramji from 1976-1978, won 3 consecutive Bangalore Derbies, Indian Derbies and Indian Turf Invitation Cups. It was feat unparalleled and probably never be equalled in Horse racing history. He also won 8 consecutive Indian classics. He also had an unprecedented sequence of 8 win starting from Commanche’s Indian Derby win 1976 to Reflect’s 1000 Guineas win in 1977-78.
Morally Byramji had a quadruple of wins in the Indian Derby from 1980-1983 with Mohawk, Track Lightning, Almanac and Nelston. However. his name was obliterated from the record books on technical grounds with the Royal Western Indian Turf Club stripping him of his licence.
After brief lull, in the mid 1980s, Byramji made a spectacular comeback like Muhammad Ali in a boxing ring, winning 3 consecutive Indian Derbies from 1993-95 with Astronomic, Little Over and Elusive Pimpernel in that chronological order, and the Invitation cups of 1993 and 1995.,with Adler and Elusive Pimpernel, respectively.
The only classic that eluded him, was ironically the Calcutta Derby. Appropriate, that his son, Darius, compensated for it, by winning this race many times.
It would be an appropriate step if he was formally co-credited with the Indian Derbies that were won in the names of his assistants when RWITC scrapped his licence license to train there. Its one of those wrongs that needs to be undone. He never complained at those Derbies that should rightfully have been credited in his name.
Byramji started training in 1956 and retired in 2017. His 61 year career is probably the longest on Indian Turf. He saddled 3115 winners during his career, the most by any trainer, winning 43 seasonal championships, the highest by any trainer. In 1975-76, he saddled 48 winners during the Mumbai Winter Season to break trainer SM Shah’s record of 42 winners established in 1969-70.
His 48 winners came in the season when 247 races were run at a percentage of 19.43. He trained 51 winners during the Bangalore Winter Season of 1981-82 and also 1991-92. The record still stands.He won the Winter Championship at his chosen centre for 20 consecutive years from 1970-71 to 1989-90;9 at Mumbai and 11 at Bangalore.
His tally of 228 Classics is unsurpassed. He has won a record number of 29 Indian Classics. He has trained 10 Indian Derby winners (including two hat-tricks), 2 Indian Turf Invitation Cup winners (including three hat-tricks, and 10 Derby Bangalore winners (including one hat-trick). He is the only trainer to have saddled winners of all the India Classics in one year. He did that with Reprint and Squanderer in 1975-76.
Byramji won eight consecutive Indian Classics starting with Commanche’s Indian Derby and ending with Reflect’s Indian 1000 Guineas. No other trainer has achieved that. He trained five horses (Prince Khartoum, Commanche, Squanderer, Manitou and Track Lightning) to win the Grand Treble of Derby Bangalore-Indian Derby-Indian Turf Invitation Cup. Some other trainers have achieved in once but not five times.
Byramji trained two unbeaten Classic winners in Adler and Continual. He has trained 15 winners of the President of India Gold Cup which is record. He has also saddled three horses – Commanche, Squanderer and Track Lightning-to win a unique quadruple of Derby Bangalore-Indian Derby-Indian Turf Invitation Cup-President of India Gold Cup.

Best jockeys

Most of Byramji’s classic and big race wins were achieved with late M Jagdish in the saddle .However,Byramji rated Vasant Shinde as the best jockey who ever sat on his horses.,followed closely by Aslam Kader.
Jagdish won 2 Indian Derbies and 2 Bangalore Derbies for Byramji astride Commanche and Squandereder. Byramji recalls how Shinde won races on Classic Story in the Indian St Leger in 1990 beating Desert Warrior and on Self Reliance in the South Indian St Leger, beating Nicolette, to dramatically turn the odds. Shinde rode 25 horse and smiled till the very end, never shirking work. In Byramji’s view, no rider in India, was ever a better judge of pace, executor of riding tactics or could understand a hose as well as Shinde.
Of foreign riders, Byramji placed British jockey Joe Mercer, at the forefront.

