Racing started in 1798 in Calcutta. The city boasted two race tracks – one in the heart of the City and the other in Tollygunge, a Southern suburb. Many Jews loved racing and owning horses despite the fact that the races were held mainly on Saturdays. For those who observed Sabbath, bets were placed the previous day so that were officially not gambling on Sabbath! Some asked their friends of servants to place bets for them in order to observe Sabbath. Most enjoyed the races on Saturday and did not feel it necessary to justify this on religious grounds.
The first members of the community to participate in racing as owners were the Ezra family in 1889. As the Ezra’s were a leading Calcutta family other Jews followed his lead. There were many Jews who owned prize-winning horses. Aslan Manasseh who was for many years a steward of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club (RCTC), and instituted a race in his memory. His horse Silvadore won the Monsoon Cup in 1934. Even Jewish women enjoyed the races and Mrs. Susan Sopher’s horse, Winged Tiger, won the Viceroy’s Cup in 1945. Others in the racing fraternity included Joseph, Maurice and Mervyn Shellim. Eze Gubbay was another prominent horse owner and in the years between the wars he and Aslan Manasseh were among the biggest punters in Calcutta. Some of their bets were upward of Rs 30,000 each which was a significant sum in that period. Aaron Curlender also raced on a substantial scale and owned many horses.
Not only were they passionate gamblers who owned horses and there were a few Jewish bookmakers as well as trainers and riders who made raced at the Tollygunge course. Haskell David rode and trained as an amateur for several years in Tollygunge and was considered a champion rider and trainer. He turned professional in the mid sixties and was one of Calcutta’s leading trainers. Haskell David was champion trainer in the main winter meetings of 1971-1972, 1972- 73, 1981 – 1982 and 1982 – 1983. He was also a champion trainer in Bangalore. His son, Danny David follows in his foots. Captain Courageous, the horse he trained, most recently won the Queen’s Cup, Feb, 2014.
The Elite press owned by Mrs. Lily Einy and Ezra S. Ezra published The Turf, the RCTC, and did so till 1981. Ezra S. Ezra, who gave up a career in law to publish racing news introduced many new features such as individual notes on each horses making the Turf a serious rival to the Racing Guide, the RCTC’s official programme.
The Calcutta Jewish community also raced in Lebong, Darjeeling and Shillong.
(information garnered from Turning Back the Pages: A Chronicle of Calcutta Jewry, Volume 1)
BETTING SMALL TIME IN THE CALCUTTA (1935- 1960)
Saturdays were race days in Calcutta. It was also Shabbath. But Calcutta Jews loved horse racing and betting. Somehow they managed to obey their conscious and fulfill their desire to bet on the Holy Day.
Most books on form were out on mid week (Wednesday and Thursday). This book gave a weekly detailed update about the form of the horses that were running that were written by their trainers. These books were studied diligently, analyzed and discussed. The actual race books came on Friday. Many Jews placed their bets before sunset on Friday. Others broke Shabbath and went to the races.
Even the race books were printed in a Jewish Printing Press (Elite Press) owned by the Ezras of Mission Row and later by the Einy family.
There was a middle-aged single Jewish guy we called Suffoo – I don’t ever remember anyone calling him by whatever his real name was! He was something of an institution in Jewish Calcutta till he left in the 1960’sfor Israel with the help of the Sucnoot (Jewish Agendy). Sufoo went fro house to house from Bow Bazaar to Park Street and Theater Road collecting bets. He was quite knowledgeable about the Turf and many a time his clients, men and women of all ages, and himself would have long, detailed discussions before placing their bets. No bet was too small or to large for Suffoo to accept.
Suffoo went to the religious homes before Sabbath, but also accepted bets on Saturday for those who were not able to make it to the races. On Saturdays Calcutta the members’s enclosure was packed, especially in December and January where everybody showed up dressed to the hilt in heels, hats, gloves and suits. Each member of the RCTC would have two badges to give out to their friends and family. How we fought for them! It was a treat to get dressed up and show off at the races on Saturday afternoon, get a few tips and have a fling at betting. Those Jews who were not Shomer Shabbath were there with members of all the minority communities, Parsis, Anglo Indian and Armenians and many foreigners and vistors from abroad. There were often Maharajas and Maharanis who were in attendance too.
On Sunday mornings Suffoo would be in our homes with winnings in hands for those whose bets were successful.
If his client won he promptly returned with their winnings on Sunday morning. At each home he visited he had tea and refreshments.