Resumption of Kambala: Barefoot jockeys get new lease of life!

By John B Monteiro

Mangaluru, Dec 16: While the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi joyously celebrate the relief given by the Karnataka High Court Bench, headed by Justice Abdul Nazeer, allowing the resumption of Kambala buffalo racing, earlier banned by the two district administrations at the instance of animal husbandry department, one constituency of Kambala had been neglected and needs to be highlighted – bringing it upfront. The new judgment is centred on eliminating violence in buffalo racing with the taluk administration mandated to be present at the venue to ensure violence-free racing. This brings into sharp focus the critical role of racers in ensuring violence-free racing and, thus, ensuring compliance with the court order allowing Kambalas.

In the raging controversy over the abolition of buffalo racing and prior to the latest High Court order allowing resumption of racing subject to conditions noted above, there is a complete black-out of news about the fate of 100-odd champion racers who were hitherto the unsung faceless heroes of buffalo racing. Barefoot doctors have been in the news now and then; but barefoot jockeys are not even noticed at buffalo races. On the other hand, jockeys riding race horses even make it to the front pages of newspapers in the case of major prestige cups like Derbys and appear routinely on sports pages. The horse jockey proudly remains mounted on his winning steed, while the owner and trainer walk on either side of the horse at the end of the race. He is dressed like a Roman soldier with leather shoes and safety helmet.

On the other hand, the barefoot jockey, prodding the buffaloes to run fast and himself running after them, keeping his link with them, wears only a loin cloth. While the horse jockey sits erect on his mount at the finishing line, the barefoot jockey, at the end of the race, manages to stagger away and lie on the ground exhausted. He is left alone with the racing team concentrating on controlling the buffaloes and leading them away for rest. After the race is over the barefoot jockey is a forgotten entity.

The horse jockey has to be light so that his mount has less weight to carry while racing. On the other hand the barefoot jockey’s weight is his own problem as long as he can run matching the speed of his buffaloes. He comes from the hardy rural agricultural stock with full of strength and stamina. Whereas the horse jockey is high on social contacts and much courted (for tips for punters from the horse’s mouth), the barefoot jockey retreats to his daily chores on his farmstead. While the horse jockey could be a manipulator and could fix his race, the barefoot jockey is a simple soul who runs for prestige and honour. While the horse jockey makes lakhs of rupees per season as mounting fees (and may be much more through tips and race-fixing), the barefoot jockey runs for a pittance. (Incidentally, while pro-buffalo racers claim long traditions of racing in Tulunadu, formal horse-racing in India started in Madras in 1777.)

Such pittance for barefoot jockeys was in the past. Things were changing for the better on the racing scene and the barefoot jockeys came into focus few years ago for a new reason. This concerned whipping of buffaloes during races. The activists of cruelty against animals have targeted whipping of racing animals. Headed by Maneka Gandhi, with the weight of her past ministerial position and as head honcho of official animal welfare network, she had succeeded in impacting horse racing as far as whipping is concerned. It was easy because urban-based horse racing has high visibility and media support for the activists to whip up animal cruelty projection. Also, in horse racing stakes are high and a threat to stop racing works magic.

But, buffalo racing is a different ball game. It is held in rural setting and has wide acceptance and support as a folk sport of Tulunadu, with some religious rituals attached to it. That is the traditional (Sampradayika) racing which is now overshadowed by modern (adunika) racing which also includes day and night sessions. (One sampradayika race in the heart of Mangaluru city, Kadri Kambla, became a victim of real estate development, as part of the racing field is now hosting a high-rise building under construction). While traditionally tender coconuts and bananas bunches and, occasionally, gold plated silver medals were the coveted prizes, now gold medals are a regular feature. And there is heavy betting, with even internet and mobiles in the picture, with the involvement of hotel and bar owners from Mumbai and Bangalore. They also enter buffaloes for racing.

This had lifted the status and fortunes of barefoot jockeys who are now retained for a season paying Rs. 40000 / 50000 and in some cases even a lakh of rupees. Additionally, for each race run, the barefoot jockey gets Rs. 500 /1000 or more (the monetary figures are a bit dated and are now likely to be upgraded to catch up with inflation). Once the race is over the barefoot jockey goes back to his normal work, mainly farm-related. Incidentally, some barefoot jockeys are retained on an exclusive basis whereas in some cases they are allowed to run free-lance if the owner does not enter a particular race.

