A scene at the tote windows and you’ll find myriad expressions on the faces of the punters who form the backbone of horse racing in India. Some ecstatic with joy at the result of the race, some wringing their hair in despair and others already perusing the race card for the next scheduled race.
Hailed as the ‘Sport of Kings’, the highs and lows offered by horse racing are indescribable and can only be experienced. In India, it is the only sport where you can bet on a race with as little as Rs 5 and still reap a windfall provided your handicapping skills are good or if lady luck smiles on you. And there are a plethora of options in the form of a ‘Forecast, Quinnela, Tanala, and Jackpot’ etc where the payoff increases if you are clever enough to predict the outcome of the race involving more than just the winner. And it is precisely this huge variety offered to the punters at virtually negligible barriers of entry that has made people from all walks of life queue up at the tote windows.
Lives have been made at the race track and lives have been lost. But even those who have gone broke would agree with this line from a Bob Dylan song, ‘I’m lookin’ forward to when I can do it all again.’ Yet, even the most avid race-goer now feels short-charged at the new tax regime imposed on racing as it affects him as the end user.
Mohsin, a mechanic at Dilsukhnagar has been going to the races for the last 15 years.
“Aaj kal bhaav hi nahin mil raha bhai. Favourite maar raha tho 6 ya 7 rupay de raha hai aur sau rupay se upar dabba to gum ho gaye. Pehle aisa nahi tha. Favorite maara tho bhi das rupay se jyaada bhaav tha. Ab tho Jeetke bhi har rahe apun. (We are not getting good odds anymore. If the favourite wins, they are paying Rs 6 or Rs 7 (For a Rs 5 wager) and long-shots winning at more than Rs 100 have disappeared now. Earlier, it wasn’t like this. Even when the favourite won, we used to get decent odds. No we end up on the losing side even after picking a couple of winners.
What Mohsin unwittingly referred to is the direct outcome of the GST effect. The entire money bet by the punters is pooled and the race club takes out its percentage from it and other allied taxes and spreads the remaining amount among the winning punters. This is called the parimutuel system. Naturally, a higher taxation would mean a lower benefit to the winners.
Also speaking out against the GST rates imposed on horse racing is prominent handicapper and racing correspondent Prakash Gosavi. “The decision by the Finance Minister is absolutely insane. He is totally clueless. The sport is already in its death throes and levying 28 percent tax in the form of GST is the final nail in the coffin. This is a sport subsidised by the punters. What is the incentive for them to patronise horse racing anymore? If I go to the race club and bet a thousand bucks apiece on ten races, I am shelling out Rs 2800 in the form of tax irrespective of whether I won or lost. No one can take this kind of unfair taxation and continue to frequent the tracks.
Eventually, everyone will lose: Punters, race horse owners and the race clubs. The government will also lose as this will lead to a huge spurt in the number of illegal bookmakers. Every sport in the world including horse racing has a lobby that fights for and protects the interests of the sport. But the race clubs in India have miserably failed in fighting for the interests of the punters,” says Prakash.
However, Nirmal Prasad, Chief Operating Officer of the Hyderabad Race Club refutes Prakash’s contention of inaction on the part of the clubs. “That’s not true; we have been meeting government officials and making various representations. This is a continuous process. Every club is affected by GST and there is a consensus about the fact that we have to fight unitedly. On our part, Hyderabad Race Club has been keeping its takeout at an absolute minimum; nevertheless, the GST is indeed affecting the punters. We are trying our best to protect the interests of the sport, let there be no doubt about it,” says Prasad.
Demonetisation has also played its part in denting the appeal of the sport. “I don’t bet like I used to earlier as the cash availability is limited now. I cannot keep making umpteen trips to the bank every time to withdraw money,” says Pradeep Sharma, a high-roller from Jubilee Hills. And this is a pinch that all punters are feeling which is ultimately reflecting on the revenues of the race clubs. Earlier, good centres like Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai used to frame a 9-race card regularly. Now, it’s just a 6 or 7 race card with some of the races having only 3 or 4 entries.
Indeed, it is debatable if there is a concerted effort to make the sport appealing to its patrons, once again as the clubs are caught up in their own internal squabbles and track priorities take a back seat over boardroom politics. But the sport still goes on pretty much like a horse with a broken blood vessel and that is entirely due to the faithful punters. They have never let the sport down. Will the clubs for once at least repay them for their loyalty by bringing in a fair and transparent system of racing that will put the punter at the centre? If only they would!#KhabarLive