Best horses trained by Byramji

The memories of great racehorses trained by him still flash in my mind, like an inextinguishable lamp. Elusive Pimpernel, Squanderer, Adler and Continual took invincibility to transcendental heights, while Commanche, Sweet Memories, Everynsky and Manitou, donned the qualities of true champions.

Equine skill was taken to mythical heights when Squanderer won the RWITC Invitational in 1977, traversing an almost possible gap to hit the front, reminiscent of 360 degree turn in plot of an epic with character just jumped in .The manner he triumphed over any distance and against the best opposition was reminiscent of the dominance of a great emperor. Squanderer simply gave Indian racing new spectrum.
Squanderer won 18 of his 19 starts, incuding 9 consecutive wins. The manner he trounced his rivals as a 3 and 4 year old ,be it in the St Leger, Bangalore Derby, Ruia cup or RWITC Invitational, set up new parameters for equine achievements.Squanderer became the 1st horse to win the invitation cup capping the triple crown. Squanderers acceleration was reminiscent of colt travelling double the speed of his opponents.
The ridiculous ease with which Adler overpowered his rivals in the 2000 Guineas and St Legerin 1992-93 season, reminded one of an invincible Olympian, bestowing grace of a Rolls Royce car swan swimming. Sadly,a shoulder injury hindered his performance. Never seen an Indian colt toy with his rivals to such an extent in classic, in India, or cruise or sail away as effortlessly till then.
Elusive Pimpernel, in terms of versatility, level of supremacy and tenure at the top, even overshadowed Squanderer. The equine superstar raced in 5 different centres in the latter part of his career, breaking all 5 track records.
Retired as a six-year old after 22 glorious wins from 23 starts including The 1995 Indian Derby (Gr.I), The 1994 Indian 2000 Guineas (Gr.I), The Indian Turf Invitation Cup, President of India Gold Cup (Gr.I) and Nizam's Gold Cup (Gr.II) twice, Mysore Derby (Gr. I), Bangalore 2000 Guineas (Gr.I), RWITC Invitational Trophy (Gr.II), Eclipse Stakes of India (Gr.II) and many other premier events. It is poignant that although Elusive Pimpernel was the winner of 22 races he was not a Triple Crown winner.
However, marred his record marginally, by losing to a class II filly, Consequence (46 kg.) in The Idar Gold Trophy (1995) in which he failed to carry the heavy impost of 63 kg’s. and was victim of rider’s complacency at the finish, who pulled him up, oblivious of the situation.
Till his career was sadly terminated due to an accident in early 1999, Continual was arguably the most talented Indian racehorse ever. He captured the 2000 Guineas and Ramnivas Ruia cup in 1998-99, treating opponents like tossed leaves.
Commanche had the distinction of being the first millionare and earned the tag of ‘truly great’, with a most meritorious win in the 1976 Indian Turf Invitation. by a 5 length margin.cup, capping his victories in the Bangalore and Indian Derby..Byramji rated him his most well behaved horse. He proved himself to be a true stayer, when winning the1976 St Leger(2800 metres).
In terms of average winning distance. Manitou oustripped any great middle distance champion, winning the Indian Derby by a record 10 lengths and the bicentenary cup by 9. Unfortunately, he failed to stay the gruelling distance of the St Leger ,and was also beaten in the 2000 Guines.
Although beaten in the Indian Derby, Everynsky won the Bangalore Derby, Invitation cup and St.Leger and also had the distinction of conquering the all mighty Royal Tern, in the President of India Gold cup. Blessed with ability to stay.
Byramji trained star fillies like Reprint who won the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks, and Sweet Memories who emerged the champion older horses in 1975but his best ever filly was Camineto,who he revived from dire straits to reach glory. in the RWITC Invitational.
In order of Merit Byrmaji rates Elusive Pimple,Squanderer,Adler and Commanche as the best ever horses, he has trained.

