The origin of horse racing in Mauritius dates back to 1812. On the 25th of June that year, the first races were held at the Champ de Mars, heralding 200 years of competition between owners and stables almost non-stop even during the world wars of the 20th century.
The aim of the founders of the Mauritius Turf Club was to reconcile the French settlers with the English administration who had conquered the island in December 1810. They were convinced that the convivial atmosphere of horse racing would foster unity between the two communities and ensure social peace and harmony after years of fighting in the Indian Ocean. The new Governor, Sir Robert Farquhar and his wife of French origin, Maria Lautour, actively supported the organization of horse racing, the latter offering the first gold cup after the Club’s history to mark the occasion.
When he came to Mauritius Colonel Draper enthusiastically promoted horse racing at the Champ de Mars for some twenty years, racing his own thoroughbreds, often riding them in competition, to the point that he became known as the “Father” of the Mauritius Turf Club.
The main road leading to it is a landmark known to racing enthusiasts as “Rue Governement”, Champ de Mars racecourse is nestled at the foot of lovely hills. It is the oldest racecourse in the southern hemisphere and one of the oldest in the world.
In the 19th century, the only permanent boxes at the Champ de Mars were those reserved for the Governor, the Mayor of Port Louis and MTC officials. Temporary boxes were built and hired on the spot on race days, and over the years, new boxes were erected. In 1906 the MTC purchased a wooden house at 26, Pope Hennessy Street, Port Louis and it served as MTC offices for about forty years. Permanent stands were built in 1909 and they were improved in 1927, 1939 and 1954.
Another club, founded in 1904 by Raoul Gufflet, George Rougier Lagane and Willy Dawson, called the Mauritius Jockey Club (MJC), contributed to the development of horse racing. It organized race meetings at Mangalkhan, Floréal, from 1906 to 1943. On the outbreak of World War II, the Authorities requisitioned the racecourse. The MJC then held its meetings at Champ de Mars. In 1958 the two clubs merged. But the name Mauritius Turf Club was retained. The merger was beneficial to horse racing and paved the way for modernization.
The importation of horses goes back to 1836 when a few were acquired from Great Britain and South Africa and later, France and Australia. However, from 1960, onwards South Africa gradually becomes the main provider for reasons of proximity and cost. Between 12 and 18 horses were imported by the MTC every year and were attributed to stables by drawing of lots. Presently about 125 are imported every year on behalf of the Stables and owners. Almost all from South Africa.
The number of race meetings has kept increasing over the years. Nowadays, the racing season starts at the end of March and last until the first week end of December, closing with the International Jockeys’ Week End, marked by the participation of world class jockeys.
In the 19th century when racing was in the early stages of its development, horses entered for an event were transferred from the owners’ stables to Port Louis the day before and sometimes even on the race day itself. For better control training facilities were built next to the racecourse. The stables officially registered with the Mauritius Turf Club could use these facilities for training purposes. Traditionally, the Stables were named after the nominators or managers. At the beginning of the 20th century, about five stables were in competition. The oldest in Mauritius is the Gujadhur Stable which has been in existence for more than a century. From the mid 1980s, eight to ten stables were in competition and seven freelance trainers competed throughout the whole racing season. Today there are twelve stables and about 400 thoroughbreds compete during the racing season. At the end of their racing career in Mauritius, the horses are transferred to riding schools.
The Champ de Mars track follows a very selective right hand oval path. It is 1298m in circumference and 11m to 13m wide - it is a relatively small track. Races are run on distances from 990m to 2400m. The Draper’s Mile (1500m), was named after the “father” of the club who actively promoted horse-racing on the island. The track has been constantly improved since 1812 to offer horses a better galloping surface. A maximum capacity field of eleven horses is allowed to race on the track which is meticulously maintained to avoid any trauma to the horses, water retention is minimal even in periods of heavy summer rainfall. To provide race goers with adequate information about the track, a probe metering unit (penetrometer) gives the exact state of the track at all times.
New distances have been introduced in the last few years and the track has been modified accordingly. In 2008 the winning post has been moved some 25m so as to extend the home straight, It has also been widened.
The Training Tracks
To offer better training facilities in Port Louis, a sand exercise track and a trotting track were built inside the racing field. Traditionally, the training sessions in Port Louis start at 5.00 a.m. and end up around 7.30 a.m. Some 300 owners, journalists and racing goers regularly follow the training sessions. To accommodate a rapidly expanding racehorse population, the Guy Desmarais Training Centre was created in 1968 at Floréal. Nowadays, this training centre on the central plateau, where the climate is cooler than in Port Louis, offers 150 boxes to trainers and gentlemen riders who use these facilities to prepare their horses for the racing competition held at Champ de Mars or for pleasure.
Four “classic” and four “semi-classic” races are run each year during the racing season. Recently a few Group Races have been added to the list. The most popular event remains The Maiden Cup, tradionally run over 2400 metres. The first “classic” race of the season, the Duchess of York Cup, is held at the start of the racing season and is reserved for newly imported horses. “Classic” races draw large crowds to the Champ de Mars. However, over the past decade, the attendance has been declined. Only about 7,000 persons are now present at the Champ de Mars for the weekly meetings.
The MTC has been one of the first racing clubs in the world to install a photo-finish system in 1949. The camera was locally built and was replaced by a modern one in 2004.
