Wednesday, May 24, 2017

HoofMarks: The unfinished story of a maharaja's hoof-themed jockey scale

Image ©SujithPhotography - Sujith Nair

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, horseracing was as full of beauty and tradition and artistry as it was at the finest racetracks of Europe. Racing truly is the sport of kings...and sheikhs and shahs and sultans.

Not to mention maharajas.

Racetracks were where royalty entertained and were seen out in the open by their subjects. It was where their horses won--or lost--when pitted against the steeds of mere mortal men. Great care was taken with the adornment of racetracks.

At one royal racecourse, artistry permeated the place, right down to the scales to weigh the jockey after the race. This story has never been told, and it is still unfolding.

This artistic jockey scale can be found in Bangalore Palace in India; the palace is open to the public and artifacts from the heyday of horseracing there are prominently featured in the museum.

The magnificent palace is an anachronism. True, it took over 80 years to be built but it does not date back to the ancient history of the Indian sub-continent.

A proper coaching rally in 1890 at India's Victorian-inspired Bangalore Palace, where the hoof seat is on display. Notice the coursing-type dogs posing with a handler in the foreground. The British rulers must have felt right at home when the maharaja invited them to enjoy a day's coaching. (Photo from the Curzon Collection, British Library)

About the palace

Bangalore was an early capital of horse breeding in colonial India. The British found it an ideal climate for breeding cavalry horses, since the journey from England by ship often delivered horses that were sick or unfit for service. Racing was held in Bangalore for centuries.

Formal Thoroughbred racing in India was hosted at Bangalore Palace as early 1891; the still-running Bangalore Turf Club was established by theMaharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV in 1920, who was not only a horse breeder and polo player, but also one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time..

Bangalore Palace was the personal 
home of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar
IV, who was one of the wealthiest people
in the world. His fortune was worth more
then US$50 million in today's currency.
He loved horseracing. His family ruled
for more than 500 years.
In addition to racing, the maharaja supported a fox hunt, coaching meets, and his own polo team.

Known as “The Indian Windsor Castle”, the entire massive estate celebrated the Victorian style so popular in England. British architects and garden designers and furniture makers were given free rein to do their finest work.

Ironically, just as the palace was nearing completion, the age of Indian independence from the British Empire was becoming a reality. The winds of change were blowing through the turrets. The maharaja died in 1940, before the British divestment that would come after World War II.

The palace is open to the public today. Even now, horse-drawn carriages criss-cross the grounds. The palace also hosts major concerts with musicians like the Rolling Stones and Elton John.

The jockey scale

Jockey chairs are special; this hanging 
one is displayed at the Irish National Stud 
museum and once weighed jockeys 
at Ireland's famed Curragh racecourse 
in County Kildare. (Jane Nearing photo)
I came across Sujith Nair's lovely photo (top of page) of the jockey scale at Bangalore Palace long before I even knew that such a palace existed. I was simply intrigued that an Indian maharajah’s personal racecourse included a beautiful carving of the bottom of a horse’s foot.

It seemed like a tiny throne for the sport of kings. There must be a story behind it.

As beautiful as the carving is, my favorite thing to point out about it is the arms of the chair, which are discolored. In the heat of India, the jockeys would have been sweating, and the perspiration from their hands and wrists soaked into the wood, and left its mark. Or maybe people rubbed the arms for good luck. They left their mark.

The photo is shared with readers through the kindness of Indian nature photographer Sujith Nair. He has been patiently corresponding about this photo for over a year while the research went on. And on. And on.

This photo from the Two Brits Abroad blog adds another dimension to the story of the jockey scale in Bangalore; the bench is adorned with preserved horse hooves on the front legs. (photo courtesy of Sarah Lambert)

The ongoing story

But the story didn’t end with tracking down Sujith in India and learning about the palace. Only recently did I see more photographs of the chair, some taken by British tourist Sarah Lambert, who writes the great “Two Brits Abroad” blog.

Sarah’s photo, and others, show that the finishing touch of the jockey scale is that the legs of the bench meet the floor thanks to the addition of preserved horse hooves.

Has anyone ever turned the bench over to examine the shoes? Were they the feet of a favorite local racehorse or perhaps a British champion?

That is what is called attention to detail. How many people ever looked down to the floor, instead of focusing on the carving on top? Perhaps no one, until today.

But I know if you get to Bangalore Palace before I do, you'll ask museum staff to help you turn over the bench, have a look, and send The Hoof Blog a photo. Someone went to a lot of work to put them there, and knowing the reach of The Hoof Blog, it won't be long before we finish the story of the maharaja's jockey chair.

Hoofmarks is an occasional feature on the Hoof Blog, highlighting special places in the world where the hoof takes center stage.

See more of Sujith's photography here.

Hoofmarks in Aleppo: Will the citadel's ancient inverted horseshoe curse save it again?

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