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An Appraisal

MAM Ramaswamy, Businessman And A Lover Of Horses

Besides his love for racing, the other sporting moment Ramaswamy cherished was India's only hockey World Cup win in 1975

MAM Ramaswamy, Businessman And A Lover Of Horses
MAM Ramaswamy, Businessman And A Lover Of Horses

It was the evening after a soaked Chennai breached another hundred-year record, this time for the heaviest rainfall in 24 hours, that one of its most colourful citizens was on his straight, final stretch to the finish line, the home straight as they call it at the races. Ironic, because MAM Ramaswamy, 84, of Chettinad's Rajah family, a legend of the races, leaves behind a personal record that won't be broken in a hurry. Actually never, as many believe.

That's because Ramaswamy wasn't just the country's biggest race horse owner, he also held an unofficial world record of 600 classic wins. That's easily more than three times as many as his nearest Indian competitors. To the races, he wore his lucky suit and tie but he wore many hats: that of a business magnate, educationist, philanthropist, former Rajya Sabha member, hockey administrator, and scion of one of the wealthiest families of the Nattukotai Nagarathars — a small community with a rich heritage of business and culture.

Over the past year, it was his strained relationship with foster son MAMR Muthiah that spilled out into the public glare, eventually with Ramaswamy disowning him. But that apart, horses were his first love. And, those who follow the sport will tell you, there will never be another MAM Ramaswamy, or Ramu to friends, 'Boss' to some and 'aiyya' to many.

"What he really was...he was a baron of the turf and a great judge of horses. Perhaps the best that I've known in my 50 years of working," says Zavaray Poonawalla recalling Ramaswamy's first visit to the Poonawalla stud farm in 1965. "Even on that first day that he came to see a horse from our farm he knew what he was doing and his speed to pick up the correct horse is unmatched," says Poonawalla. (Silver Jet, Ramaswamy's first winning horse in July 1965 was from the Poonawalla stud farm. So was Bold Command which won him the 600th classic in Mysore just over two months ago.) Ramaswamy always chose his horses himself, taking along the vet for an opinion.

"In some years, he's bought more than 200 babies. I would say second to (Dubai's) Sheikh Mohammed, he would be the biggest race horse owner in the world," says Poonawalla. There are around 350 in his stables currently, according to one account.

Ramaswamy wasn't the first Chettiar to be associated with racing (SAA Annamalai Chettiar was one of the first Indian members and Stewards of the Madras Race Club, writes journalist S Muthiah in his book A Madras Miscellany) or sport. The cricket stadium in Chennai is named after cricket administrator MA Chidambaram Chettiar (Ramaswamy's uncle) whose son AC Muthiah is a former BCCI president and was a racing enthusiast at one time.

"There's a very interesting association of many of these Chettiars with sport," says business historian Raman Mahadevan who is working on a new book on the community. In his younger days, Ramaswamy played tennis and polo and rode amateur races.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Rajah family of Sir Annamalai Chettiar (Ramaswamy's grandfather) owned around 100,000 acres of paddy land in Burma and ran a hundred branches of Bank of Chettinad there, besides holding huge properties in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. As Mahadevan notes, the family had a firm grip over the credit market in Burma like most other Chettiars. But the tide turned against them after the Second World War with the Japanese occupation of Burma and its subsequent nationalist movement.

Back in India they controlled the Indian Bank, had a 50:50 partnership with the Harveys of Scotland who ran Madura Mills, invested in large tracts of land around Chennai, and were, of course, pioneers in education with the Annamalai University (the country's first private university). In the early 1960s, they set up Chettinad Cement.

"I may not be an MBA but my Dad and uncle have well groomed me in business. There is no dearth of business acumen in me, age is no bar in doing business," Ramaswamy said in his last press conference in July. This was at the height of the spat with his son — about which much isn't clear still, though allegations are aplenty — where he announced that he would will whatever assets he owned to two charitable trusts. His health had taken a turn for the worse a couple of months ago with a kidney ailment and he was hospitalised in November.

Ramaswamy did have other battles — during the seventies and early eighties, for instance, when the Tamil Nadu government apparently tried to break his hold over the Madras Race Club, eventually even taking over the club in 1985 through an act (which was struck down later; an earlier state law had declared racing as gambling which led to a lengthy legal battle until a Supreme Court judgment in 1996 settled the matter with the ruling that horse racing was a game of skill.)

"He was solely responsible for getting that landmark judgment with regard to racing in Tamil Nadu,”" says Chaduranga Kantharaj Urs, chairman of the Mysore Race Club and a member of the erstwhile Mysore royal family, to whom Ramaswamy was a family friend. He also recalls how Ramaswamy would generously contribute to an eye hospital started by the Mysore club, sending them a cheque 'every year, religiously, whether we asked him or didn't ask him.'

"He had a phenomenal memory, and if he gave his word to do something he honoured it. If he said 'I'll do it tomorrow,' it was done...like...before tomorrow," says Zeyn Mirza, who runs Vijay Mallya's stud farm in Kunigal. "He was a different person on the race course. He was a fierce competitor. He was probably so absorbed and involved in his racing that you didn't disturb him when he was racing," he says.

This sentiment is echoed by Zavaray Poonawalla: "There were two things in his business world: one, he was very generous and the other, he would be very firm, very clear and very shrewd. And in his racing world, he was very firm in what he paid for and he loved to bargain."

S Ganapathy, a trainer whose family has worked for the Rajah family for three generations, describes his former boss as a simple man. "He had no telephone operator. If somebody called, he would pick up the phone himself, and he spoke freely." Every day, he and the other trainers reported to him over phone. On Ramaswamy's visits to the stables, he would talk to everyone including the syces (grooms) asking after them. "Immediately, he would help. When I was not well, he made me stay in the palace for a month and looked after me," says Ganapathy, who won him the 600th classic in Mysore on September 25.

Besides his love for racing, the other sporting moment Ramaswamy cherished was India's only hockey World Cup win in 1975 when he was president of the Indian Hockey Federation. V Baskaran, former India skipper, remembers how Ramaswamy ensured that the team travelled across the country playing some 30 matches, showing off the cup and drawing good crowds wherever they went. It made the players popular in an era that preceded India's manic love for cricket.

Baskaran says Ramaswamy played a role in the All Asian Star team in 1974 comprising four Pakistan and five India players at a time when the national teams weren't even allowed to talk to each other. "We talk now about cricket being played there and restoring peace and all. This man restored peace long back, unnoticed." Ramaswamy later gave up on the hockey body in the early eighties, apparently because he wasn't getting the response he expected from the government. Years later, whenever Baskaran brought up the sport in conversation, he would cut him off, "Hockey pathi pesada ya, vere yedha pesu,”" (leave hockey alone, talk about something else).

Ramaswamy's friends won't fail to mention what a great host he was, often personally serving them. "He had the best breakfast in the world...he had Chettinad style, he had English style," says Baskaran. He was also a religious man, frequently making the pilgrimage every year to Sabarimala (he built an Ayyappa temple next to his palace). Like most people on the racing circuits, he was superstitious — wearing his lucky suit and tie for over 250 classics. What the sport will miss is an ardent lover of the turf and one of its biggest patrons — he bought at least 15 per cent of the Indian bred-horses a year. "There's no single owner for the past four decades who has come anywhere close to Ramaswamy as far as investment in the sport is concerned or success in the game," says journalist Ikram Khan.

Ramaswamy once told an interviewer that his most thrilling race was Own Opinion's triumph over Royal Tern in the 1979 Invitation Cup in Mumbai. His favourite horse of all: a bay gelding called 'Mystical'.

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