This is the story of a man who followed his dream, of a prince who set his eyes on a lofty goal, worked towards it assiduously, relentlessly and intelligently, with passion and patience, and eventually won the biggest prize of them all. Horses were the passion of Maharana Vijaysinhji, ruler of Rajpipla. He wanted to own the best horses in the world, and to win the most prestigious horse races devised by man. Minor successes did not satisfy the ambitious young man. He wanted dearly to reach the pinnacle, and did. That is why it is such an inspiring tale.
Succeeding his father Maharana Chhatrasinhji as ruler of the 4,000 square kilometres first-class Rajpipla State in the Rewakantha Agency of the Bombay Presidency in the year 1915, the adroit Vijaysinhji established himself as a leading light of the Indian racecourses very early. In 1919 he won the first-ever Indian Derby, then known as the Country Bred Derby and run in Calcutta, with his Kunigal-bred horse Tipster, ridden by the famous Australian jockey ‘Bunty’ Brown.
Having been bestowed with the title of Maharaja in 1921, Vijaysinhji then set his eyes on the centre of the Empire and travelled extensively the next year in the British Isles, Europe and United States of America, not just exploring the racing world and western society, but also studying the workings of modern governments, systems and institutions. He called on President Warren Harding in Washington, and visited New York to gain first-hand knowledge of the stock exchange. Back in England, he bought himself an estate near London on the banks of the Thames, with a 27-room Victorian mansion and extensive grounds, named ‘The Manor’ at Old Windsor in Berkshire.
The world’s leading trainers and jockeys were regular guests at Maharaja Vijaysinhji’s sprawling seaside ‘Palm Beach’ Napeansea Road residence at Bombay, and the grand ‘Sommerville Guest House’ at Nandod (New Rajpipla town), the capital of Rajpipla State. Steve Donoghue, an expert on the great Epsom Derby, was a visitor in 1924. Quizzed about the path to a Derby win, the legendary jockey advised his host to buy a good yearling or two every year. On returning home Donoghue purchased Embargo for the Maharaja that summer, and rode him to victory in the Irish Two Thousand Guineas as well as Irish Derby in 1926. Vijaysinhji, who had been knighted the previous year, felt convinced that he was well on the way to realising his big aspiration.
Winning the blue riband of the turf was, however, not such an easy ride. A caller in 1932 was the celebrated trainer Fred Darling, whose input was to start breeding with good mares (which matter 75 per cent as the Maharaja himself held) and a proven stallion. And so the keen Vijaysinhji started a stud in England with Embargo as sire, even as he continued buying high quality yearlings.
In July the same year, Darling’s protege Marcus Marsh, now training for the Maharaja, spotted a promising colt at the Newmarket sales, and received approval to purchase him. They named him Windsor Lad. The genial animal shaped extremely well under the tutelage of Marsh, a younger son of the late Richard Marsh who had trained three Derby winners for King Edward VII, and later trained the horses of the reigning King George V.
In 1933 Windsor Lad won the Criterion at Newmarket. As a three-year-old in 1934 he finished at the head of the field in the 1 ½ miles Chester Vase and the mile-long Newmarket Stakes. His discerning owner was now certain that the colt had the requisite stamina as well as speed.
The favourite for the Derby was the unbeaten Colombo, winner of seven races in 1933 and two in the current season. But he had not proved himself in a twelve furlong race, and Maharaja Vijaysinhji confidently stated that Colombo did not worry him. So sure was he of Windsor Lad’s prowess that in a signed article later he declared that he didn’t think he would win the Derby, he knew.
An estimated half a million people began descending on the Epsom Downs right since daybreak on 6th June 1934. Around noon dark clouds drifted in and a sharp shower broke the three-week-long dry spell. Just at this time the royal cavalcade drove in led by the Rolls-Royce of King George V and Queen Mary; and followed by those carrying the Duke and Duchess of York, who later became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, parents of the present Queen Elizabeth II; other members of the family and the King of Greece. The Prince of Wales, who succeeded as King Edward VIII but abdicated soon, joined them a little later.
There was a huge buzz around the race as usual, but more so for the prophesy of Gipsy Lee, made as far back 1868, that a horse with a ‘W’ in its name would win in 1934. There were also a number of uncanny coincidences around the number 13, which particularly fancied the ladies, who backed Windsor Lad.
They were off five minutes after the scheduled 3 o’clock start, and Donoghue on Medieval Knight set a fast pace along the rails, with Colombo right behind. But reaching the top of the hill, the leader cracked and Colombo was baulked. Seizing the opportunity, Tiberius slipped by the side of the rails, pursued closely by Easton and Windsor Lad, down the hill towards the iconic Tattenham Corner.
Just after taking the big bend to the left, Tiberius began to fade and was passed. The dashing Charlie Smirke - returning after a ban of five years - soon breezed Windsor Lad past Easton. Meanwhile Colombo recovered and made a great run on the outside in the centre of the course. The crowd thought that the hitherto invincible favourite would carry the day yet again, and began yelling “Colombo wins”. In the final furlong the three horses were bunched closely together. At this moment Colombo’s stamina failed him even as Windsor Lad surged to the post, equalling the record of 2 minutes 34 seconds set up by Hyperion the previous year.
The jubilant 44-year-old Maharaja was already a popular figure on the English racecourses and had been affectionately nicknamed ‘Pip’ by friends and the public alike. Now the multitude roared “Good old Pip” as he led his victorious colt back to the unsaddling area. Soon the King invited Maharaja Vijaysinhji to the royal box, high up above the finishing post, and raised a toast to this exhilarating win.
Lady luck had indeed smiled on the Indian prince when Colombo got hemmed in behind Medieval Knight, but ultimately it was the deft training of Marsh, the speed and stamina of the muscular Windsor Lad, and the skill of Smirke that carried the day.
No other Indian owner had won the Derby before, nor one after, in its history dating back to 1780. One of the first to congratulate Maharaja Vijaysinhji was his close friend the Aga Khan, himself a distinguished Derby winner. Dreams do indeed come true, if you persist long enough. During the Second World War, Maharaja Vijaysinhji donated three Spitfire aircrafts named ‘Rajpipla’, ‘Windsor Lad’, and ‘Embargo’, and a Hawker Hurricane night fighter ‘Rajpipla II’, and the headlines ran “Windsor Lad will fly”. The Maharaja was honoured with a GBE in 1945, and when the winds of change wafted in, he merged his State with the Union of India in 1948, bringing down the curtain on the 600-year rule of the Gohil Rajputs over Rajpipla State.
(Indra Vikram Singh’s forthcoming book ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’ on the victory of his grandfather Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla in the Epsom Derby 1934 will be published shortly. The erstwhile royal family of Rajpipla celebrated the platinum jubilee of this triumph on 6th June 2009 when a special postal cover was released to commemorate the occasion).