BY ANAND MOHEEPUTH
Mahébourg was poised to become after Port Louis the next venue for horse racing. That was way back in 1837. One of the leading entrepreneurs in the early British period, Adrien d’Epinay (1794-1839), took more of an interest in trying to develop Mahébourg into a vibrant town with a seaport project, the construction of a racecourse and even the setting up of a building similar to the Government House in Port Louis.
If d’Epinay’s enthusiasm for fitting Mauritius with a second seaport at Mahébourg was dampened on the one hand by the interference about maintaining the role of Port Louis and on the other by the dilly-dallying of Governor William Nicolay despite the go ahead given in 1835 by Earl Grey, the Secretary of state for the Colonies, the Mahébourg harbour project remained in limbo until it vanished in thin air.
But there was a sign for the elevation of Mahébourg with the launching of a “Racing Strand” twenty five years after Sir Robert Farquhar introduced horse racing at the Champ de Mars, an erstwhile French military training ground.
Even then, the existence of a racecourse in Mahébourg would be short-lived. Most probably because the interest of some of the promoters dwindled after the premature death of d’Epinay in Paris in 1839.
The eminent historian Auguste Toussaint attributes in his ‘Port Louis, Deux Siècles D’Histoire’ to two factors that proved detrimental to the emergence of Mahébourg as the second most important town after Port Louis. First, the advent of rail transport that began affecting the coastal maritime traffic; second, the threat posed by the devastating malaria disease forcing many of the coastal inhabitants to flee to the upper Plaines Wilhems which gradually began bristling with activities at the expense of far-flung villages like Mahébourg.
Mahébourg with a racecourse was initially an attractive place. In fact, on a track running along the coast from Blue Bay to Pointe d’Esny, two inaugural race meetings were held on Monday 23 and Wednesday 25 October 1837. Mondays and Wednesdays used to be normal horse racing days.
The festive ambience and effervescence Mahébourg wore on race days, it was said, sent a flurry of envy to the Champ de Mars. Boatloads of people from the coastal villages converged on Mahébourg to watch some of the popular horses of those times like Faug a Ballagh (Faugaballah), Patriot, Prime Minister, Aveline, Grey Diamond and Bolivar engaged in competitions.
A glimpse of the Mahébourg racecourse is given in the ‘Mauritiana’ (1908-1909) periodical: “L’hippodrome de Mahébourg était sur le rivage, mais n’était pas voisin de cette ville. Il en était éloigné de trois milles. Le terrain était sablonneux et couvert de hautes herbes dans la partie haute, d’un gazon vivace vers la plage. Il présentait des irrégularités telles que les personnes qui assistaient, des tentes, au départ des chevaux, les perdaient de vue pendant plus de deux tiers de la course: elles ne les revoyaient qu’un peu avant leur arrivée au poteau…”
The first race meeting in Mahébourg organized with the help of British soldiers was held on Monday 23 October 1837. The first race starting at 2.30 pm for which the “Coupe de Grand Port” was at stake was won by Prime Minister owned by the Dumée family.
Faugaballah, hailed as the “idol of the public”, according to R. Lincoln in the Dictionary of Mauritian Biography, was considered a fantastic horse winning the second race easily on that day. A five-year old dark bay horse, it was owned by Lord John Chichester, a British army officer and sportsman, staying at 50, St-Georges Street, Port Louis.
Described by Dr Auguste Toussaint in his ‘Port Louis, Deux Siècles D’Histoire’, as “le plus beau coursier de mémoire de colon, ait jamais couru à l’île Maurice, s’acquit une gloire immortelle”.
Faugaballah, according to the journalist Léoville L’Homme, was so dear to John Chichester that the latter – having gone back to England could not endure the painful separation – urged a friend of his stationed at Grand Port, Major Fraser, to put an end to the animal’s life with a pistol shot. Faugaballah’s remains were buried at the very site of the race track at Mahébourg and the horse’ shoes were sent to the grieving owner in England. In remembrance of Faugaballah, the Mauritius Turf Club (MTC) usually dedicates a race yearly in its fixtures as the ‘Faugaballah plate’.
The growing interest in horse racing prompted organizers to consider going more professional. The importation of thoroughbreds began on a greater scale but horse owners also began thinking about hiring the services of professional riders. Tom Smith was a professional jockey in Mauritius riding Adrien d’Epinay’s horse Aveline at Mahébourg.