Approach to training

Byramji trained horses for a multiple set of winners -- the Dagas, Maharaja of Kolhapur, the Khataus, JP Goenka, Ranjit Bhat, Dr MAM Ramaswamy, the Khiatans and Vijay Mallya. He attributed his glorious career to top class and non-interfering owners, who became lifelong friends.
He was very conventional or orthodox in his training methods. I doubt anyone else inspected their horses as frequently and judiciously as he did and that is one thing that distinguished him from the rest. Dedication, discipline and plain old hard work, comprised his character, in addition to inborn genius.
I have vivid memories of him at 5.30 on Mahalaxmi setting and monitoring the trackwork of his wards. When glancing at his wards galloping, he resembled man in meditation, able to detect the most minute flaw. No Indian trainer could as judiciously or creatively assign required gallops, have better insights into trackwork or judge the fitness of a racehorse.Byramji mastered the art of never over working a racehorse and enabling it to peak, just when the time ordered.
If one was to ask his contemporaries they would say that to offer any potent challenge against him they had to elevate their own game by two classes.
On race days after monitoring the bits and bridles and equipment of every runner followed up by trotting-up each horse, he would then say a prayer in his office which was followed by Prasad.. His greatest gift was the ability to keep learning. If even a chit of would suggest something to him about a horse he would think about it, process it and then if it made sense implement it.
Quoting former champion jockey Aslam Kader, “His ability to judge horses was sheer genius.He would force me to ride horses against my judgement and they would invariably win.He never ever betrayed his jockey and he is one of the finest persons I worked for.”
In Vasant Shinde’s and Pesi Shroff’s opinion Byramji was a wonderful human being. Jockey M Jagdish praised the humility with which Byramji worked with him as a team and treated him like an equal. as well as accepted explanations when he rode contrary to the instructions.
Late owner Deepak Khaitan expressed how Byramji could preserve a racehorse at it’s peak like on other trainer.Son Darius stated that his father could diagnose a problem before it sprung up, while colleague Dallas Toddywalla praised Byramji’s complete transparency and patience, having nothing to hide.

Personal qualities and views

Byramji was a diehard taskmaster, when he got angry he threw a strong fit of temper. Using terms like. 'What do you think we're doing here? Cutting grass?' Or the word, 'Hajjaam' was used frequently but once he communicated his point he would cool down back to normal in no time.
His exit from RWITC and his decision to shift base to Bangalore came at a time when Bangalore Turf Club was setting up as a full-fledged racing centre, not just a summer base and his presence gave credibility to Bangalore. Many of his Western India based owners moved along with him and that gave Bangalore a boost.
He expressed compassion to his not-so-well-off colleagues, would humbly help them when they were in need, a bag of feed, a little monetary help without ever asking for any favour in return besides giving consultation when asked for. Not many would know that he often paid for the last rites of those who were less fortunate.
Men who toil so hard and are accustomed to such a regimented life find life an anti-climax post retirement .It was always nice to see him encouraging the trainers on race-days post retirement. He once pulled Arjun Mangalorkar aside and told him. "That boy of yours, Anthony is top class, give him more chances". His words came true.
Byramji felt that it was imperative for Indian breeding to induct more speed in their horses Byramji had kind praise for the current generation of trainers, justifying the best of technological solutions to benefit a horse. He strongly gave advice to profess virtues of loyalty to the owners, in order to prosper.
In Byramji’s view the sport is deteriorating, in every aspect, from the steward’s room, to the syces, to the horses, inspite of better technology. He felt that in earlier times horses were more consistent and better turned out.and you would not see a horse’s ankle on the track.
In his view, today racing has lost it’s social prestige and turned only into a commercial or money game. In an interview he contrasted the sport from his heydays to today.Byramji summarised the complete transformation in training methods and attitude of owners. He expressed strongly how horse racing was completely transformed sport, with owners expecting results overnight.
On retiring Byramji said, “I have been so passionate about horse racing that I cannot imagine myself without being at the race track every morning. Even though I am retiring, I will be a regular presence at the race course without the attendant pressures of training the top-class horses.”
---
*Freelance journalist. Sources: Teghbir Brar in indiarace.com and "Racing World" issue of 2004

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