9th April 2000
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The sport of kings and commoners

With the Nuwara Eliya races from April 12 to 17, Jith Pieris looks at the history of racing and breeding 

At the races: grace, strength and speedIn prehistoric times, wild horses roamed all over Europe and Asia, but today only a few survive in a remote area in Mongolia. Horses range from the tiny Argentinian Fallabella pony which is under 70 centimetres (28 inches) tall to the giant English Shire draught horse, one of the world's strongest animals.

The horse is an example of grace, strength and speed. It is sheer beauty, whether it trots slowly in a rhythmic motion, glides seemingly effortlessly over hurdles or gallops at a furious pace. Their well-toned muscles rippling under glossy skin is the epitome of a wonderful blend of power and beauty. Horses are known for their loyalty too and they are not far behind as man's best friend, as horse lovers will readily testify.

Horses were first domesticated 5,000 years ago and now there about 300 breeds in the world. These noble beasts are used as beasts of burden, a form of transport or for one of the most exciting sports of modern times.

Breeding race horses has indeed come a long way today. This high stake enterprise combines prestige, money, thrill and glamour. Even the annual showing of foals is a mega social event and yearlings (year-old foals ready for the race circuit) are paraded much like models. Only the ramp is substituted by perfectly manicured grass. As socialite gentlemen and ladies nibble at their cheese and sip their wine, high-spirited colts and fillies go through perfect motions. 

The most important requisite for a stud farm is that it must have a good bloodline. Horse breeding is a game of genetics. Hence, the supremo on a stud farm is the stallion. 

In fact, so prized is the stallion that to protect it from psychological and physical hurt, in the event of a mare rejecting its amorous advances (a mare can kick pretty hard) a decoy, usually a mule is used to test her moods. 

The mule (known as the "teaser") has the worst job on the stud farm. He is tied in the field and all the mares are led past him to test if a particular mare is ready to breed.

A mare in heat will accept the mule's advances. If she is not ready, she will kick him off. 

Once the groom knows that a particular mare is ready, the mule will be exchanged for the stallion. 

Top race horses, like professional tennis players and golfers are now travelling mercenaries looking for rich pickings from the world's major races: The Dubai World Cup, the Arc de Triomphe, the Breeders' Cup of America, the Kentucky Derby, The Epsom Derby, the Royal Ascot, the Melbourne Cup and the Newest Blue Ribboned event, and the Singapore Airlines International Cup. 

The Dubai World Cup which is run at night and sponsored by Emirates Airlines has the highest prize in modern racing; US$6 million. Prestige lures fabulously wealthy owners like the Al Maktoums and the British royal family to gallop their best horses around the world. If the winner of a top race is a colt, his stud value increases immeasurably. According to leading breeders the winner of the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe can probably lay claim to being the most desirable stallion in the world. 

Some top winners of this great race have been horses belonging to the Queen Mother. The 1995 winner 'Lammtarra' was sold to a Japanese buyer for US$30 million. The American horse 'Cigar', winner of the inaugural 1995 Dubai World Cup and the biggest prize money in history was to be bought by the Irish-based Colmore stud farm until a veterinary test found the horse infertile.

The sport of kings has not lost its fascination over the centuries, but in Sri Lanka it has the added attraction of not losing the common touch. 

We have come full circle from 50 years ago when 300 thoroughbred horses showed their paces in Colombo, Galle and Nuwara Eliya. Though racing as a sport was lost for some time, our natural ingenuity gave an impetus to another avenue of growth - the upgrading of the Delft pony. 

The lack of thoroughbreds did not retard the enjoyment of equestrian sport, as over the last few decades the ponies of Nuwara Eliya, Chilaw and Anuradhapura trained as excellent performers on the track. This has proved to be very rewarding to the humble "pony boy" who otherwise earns his living offering rides to holiday visitors. 

Enterprising horse lovers have gone a step further-crossing a thoroughbred horse with an indigenous pony and developing half-bred and the three-quarter bred ponies. Some breeders have also advanced still more in producing local thoroughbred horses. 

Today, however, owners have realised that it is the sound of the thoroughbred hooves pounding the turf that generates excitement. So, many have imported horses from India to revive the racing industry and improve breeding, which would also provide a source of employment in Sri Lanka. 

Ascot Time 

It's that time of year in Nuwara Eliya when the wind is crisp and holiday makers flock to the town to take in not only the flowers but also the horses. And among the many attractions on 'Governor's Cup Day' (April 14) will be 'It's Ascot Time' to revive memories of yesteryear. They will include the selection of the most innovative hat in keeping with the traditions of the Ascot opening day. The other competitions are:

* The Most Elegantly Dressed Lady (With an Ascot flavour)

* The Dapper Gentleman (in true turf flavour)

* The Snazziest "Colt"

* The Trendiest "Filly"

Winners will receive prizes courtesy of SriLankan Airlines.

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