Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Unsolved mystery to conclude today

Will RWITC stewards hit a 'Bullseye'?

Prakash Gosavi 

If the hallowed walls of the committee room of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) had ears, the racing world would be privy to the final proceedings of the murkiest affair in the history of Indian horse racing, namely, the Bullseye doping affair. 

The matter will come up for hearing today in a special meeting of the stewards convened for the purpose. Ace jockey-turned-champion trainer Pesi Shroff will be in the dock, and if the RWITC stewards decide to go by past precedence, he may be in for punishment under the clause of 'vicarious liability'. It may be noted, that in December last year Bullseye, a filly trained by Shroff, had tested positive for banned substance boldenone after returning from a stud farm, but before entering Shroff's stables.

The Bullseye doping case has all the ingredients of an Agatha Christie plot; and so far, has come across as a whodunnit that would have tested the grey cells of Sherlock Holmes if the Englishman were alive today. But of course, the crime branch of Mumbai police is possessed of the affair and have, reportedly, made some progress in the matter though Intelligence Officer Ajay Sawant, when MiD DAY contacted him, refused to divulge details. 

The twists in the tale began when Shroff lodged a criminal complaint with Tardeo police against "unknown" perpetrators in January this year, and the case was transferred to the crime branch due to its high-profile nature. The crime branch soon arrested some persons who had traveled with Bullsye to Mumbai on the fateful morning, along with a farrier who was a former employee of the farm, but soon released them.
Meanwhile, in a surprise decision, 59 horses stationed at the Shroff yard were tested without warning; however, all of them came clean. But this action of the stewards was viewed by the racing fraternity as vindictive, and a fallout of the running feud between former chairman KN Dhunjibhoy who owns Bullseye and Nanoli stud farm, and Vivek Jain, the current chairman who replaced him this year. 

The gossip mills went into overdrive when in March, Shroff was handed a nine-month suspension, and deviating from the norm, the suspension order was widely publicized by the RWITC authorities by releasing advertizements in the pages of private race books Cole & BOL. The spat between the two chairmen turned so ugly that Vivek Jain had to finally recuse himself from Shroff's inquiry.

The case took a sensational turn when a city newspaper carried a front-page story last month hinting that Cooji Katrak, another high-profile trainer and Shroff's rival, was interrogated by the crime branch in connection with this case after a former assistant trainer, who was himself under the police scanner, turned approver and submitted tapes of telephonic conversations to the investigating officer. Reportedly, he also made a very serious charge that a couple of RWITC members were also involved in the conspiracy. 

In the latest development, Cooji Katrak, through his lawyers Jaykar & Partners, has sent a legal notice to the newspaper group, threatening to sue for damages of Rs five crore.

In a most bizarre development last week, rumours started making rounds that RWITC chairman Vivek Jain was questioned by the crime branch in this connection. MiD DAY learns from reliable sources that Pesi Shroff has demanded to know the details of Vivek Jain's interaction with the crime branch, saying that it has vital bearing on his case. However, Shroff refused to either confirm or deny the same, only adding, "The matter is sub-judice, I am advised not to speak to the press."

When asked, inspector Sawant confirmed the interaction with Jain, but refused to divulge details. However, Vivek Jain, when contacted by MiD DAY through phone and email, admitted he had visited the crime branch more than once in connection with this case. Communicating with MiD DAY through email, Jain denied either he or any other RWITC steward or official had any knowledge of the alleged conspiracy, and accused his rivals of maliciously spreading rumours.

"They have another agenda....a deeper purpose": Vivek Jain

Exerpts from Vivek Jain's interview:

MiD DAY: You had recused yourself from the said inquiry....could you explain then why did the Crime Branch question you in this connection?
Vivek Jain: Possibly because the alleged knowledge of certain stewards came up in the tape-recorded conversations. This needed to be clarified. I sought time and visited the crime branch head to clarify the club's process and procedures, and to seek their advice on how to proceed. It is ridiculous in the extreme to suggest or hint, as is being maliciously spread, that any RWITC steward or official was even remotely aware of any conspiracy even if there was one.

MD: Could you share with our readers the gist of your statement to the crime branch?
VJ: I can do very little at the moment. The enquiry is sub-judice, and it would be prudent not to respond even at the cost of those whipping up the controversy to seemingly get the upper hand. Many members have requested me to speak up in view of all the rumour-mongering, but that can wait. The stewards may consider a formal statement at the appropriate time. I only wish the media too shows restraint and tries to sift the truth from an agenda that goes beyond the enquiry.

MD: Don't you think racing's image has taken a severe beating due to this episode? How do you plan to correct it?
VJ: Yes, all our efforts take a huge setback with some stories, often planted, that have appeared in the press and a few web sites. All those who love the sport are dismayed by such short sightedness. The lease of the club is still due, and this hardly helps our case, and this ought to have been not made as public, and that too by those who have a stake in the game both financially and as lovers of the sport. But they have another agenda, a deeper purpose.