The starting stalls were first used in 1962 to accommodate 8 runners and, since then, they have been upgraded to accommodate 11 runners. In 1985, an electronic weighing scale was introduced for better accuracy and reliability in terms of handicap weights. With a view to making the racing organisation more professional, security and control were improved over the past two decades. Blood samples are taken from all horses prior to their participation in a race for analysis. The winning horses’ blood and urine samples are analysed. A sample that is tested positive to any banned substance is sent overseas, for cross-check analysis. To further enhance control, the horses entered for an event are supervised in their respective stables 3 days prior to a race day. A surveillance team closely monitors the feed as well as nursing and training activities of the horses. For a closer monitoring of the races, cameras have been installed at strategic positions and offer multi-angle recordings of the races, thus enabling the stewards to better monitor the running of the races.
Rating and Handicap
Handicapping in Mauritian horse racing dates back to the 19th century. It consists in setting weights to race horses according to their recent performances, thus levelling chances. For many years such weights were indicated in stones and pounds in accordance with the British system. However, the metric system was adopted in 1981, and since then weights have been measured in kilos and distances in metres.
In 2005, in accordance with international norms, the rating system was introduced. Ever since, every racehorse is given a rating which is an indicator of its ability based on performances. Thus, races are organized for horses of more or less the same ability, with a view to enhancing the level of competition.
It is worth mentioning that a few races are run at weight-for-age, a worldwide common practice, especially those races which have become into “classics”.
Improved quality of the horses in competition
The significant increase in prize money and the high level of subsidy allocated to the Stables have enabled the latter to invest in quality horses and professional jockeys. Furthermore, the different championships, The Sprinters’, Milers’ and Stayers’ as well as The Three Year Old and Four Year Old ones, with high prize-money have prompted the Stables to better equip themselves for the competition.
Internal Organisation of the M.T.C
The Mauritius Turf Club and the Mauritius Jockey Club merged in 1958 and the membership base of the Club increased to 650. The membership structure is made up of five categories of members namely Life Members, Ordinary Members, Honorary Members, Non-Active Members and Members Residing Abroad. Six administrative stewards run the affairs of the Club. They are elected two at a time at an annual general assembly for a period of three years.
The stewards then appoint a Chairman among themselves. The stewards’ executive power and prerogatives are defined by the Club’s Constitution and the Rules of Racing. Furthermore, the Club’s Constitution makes provision for an Appeal Committee against the decisions of the Racing Stewards. This Committee is made up of five members nominated from a panel approved by the General Assembly. The Chairman of the appeal Committee must be a legally qualified member of the Club.
To assist the stewards in the running of the Club, the MTC employs a Secretary who also acts as General Manager, an Assistant-Secretary, a Treasurer and other personnel responsible for running the organisation. Overall, the MTC employs around 500 persons on its permanent establishment and an estimated 3000 indirectly.
Growing Influence of the Mauritian Jockeys and Apprentices
In the early 1980’s, the schooling of Mauritian riders was developed by the MTC, and by the end of that decade, two professional jockeys and a homogeneous group of apprentices were riding in competition. The gap separating the Mauritian jockeys and the foreign riders is significantly narrowing. The M.T.C is proud of its achievements in the training of Mauritian jockeys and apprentices who benefit from coaching at the South Africa Jockeys’ Academy. Some of the Mauritian jockeys and apprentices have had the opportunity to ride quite successfully in South Africa, England, Zimbabwe, M¬acau, Australia and India.
The Mauritius Turf Club is a member of the International Federation of Horse-Racing Authorities. As such it is the sole organiser of horse racing in Mauritius. The Federation holds its annual meeting in Paris in October at the time of the running of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
In 1997, at the 25th Conference of The Asian Racing Federation, The MTC became a member of the ARF. This Federation which is made up of 24 countries meets every two years and its Secretariat is located in Sydney.
Since the early stages of its development, horse racing in Mauritius has always been largely covered by the papers. The influence of the racing media has grown significantly. Since 1996 all racing events are broadcast live on the radio and on television. To cater for the need for detailed racing information in 1991, the MTC published ‘Racetime’, its own magazine, with a view to presenting an objective approach to racing in general and helping race-goers in their analysis.
The number of racing magazines, the extensive coverage of the local written press and the live broadcast both on the radio and television are a testimony to the popularity of horse racing in Mauritius.
The MTC has its own studio equipped with 16 cameras enabling races to be broadcast live in Mauritius and in South Africa through Tellytrack Channel. The Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation, in close collaboration with the MTC, also broadcasts every race meeting on its channels.
Over the years, betting at the races has become complex and widespread. Traditionally, betting was organised by bookmakers who offered win bets only. They had total freedom in the calculation and determination of the odds. Next to betting at the bookies, the public had access to various lotteries, based on the races’ results.
In 1991, the Tote System was introduced by The Automatic Systems Ltd (Supertote), and in 2006 Global Sports Ltd (Totelepep) started operating. Betting facilities at the racecourse are now well diversified to meet public demand. Numerous betting counters are today accessible allowing diversified bets. Moreover, in November 2011, the two tote operators have started ‘comingling’ their pools, which is bound to impact positively on their turnover and pay-outs.
Telephone betting was introduced on the Tote in 1994 and through bookmaker companies in 2002. Betting by means of mobile phones is now a common feature. However, Mauritian legislation does not yet allow internet betting.
Financial Situation and Related Data
The MTC derives its income from the following: bookmakers (41%), Tote (28%) tickets and programmes (6%) and Sponsorships (25%). The main expenses incurred by the Club are: prizes and subsidies (45%), maintenance of tracks and other racing costs (27%), wages and salaries (16%) and other general expenses (transport, insurance, taxes, upkeeping of buildings etc. (12%).
After an excellent start at the turn of the 21st century, the Government 2010 Budget dealt a serious blow to the finances of the MTC by increasing the betting tax. However, despite that negative measure, the MTC has managed to control its financial situation.