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DIARY OF A HORSE TRAINER

Amar Agarwala

When Haskell Williamson David passed away at the ripe age of eighty seven, he left a void in the world of horse-training and in racing circuits of the country.   Not only was he amongst the foremost trainers during his times, but was widely regarded as a legend. Despite of his humble Jewish origin, was unorthodox and most forthcoming when it came to his friends, that included animals – particularly horses – his first love.  One of his best friends happened to be Sudarshan Chaki; a man who belonged to the same era as Haskell and was a sought after racing correspondent.  He wrote for leading newspapers and his penchant for journalism and relating satirical tales on and off the racing field was well-known.

The passing away of Haskell, rung a warning bell for Sudarshan – who was eighty five himself.  He was both saddened and crest-fallen at having lost his life-long companion and a friend who during his hey days provided him much fodder for the columns he wrote.  Sudarshan was a charming man and despite his age, had not lost any of his enthusiasm for wry journalistic humor.  I distinctly recollect one such occasion, when I happened to meet him at a dinner hoisted by a common friend at the Far Pavilions of the classy Tollygunge Club. No sooner had the bar thrown open its counters, a crowd of invitees gathered there.  Sudarshan was quite in his elements that evening and a shade nostalgic reminiscing his old friend.  As the evening rolled on and alcohol flowed freely, he took upon himself to regale us with notes his best friend had penned, which otherwise none of us could possibly have known. Much of this had even escaped the obituary of Haskell David, which Sudarshan had penned down as his swan song for the media.

Haskell Williamson David was born in Ascot, Berkshire, during the days of the Raj.  His father was an emissary of the Queen during the colonial times, which brought him and his miniscule family – of wife and son – to India.  Young Haskell had virtually no interest in academics and soon dropped out of convent school to pursue his passion which quite unconventional, and it left his parents distraught.  His loved spending time with nature, animals and insects; the horse in particular was his favourite.  He simply adored horses and horse racing, which was then in its nascent stages in the country; having being introduced by the British Royalty to spruce up entertainment for their commissioned officers and citizens, in their colony – widely acclaimed as a jewel in the crown. 

While in his early teens Haskell happened to meet Jonathan Stuart Mills; who was a reputed horse breeder.  It was quite by a strange quirk of fate, that sometime later, he went to work for Mills in his sprawling stud-farm, which happened to be one of the best the country had. His dedication to his work and a strange ability to read animals and their behaviour made his a favourite of his employer.  Within a short-span of time, Mills soon promoted him to the position of an assistant trainer, wherefrom Haskell never looked back. After independence his parents returned to England but Haskell stayed on, much to the disapproval and dismay of his parents.  He loved India and his heart was set upon becoming a horse trainer.  Besides, Mills who was then ailing had put him in charge of his stud farm, to which Haskell was dedicated, as a padre is to the church.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Sudarshan then essayed some rare incidents from the life of his old friend; tales which lent credence to the fact of his being able to decipher animals and particularly horses, in a manner unimaginable to many.  Once when Haskell was newly recruited by Mills, he was tending to a prized race horse called ‘Gladiator’, which belonged to the Nizam of Hyderabad.  The horse was suffering from colic and was in the care of a prominent veterinary doctor.  Haskell had remarked to Mills that the horse would not survive the illness, which quite shocked Mills, as colic was a common ailment with many horses; and most regained fitness within a couple of days.  Gladiator was treated with mild antibiotics and was declared fit by the evening.  To which Mills had mildly admonished Haskell at his negative premonition; until the horse lay dead early next morning.  The cause of its death was a mystery, even to the attending Veterinary Doctor, who was unable to ascribe reasons for the unsavoury incident. On being asked, Haskell told Mills; that he noticed since the horse had taken ill, a number of vultures hovered around it, at a distance.  At the veterinary hospital, where the horse lay recuperating, the vultures kept a vigil round the clock, until the horse returned to the stables.   According to Haskell, the animal world always sensed incidents well ahead of their happening. They had this strange knack of knowing and understanding the future, more particularly when it comes to deciphering death.  Vultures particularly being a bird of prey have an uncanny ability to foretell death; even though it may not be discernable to the human eye.

