Rise and Fall of the Calcutta Sweep


When horse racing started in India in those far-off days of the 18th century there was no parimutuel wagering, as we bet today. Instead, betting was confined to lotteries.

A lottery would be for a fixed sum, usually 1,000 Rupees, made up of 100 tickets of 10 Rupees each. When all 100 tickets had been sold horses were drawn against the ticket numbers. The tickets which had drawn a horse were then auctioned, the favourites obviously attracting a higher price than less fancied horses, and the successful bidder paid both the person who had originally purchased the ticket for 10 Rupees and paid an equivalent amount into the lottery fund to add to the pot of 1,000 Rupees. The whole pot would then be divided after the race among those whose tickets matched the winning horses.

The auctions took place at lottery dinners the night before a race meeting and bidders' enthusiasm was often fueled by generous libations of claret. The result was that some bid more than they could afford and the recovery of money was occasionally a long and vexatious process. Partly because of this a meeting was held in 1847 comprised of gentlemen interested in the Turf to discuss the formation of a permanent association to regulate all matters concerned with racing and to protect the interests of the turf. The gentlemen resolved to form themselves into the Calcutta Turf Club.

Of the many lotteries held since then the Calcutta Derby Sweep is pre-eminent. It was first drawn in 1867 and had a pool of 34,700 Rupees. It was to grow to the staggering figure of 1.25 Crores (nearly a million Pounds Sterling) in the record years of 1929 and 1930 and was to make the name of the Calcutta Turf Club famous all over the world. During its peak years the lottery helped establish that Club's financial stability and enabled it to maintain a high level of stake money, to conduct its racing on the best possible lines and in great comfort and to have made enormous grants to local charities.

The Sweep is now no more and hardly remembered. But at its peak its fame was known around the world. The Sweep was essentially a Club affair and chances, at 10 Rupees each, could only be allotted to Club or Stand Members, whether in India or elsewhere in the world. The Club had no agents in any part of the world and there was of course no advertising. This meant that anyone who wished to obtain a chance in the Sweep had to ask a member or someone who knew a member or someone who might be able indirectly to get in touch with someone who had contacts in Calcutta who could get chances through a member.

This presented little difficulty for anyone living in India or for anyone in the U.K. who knew retired members living there, but it presented great difficulties to the ordinary man in the street living, say, in the United States or Africa or Europe, and who wanted a chance in the legendary Calcutta Sweep that could make him wealthy overnight.

In the course of time banks became the chief channels through which applications came. Banks in nearly every part of the world channeled applications through to their head offices, perhaps in New York or London or Cape Town, who in turn would have a branch in Calcutta and all the big firms had someone on their staff who was a member and who signed the application for tickets.

Ideally, the Club always liked to issue actual tickets against applications for chances but the law in connection with Lotteries and the sending of tickets through the post to other countries was constantly changing and on a number of occasions during the history of the Sweep it was only possible to issue numbers instead of tickets. From the point of view of the nonmember in some far away country this was thoroughly unsatisfactory. His original application had probably gone through several hands before it reached him from the bank or member who actually applied for the chance. The detail of the number allotted, which was of course in the name of the member, had to filter back either by letter or word of mouth to the applicant who had nothing to show for the money he had paid . It is therefore all the more surprising that the biggest years of the Sweep, between 1927 and 1930, were during a period when numbers rather than tickets were issued.

It was however the coming of the Irish Hospital's Sweep in the 1930's which began the decline in the appeal of the Calcutta Sweep. The Irish Sweep had agents all over the world, they issued actual tickets which could be bought anywhere without difficulty by anyone. The Irish Sweeps grew rapidly in popularity while the Calcutta Sweep inevitably declined. What was not perhaps appreciated by the ordinary purchaser was that in the case of the Calcutta Sweep, the first prize was 40 per cent of the total pool, 20 per cent to the second, 10 per cent to the third, 20 per cent among the unplaced horses and 10 per cent for the Club and expenses. In other words, 90 per cent of his ten rupees went into the draw. In the case of the Irish Sweeps the percentage was very much lower.

In its heyday the lottery used a glass drum with brass fittings, big enough to hold about 1.25 million tickets.

This enormous drum has unfortunately disappeared without trace but the smaller drum, used before 1928 and again after the boom years until the lottery was discontinued in 1953, lay unwanted in the racestands of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, as it became in 1912 following the visit of the King Emperor George V.

Unwanted until the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club's director of betting, Warren Wilson, saw it during a visit in February 1989. The Royal Calcutta Turf Club kindly consented to present the drum to the Club where it has been pressed into service, though not to draw the Mark Six lottery! Instead, it is now used in lucky draws such as those held in conjunction with the Kwangtung Handicap and the Invitation Cup.