The bell rings; the flag drops; hurtling round the tracks in billows of dust come 4 or 5 ponies ridden at desperate speed and with savage concentration of fierce little jockeys, brilliantly liveried in scarlets and yellows, visors low over their eyes rocketing around the little track, as the crowd roar with excitement, until they shoot out of sight, with cheers, laughter, catcalls behind the grandstand and off the course. The Lebong races came to an end in the mid eighties bowing out to the political turmoil, which rocked the hills.
If you go out for an early morning stroll on the Mall in Darjeeling,
you are likely to find one stout and smart bespectacled 80-year-old man with a walking stick taking his morning rounds. His name is Dawa Tshering Bhotia popularly known as ‘Dawa Jockey.’ He is one of the two last surviving jockeys of the golden age of the fifties. The other man is Naswan Madan a soft-spoken person, proprietor of the Chowrasta stores and the previous owner of the Central Hotel. He rode horses for the glory and romance of racing.
The great Darjeeling classic the Governor’s Cup was the most coveted trophy in the races. Dawa had won it for five times which speak volumes of his professional competence and finesse. Dawa Tshering Bhotia is popularly known as ‘Dawa Jockey’. Comfortably placed in life he lives with his wife at Tungsung in Darjeeling. Mrs. Bhotia a great race enthusiast herself said that she had never missed a race in Lebong since childhood and knew every thing about horses and racing. They have been married for more than 60 years. His living room has a beautiful Chesam (Buddhist shrine), wall-to-wall carpeting, a pair of antique chairs and trophies made out of pure silver. Mrs. Bhotia said that there were so many silver trophies at one time that some of them were melted and made into ornaments for her children!
One should have heard the crowds roar when the horses went off the starting point, virtually all of Darjeeling used to be at Lebong reminisced an old timer. It was a place of astonishing cheerfulness a demographic jumble of Gorkhas, Tibetans, Lepchas, Bengalis, Biharis, Marwaris, elegantly dressed men and women, Rajas, Maharajas, Maharanies, Military Generals, Ministers, Governors and mind boggling crowds. Hundreds of people would saunter down C.R.Das road in colourful clothes with water bottles, tiffin carriers, umbrellas, babies and race cards. Punters propitiated the goddess of luck by putting coins in Gagris (copper vases) filled with water and flowers kept on the roadsides. Most of the people who walked down to Lebong were poor; they went there just for the fun of watching the races. On the Lebong Cart Road hordes of people took lifts on rickety Jeeps, Land Rovers, Austin A 40s and Ambassador cars squeezed like sardines excitedly talking about jockeys, horses and tips.
The Darjeeling Gymkhana Club organized two seasons for horse racing in May and June, October and November on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The principle race meeting was during the Puja holidays when there were four days of sports and events very keenly contested. Only small ponies were allowed to race, they were brought from Manipur, Imphal, Kalimpong and Tibet. There were several licensed bookmakers or bookies present in little stands besides the totalisators. Famous among them were Thompson, Awaaz, Chumbey, Ramchatti and others. The odds of each horse rose and fell depending upon the volume of the bet. The Lebong races were no different from its bigger counterparts of Bombay and Kolkata. Owners were often accused of rigging and lining their pockets. Everyone understood that ordinary bettors on the stands were taken for a ride on a horse destined to lose.
The Lebong racecourse had its share of revolutionary activity also. On the 8th of May 1934 a serious incident took place. Two revolutionaries Rabindra Nath Bannerjee and Bhawani Bhattacharjee who came all the way from Joydebpur, Dhaka and stayed at the Lowis Jubilee Sanitarium made an attempt on the life of John Anderson, Governor of Bengal. The attempt was made while the jockeys and horses were being led into the paddock after the Governor’s Cup Race. The attention of the security staff was centred on the paddock. No one noticed the two freedom fighters walk quietly up and open fire. Each one fired one shot each, both of them missed before they were over powered. Sgt. Coombs fired back and hit Bhawani wounding him while Rabindra’s automatic jammed after his first shot. The Police arrested both. The Governor escaped unhurt. Bhawani was sentenced to death, Rabindra to life imprisonment and five other associates were imprisoned for a long time. They are our heroes who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the country.