Once the Seventeenth Earl of Derby – Lord Stanley, had pitted his best horse for the Derby which was to be held on New Year’s Day of 1942. Haskell was the official trainer and considering past performance, the horse called: Brutus was a favourite to lift the prized cup that winter.  On the morning of the races, he asked Mills to speak to the Earl to withdraw his horse from the race.  To which Mills reacted with a mixture of annoyance and ridicule.  It seemed most awkward for him to do at Haskell’s bidding, citing that the horse seemed to have drooping eyes the night before and that it had put its head mournfully on Haskell’s shoulders and made strange whimpering noises.  The Earl was not given any hint of Haskell’s prophesying, until the final Derby race took place amidst the loudest cheer for Brutus.  The horse led from start and was barely hundred meters from crossing the finishing line, when he veered against the railings and had the most awkward fall.  It broke his hind leg and seriously injured the jockey Brian Alford, who was flown in from England to ride the Earl’s ward.  Mills was in a dilemma whether to reveal Haskell’s premonition to the Earl – which he finally did, purely out of guilt. Brutus’s leg was quite beyond treatment and he was put to sleep.  It did not go down well with Lord Stanley, who took away his remaining horses from Mills and entrusted them to the care of another trainer.  Haskell’s prophesy had come true.

Haskell’s premonition was evident once again, sometimes, in the early sixties, when horse racing was becoming the toast of the rich and the erstwhile royalties of the country.  Haskell informed his best friend that he strongly felt a major calamity was to befall the racing circuits of the country.  He feared that many horses and even owners would suffer untold contingencies.  A few months later, an equestrian flu caught the horses down south.  It soon turned to an epidemic and quickly travelled north to the other racing centres, despite the rigorous measures of quarantine adopted by the racing bodies.  Horse racing was held up country-wide for a good three months – that too in the peak winter period.  Almost a hundred horses died of the flu, which the vets were unable to quell.  Quite a number of horse owners threw in their towel; many lost almost their entire string of horses and lakhs of rupees in the bargain.  Haskell’s stables were the least affected, even thought the calamity did take its toll upon his horses; for he lost  four of his expensive fillies, a couple being the most prized of the lot.  When Sudarshan asked Haskell of his premonition, he simply said that he had noticed crows sitting in long rows in and around the stables mournfully looking towards the stables and the horses.  He had made it a point to travel to the other racing centres of the country and noticed a similar pattern. He was absolutely sure that it was an omen for dark days ahead in horse racing.  According to him, a crow did not only fly straight but also thought straight; besides the bird was a messenger of Satan and a harbinger of death and sorrow.

 
 

Much after his prime, when Haskell was poised on retirement, he was once asked by Sudarshan, of his strange ability to read animals and the omens.  He revealed, that many a time during his career, he felt that he understood the language of the animals, which unfailingly warned him of the events that would unfold.  He also said, that a horse would often gesture its intention to win a race or even lose it; merely by the manner of rubbing its head on his shoulders when he went near it.  The secret being, that the animal world would be quick to latch on to the dress rehearsal of events that were to happen, long before it really did.  Haskell had remarked, before an event or incident took place, it would have already taken place in the virtual world in another realm.  Just that man rarely paid attention to the omens which were suggestive of such facts. Animals are not as intelligent as their shrewder contemporaries, yet, have this uncanny ability to sense the unknown preludes, it enables them to know the future, without a semblance of doubt. Perhaps that is what has helped them survive the vagaries of nature and even man. Haskell extolled having witnessed countless such events and readily acknowledged that it was pivotal in his becoming the best there ever was in horse racing.

It was nothing short of ironic when a couple of months before he died, he had called his best friend and related an astonishing incident. He had gone for his morning walk – a ritual he never omitted all his life, when a stray horse near the racecourse seemed to follow him around.  While he traced his steps homeward, the horse followed him right up to his front door.  Then without warning the horse thumped its head on Haskell’s shoulders and made a whining sound, almost as if the animal was mourning.  Ever since the incident took place, his pet Labrador would often be heard crying at midnight. Haskell was quick to grasp the subtle significance of both omens and made the last of his prophecies – that of his imminent death – which he knew was approaching rapidly.  Once again, Haskell’s prophesy came true – it was his last!  Sudarshan mourned that along with his dearest friend, departed the fine art of reading and communicating with the most prophetic and admirable friend man has ever had – the horse. An animal which symbolizes valour, grace, strength, with an uncanny ability to read the omens; others miserably fail in.

Rarely are people blessed with the finer quality of being able to relate to the animal kingdom.  It enables to decipher the future, which has intrigued mankind since ages. Haskell Williamson David, effortlessly deciphered the omens from the language of animals, yet he could not alter destiny.  Even his imminent death was soulfully predicted by a horse; the animal which he loved and lived by all his life. Perhaps it was a favour; the animals owed Haskell, for championing their cause lifelong. For animals unfailingly return favours, unlike humans – as gratitude has never been the virtue of mankind.

 
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