Barefoot jockeys graduate from ploughing. Youngsters who plough the field, at the end of their labour try racing the buffaloes in large (long) fields. Thus, talent is discovered and nurtured. There are about 100-plus barefoot jockeys in Tulunadu of whom 10% are super or senior jockeys who handle rope (Hagga) races. In this race the buffaloes cover a 200-metre stretch in under 13 seconds. (Thanks to the late Mr. Balakrisna Shetty of Kadri Kambla fame and Dr. Jeevandhar Ballal, an ace on the Kambala scene, for briefing)

The other reason for barefoot jockeys to come into focus is the ban on whipping. Racing officials have gone out of their way to impress upon the barefoot jockeys to refrain from whipping with threats of fine and ban from racing. According to Dr. Jeevandhar Ballal, a leading light in the racing field and conductor of the noted Baradi Beedu races, whipping had come down in the last decade by 70% at the starting and ending points. With the still cameras and videos, whipping can be easily tracked and defaulters brought to justice. But old habits die hard. It is said that as the race is announced and as the buffaloes start from their resting points, some barefoot jockeys whip the animals on the way to the starting points – beyond the view of spectators and cameras who/which are concentrated at the finishing point (Manjotti). They believe that such whipping makes the animals angry and make them run faster even if they are not whipped in the course of the race.

Some day barefoot jockeys could have discarded their loin cloth (Mundu) in favour of the more comfortable half pants or Bermudas. But, they will remain barefoot jockeys because one can’t imagine running in the slushy field with any kind of footwear. But now, even half-pants or Bermudas were about to lose relevance till the latest High Court relief.

Bets on Jockeys!

It is a pity that buffalo-racing and barefoot jockeys were set to fade out. Even barefoot jockeys could now emerge as subjects of betting as in the case of racing horse jockeys. The Jockey Challenge in horse racing occurs when punters choose their favourite jockey who they believe will be the most successful rider at a particular race meeting or over a carnival series of meetings. The winner is based on the greatest number of points that accumulate over the meeting or meetings: 3 points for a first place; 2 points for a second place;1 point for a third place.

For instance, the Hong Kong Jockey club launched its own version of Jockey Challenge for the Hong Kong market on 20 April 2008. In doing so, the Club broke more than a century of tradition by offering Jockey Challenge as a fixed odds bet type. For each Jockey Challenge coupon, there are 14 selections to be picked from - 13 individual jockeys and a 14th category called "Others". Should any jockey other than the first 13 individuals win the challenge at a given meeting, the punter backing number 14 ("Others") will have a winning ticket.

Jockeys will earn:12 points for a win;6 points for second; and 4 points for third in each of the races on the programme. No points are earned for any other placings. The jockey with the greatest number of points at the end of the day is the winner.

From 16 November 2008, Jockey Challenge was also available as an "inplay" bet type. This means that punters could place bets up to the half way point of a race meeting, with the odds adjusted to reflect the winning chance of each individual selection throughout the day.

Will Tulunadu barefoot jockeys emerge as subjects of betting? Before that happens they better be careful about eliminating violence in Kambala and save it from the powerful animal welfare lobbyists.

Author and journalist, John B Monteiro’s latest book, Corruption – India’s Painful Crawl to Lokpal, is published in USA ($ 21.5) and is available online from Amazon and other major online distributors.



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Comment on this article

  • Wilson, Manglore / dubai

    Sat, Dec 20 2014

    If 200 meters is covered in 13 seconds as mentioned then it should make the barefooted jockeys world class athletes cause 100 my sprint world record is about 9.8 seconds
    Why nobody has encouraged the buffalo jockey s in this issue

    DisAgree Agree [2] Reply Report Abuse

  • Ismail, Moodbidri

    Tue, Dec 16 2014

    Nice to hear this news.
    Thank you Mr. John B Monteiro for providing full information about "Kambla".

    DisAgree [3] Agree [12] Reply Report Abuse

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