Horse racing then was a gamble and recreation
Cotton Hall, Sukaab our champion horses

by R. L. Fernando
This story will take many back to the times when horse racing better known as the ‘Sport of The Kings’ was one of the major sports in the country. The period referred to by the writer is from around, the mid, forties till the sport was done away around the mid-sixties.

The country was then proud of its three race courses namely the Havelock Course in Colombo, the Boossa Course in Galle and the Nuwara Eliya Course. Of them, only the one in Nuwara Eliya still exists and many thanks go out to the able and active members of the Sri Lanka Turf Club (SLTC) who have made it possible.

3 major trophies

Racing meets were held the year round. The three major trophies then offered were the Governor’s Cup (Subsequently the Governor General’s Cup and later the President’s Cup) which was the Blue Riband in Colombo, the Governor’s Plate the Blue Riband in Nuwara Eliya and the Governor’s Bowl the Blue Riband in Galle. In Colombo in addition to its Blue Riband (named above) was the Robert’s Cup which was the Blue Riband for Class one arabs run on Ladies Day.

In addition to the foreign owners who had their string of animals (to mention a few C. A. Laing a well known planter, Captain Fenwick also in similar capacity and Hans Van Starrex) there were the well known local owners who excelled in every way. To name a few of them there were C. Wijesinghe, P. Samsudeen, the Amarasuriya Brothers Thomas, Francis, Henry and Buddy (who excelled especially in their home town Galle), Sir Chittampalam A. Gardiner, C. Sathanathan and his wife Sheila Sathanathan, Mallory Wijesinghe, M. Abdul Cader, S. H. Moosafee and his sons Asker Moosajee, Vernon Rajapakse, L. S. B. Perera, G. B. S. Gomes, Donovan Andree and his wife Erin de Selfa, Robert Senanayake, S. R. de Silva, K. Adamally, O. E. Goonatilike and several others who are too many to mention.

Animal lover

A special mention should be made to Capt. Fenwick who could be called a lover of animals. I would remember one instance where a horse during a race had stalled along the Channer Straight and stood on three legs. The Course Vet who had examined the animal had declared that it had broken one of its fetlocks and the next stage was to destroy the animal forthwith. But Capt. Fenwick who was on the spot in a flash had taken over the animal and transported it to his estate in the up-country. The Capt had given the animal native treatment and after about six months had given the animal his exercises on the estate and one day entered him in a race under the new name of Broken Shaft. None of the punters present that day knew anything about the horse as to their surprise the animal won that particular race in a canter and paid out nourishing odds on the totes. That was Capt. Fenwick.


We then come to the trainers who dominated then and among them were G. N. G. Walles, A. Selvaratnam and his son Renga Selvaratnam, Aldrige, Medhi Hussein, Fred Marrs, Samaraweera etc. There were also lesser known owners who also trained their animals. Several owners ran their horses by declaring their names in non de plumes. Among them were G. N. G. Walles (under Mr. Douglas) and Robert Senanayake (under Mr. Aries).

The Havelock Race Course was 1 1/4 miles in circumference and named as one of the best in Asia by several (including foreigners who visited it). When the present Queen of England and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh visited our isle for the first time in 1952 during the premiership of Sir John Kotalawela, to honour the Royal Couple the Stewards of the course headed by W. B. Bartleet organised two special races the Queen’s Cup run over 1 1/2 miles (for throughbreds in Class I) and the Duke of Edinburgh Cup (for Arabs in Class I).

Champion jockeys

The Sri Lankan punters had the privilege of seeing many champion jockeys (both from abroad and here) in action. The jockeys were retained by the owners and their trainers. Len Sawyer rode for Sir Gardiner and the Selvaratnam duo, Jimmy Rooks for the Wallace Yard, Gilbert Parsons for Aldrige, Norman whiteside for the Rajapakse Yard, Ted Fordyce and John Harbutt for the Selvaratnam yard. There were also the Smith Brothers (Frank and Alphie), Chnese T. Doon, Jack Raffaele (called the King of the Arabs) who gave Dr. Nihal Gunasekera a great success on his arabs, the father and son combination of H. W. and J. W. Spackman, S. Lovekin, Athol Mulley, John Mullane, Reg Cook (who rode that famous Arab Sukaab to victory on several occasions). J. O’Sullivan, Eric Eldin (who latterly rode in England,) Jewish rider Jappath, the Eude Brothers (Marcel and Roger both Frenchman), D. Hanley Albert Orme, R. Swinton and many more.

