The jockey, who has won 727 races in the country and abroad, battled sexism before trainers would trust her with good horses. She now handles 18 horses in the MAM Ramaswamy stable, Chennai.
Her father taught Singh that on horseback, she was no less than a male jockey. Photo: Vellankanni Raj
It’s 5.30 in the morning, and there’s a nip in the Chennai air. At the Madras Race Club, near Guindy, Chennai, hectares of lush green terrain greet visitors. Only the muffled conversations of the jockeys and the snorts of horses punctuate the silence. Thirty-seven-year-old Rupa Kunwar Singh, the first Indian female jockey, in her blue jacket and track pants, brown boots, a helmet and customised rubber gloves, fits in effortlessly at the Madras Race Club, the oldest in India. A course was set up in 1777, and the Madras Race Club was officially constituted in 1837. It presently has around 625 horses.
Patting and rubbing down the mane of a freshly groomed male horse to calm him down after his first workout, Singh instructs the newly-enrolled male jockeys standing around her as the horses are put through the paces for the week’s race. This has been Chennai-born Singh’s routine since she was 17. She has taken part in 4,000 races and has won 727 of them, in India and abroad.
Singh, India’s first female jockey, has won the ‘Annamalai Plate A-Class’ in Ootacamund and the Madras Classics in 2010, and the ‘Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies Endurance Cup’ in Poland in 2014. She has also won races in Germany, Abu Dhabi and the Netherlands.
Her day starts at about 4.45 am, followed by an hour’s track walk, and, sometimes, jogging. Then begins her workout with the horses, which wraps up by 8.30 am. She visits the stables and spends time with the horses under her care. She checks their diet and general health, and wraps up work by 10.30 am.
Singh weighs about 50 kg (the ideal weight for a jockey is between 50 kg and 60 kg), and she has managed to stay in shape just riding and handling the horses under her care.
She still remembers how upset she was after being thrown off her horse named Powerpoint on her first ever race on March 21, 2002 (the National Highway Plate, Chennai). “That’s when I realised that despite all the hard work, it’s not going to be easy. I could not sleep that night,” she said. Nearly five months later, she won the Trisulam Plate in Chennai, on September 7.
Singh drew inspiration from her grandfather D Ugam Singh Rathore, a horse trainer in the British Indian Army, posted in Madras. “I never planned to become a professional jockey. Horse riding was just my hobby. Datha (‘grandfather’ in her mother tongue Rajasthani) turned my hobby into a passion,” she said.
Singh was just four when she rode her first horse. “My datha taught me how to tackle a horse and how to hold the reins. After his retirement, he used to take me for a ride to what is now the Guindy Forest Reserve every evening. I also went for riding classes, at the Madras School of Equitation, with him every morning,” she recollected. Eventually, Singh followed the footsteps of her jockey-father U Narpat Singh. “My biggest learning came from my father. He taught me the correct posture while racing and how to control horses that are ill-tempered,” she said. Most importantly, he taught her that on horseback, she was no less than a male jockey.
Becoming a jockey was not an easy call to make. Singh came from a conservative background, and relatives and family friends did warn her about the challenging career choice she was making. “I have seen jockeys suffer grievous injuries or even die. My mother was initially afraid, but came around.” Singh suffered injuries too — including several fractures, one of which was in her collarbone.
Unfortunately, she was not exactly welcomed, either by the horses or the male trainers. “They would want a good jockey on their horse, and tended to think women were physically and mentally weak. I was always given average horses. It took 50 races for me before I could ride a good horse.” Her turnaround came when she came under the tutelage of trainer Robert Foley under whose supervision she rode the best horses and won races.
She now works at one of the country’s leading stables, that once belonged to the late MAM Ramaswamy, and is in charge of 18 horses. Controlling and encouraging horses that can top the scales at 540 kilogrammes and run at a speed of 60 kilometres per hour has become part of Singh’s life now.
Singh has handled and won on many horses, but her favourite horses are three: Starcraft, black in colour and the one who gave Singh 15 wins; the chestnut brown Supreme Commander, who is lazy, but loves to pose; and Savanna Fleet, who came to Singh as a two-year-old.
Singh’s story might soon hit the big screens, for filmmaker Shivam Nair has evinced interest in making a biopic on her life. “I hope my biopic inspires more Indian women to take up the sport,” she said.