Dawa’s biggest moment in life came when he won the Governor’s Cup in 1952. The lineup included Hablung Rai. The nickname Hablung was given to him after Hopalong Cassidy the famous cowboy film star of the thirties who was also a skilled horseman. Hablung mispronounced by the local people for Hopalong was a jolly, stylish and a very musical man. Mrs. Bhotia fondly recalls that he was such a cheerful fellow he was eternally singing songs even in the midst of a nail biting finish. Tashi Dawa of Bhutia Busty owner of the celebrated horse Karutumba that won the Governor’s for three times feels that Hablung was undoubtedly the best jockey that ever rode on the Lebong turf. In the 1952 race Hablung was riding on Winsome his own horse, which was on trial. A good 3-lap horse but not good enough to win the 4 lap Governor’s Cup. Naswan Madan was riding on the highest rated horse Joyer owned by him, which was very mature, focused, and in peak form. Pratap was on the Deccan Queen owned by Shamshul. He was offered a top class job on the Calcutta Turf but he refused to leave Darjeeling. Buddhiman Rai another big name was on the Ban, Musey on Rana Pratap both owned by the Maharaja of Burdwan, N.B.Sena on Sky Pilot and Dawa on Canbocan owned by Chumbey Tshering. Canbocan was a horse with a lot of ability and class.
With Dawa’s fantastic memory it was not a difficult task to reconstruct the 1952 Classic. Several old timers all over 75 years vividly remembered the race with very few contradictions. The Governor’s Cup was a four-lap race.
The bell rang and they were away in racing. Pratap on the Deccan Queen took the lead followed by Buddhiman Rai on the Ban, Naswan Madan on the Joyner, Dawa on the Canbocan and others in a group. It was a rollicking pace. As they approached the 2nd lap Pratap and Buddhiman stretched ahead of the pack by a length or two, the gap was closed when Hablung on Winsome came rocketing through the inside and took the lead, for a time it seemed that Hablung would gobble them up. On the 3rd lap the lead changed hands for a short time when Pratap weaved his way from the inside. Naswan and Dawa were close behind running neck to neck, caught up, and went past Pratap.As they took the turn the bell rang for the last and final lap. Naswan took the initiative and forged ahead, Dawa responded and was close behind him. As they negotiated the last turn for the home straights Naswan was a neck ahead of Dawa, Dawa was half a length ahead of Pratap, Pratap was a full length ahead of Hablung who was followed tightly by others. Naswan was about to win when he suddenly slumped on his seat out of fatigue desynchronizing the momentum of his horse; Dawa reached home a shade ahead and won the race. It was a great day and super moment for Dawa who went down in history as a winner of a classic. It was one of his best performances, which was absolutely brilliant, and he never looked behind. The other four Governor Cups he won as a jockey were in 1957,1958,1960 and1962.
The Lebong racecourse was a limitless source for anecdotes. The late E.D.Avari who was the Chief Steward for quite a number of years once told me an account about the redoubtable Lakpa. He was a knowledgeable race goer who knew everything from timings of each horse, its form, internal rigging, could dissect the field in a jiffy, had the uncanny ability to pick the winners- yet was losing very heavily. In desperation he approached Mr. Avari who pointed out to some ladies who were doing
well. Lakpa leaned over and said politely. “You ladies have been doing quite well, haven’t you?” “Oh, yes,” they beamed, “We’ve won every race”. Lakpa looked around cautiously, and then whispered, “Would you mind giving me your system?” “Oh, we have a lot of systems,” said one twinkling. “Today, though, we are betting on the longest tails.” Laid out in 1885 as a Military Parade ground it was used as a racecourse right from the beginning for public entertainment. 8 kilometres from Darjeeling town it was claimed to be the smallest (438 metre lap), highest and the only anti- clockwise race course in the world because there was no space for the shootout on the clockwise run.
Sadly, the forlorn and dilapidated grandstand is now in a pitiable state, the roar of the crowds are no longer heard, the fanfare, glamour and gaiety have gone except for the occasional sound of a helicopter that lands on the helipad. Grim faced Army personnel fiercely man the gates in this age of Global Positioning System (GPS).
Tourists come to Darjeeling to see the Kanchenjunga, tea gardens, the culture and heritage of the people, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, the Mall, Victorian Architecture, Neo-Gothic structures, Tiger hill, Sandakphu, Phalut, Deolo, Kaffer, Eagle’s Craig and the Lover’s meet. One thing sorely missed is the races which forms a vital part of the circuit, a harmless form of entertainment, which brings so much happiness to the people as well as the tourists, a relic of the past. Only 10% of the people gamble, 20% is interested in lotteries, the rest 70% come just for the sake of fun like a football match.
Traditions are not forsaken; it is preserved and handed down, Darjeeling races merits a revival.