Two record feats

Punters would remember the feats by Ted Fordyce and John Harbutt. At one Colombo meet Fordyce booted home 7 winners of the 8 races on the card (the 1st race being for riding boys and apprentices claiming allowances). The record stood for about a month till Harbutt equalled it despite, Fordyce being in the saddle that day.

Equally efficient as the foreign riders were our very own products. Leading the lot was Don Benjamin, followed by Samaranayake, Kannangara, Kanakeratne, Bulathsinhala Brothers, A. P. Perera, Mohideen, Nandasara, the Silva Brothers (Willie, Benny and George) etc. Most of them booted home several winners, but what failed them from going far were the then bookmakers who held control over them.

Bookies then raided

During that time the bookmakers in the country were numerous, and bets were also being accepted on racing in India. But that was illegal and subjected to often raids by the police. Then racing was held in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Poona, Ootacamund (Ooty), Mysore and Secundrabad.

Indian jockeys rode here

Many Indian jockeys also were brought down by our owners and trainers to ride here. Among them were Mull Singh, Purtu Singh, Kheem Singh, S. Chavan (who had the honour of riding Ceylon’s Champion horse to date "Cotton Hall" owned by T. G. Francis. The four named had ridden the champion in the Governor’s Cup and A. E. de Silva Cup (the then marathon run over 1 mile and 6 furlongs) to victory. What was strange in Cotton Hall was that it was a poor starter and was very often left at the gate and only started after the other horses had covered about a furlong. Cotton Hall would while away his time in the rear of the field before starting his challenge about four furlongs from home (from near the Queens Club) and overall his rivals to win in impressive fashion. He was also the punters favourite and when it heard the shout "Come on Cotton Hall down the Channer Straight he would prick his ears up and just canter away.

Cotton Hall a human being

The four Indian jockeys when interviewed by that popular radio compere. Duke Wright had said that they had-no need to use the whip on him at all. They only guided him and his finishes were electrifying.

At the Havelock Race Course punters were accommodated in three enclosures — "1) the Grandstand (tagged at Rs. 10/- on cup days and Rs. 5/- on ordinary days) (2) the Second Enclosure which was situated next to the Grandstand (tagged at Rs. 5/- on cup days and Rs. 2/50 on ordinary days and the ever popular Gandhi Side which was situated opposite (1) and (2) on the open side of the course. (1) and (2) had one totalisator while (3) had its own one.

Doubles and treble

On every race day at the course punters had the opportunity of tucking on the 1st Double (races 2 & 3), 2nd Double (races 6 & 7) and the Course Treble (races 3, 5, & 7). Each of those bets cost Rs. 2/- only (which could have been straight or even combined). There was also a record treble (3 strength numbers, not a combination) of Rs. 97,000 which was paid out on one lucky ticket. I would remember the last leg of that treble being won by a Class III thoroughbred named ‘Air Ceylon’ ridden by jockey Wijesinghe and owned by C. Wijesinghe which paid a record win dividend of Rs. 1007/- for Rs. 10/-. There was no limit to a treble on the course.

Bets with bookmakers

As in the race course betting on trebles were also accepted by bookies. But there were limitations to the payments. A limit of Rs. 50/- on a -/10 cts Treble, Rs. 150/- for a Rs. 1/- treble and Rs. 250/- for a Rs. 2/- treble.

All ons (accumulated bets on horses were also accepted). The minimum bet was -/50 cts, while there was no maximum. But the payments made to punters were subjected to limits as paid today in bookies on English, French, German, Irish and Italian racing.

Sukaab the champ arab

Last but not least the champion arab to run on Lankan soil was Sukaab who was rated of the best weight carrier and could have even won with a race course on its back.

The big question is will those days come again?

In addition to being a gamble on a race day, many office workers (on their Saturday off day) used to work in the course for a wage of Rs. 15/- (which was then big money).