Mamun Khan, an organiser of the biggest horse race, is quick to boast that his horse is currently the strongest and healthiest in the country.
Bought for a princely sum of Tk8 lakh, he said he has won the first prize in numerous horse races held in different parts of the country.
Mamun, the organiser of the three-day race held in Sherpur, Bogura, said at least 200 horses have taken part in his competition, which is based on points and the reward for the victor is a few lakhs. The race length is one-kilometre.
He also said that he has made many a jockey, many of whom have returned his faith by giving eye-catching performances.
Horse-racing has always enjoyed popularity in the northern part of the country. The game has spread from one generation to the next. Many take part in the competition with their own horses or they rent horses, with horse-owners even hiring jockeys.
The ancient practice has enjoyed a revival in North Bengal, especially in Naogaon, Chapainawabganj, Bogura and Sirajganj areas. Earlier, the competitions were organised on a small scale, but over the years, they have grown both in numbers and prominence, becoming festivals attended by millions of people.
Horse racing season is mainly winter, but it is also held for one month in the summer.
Tanore, Mohanpur and Bagmara in Rajshahi, Rahanpur in Chapainawabganj, Sapahar in Naogaon, and Dhamairhat and Manda have been hosting day-long races on a large scale in recent times. The biggest race, however, is the one held in Bogura.
A huge competition was recently held on December 20 in Mohanpur, Rajshahi where more than a hundred competitors took part. The competition was held in three categories. Thirty-four horses competed in A category, 27 in B category and 54 in C category. A total of nine prizes were awarded in three groups, which were one cow and eight goats.
Abdul Mannan, the organiser of the Mohanpur racing competition, said, "We have been organising this race since last year. It is the biggest one day competition in North Bengal. It cost us about Tk3 lakh. Everyone who took part in the competition, including each contestant, were compensated for accommodation and travel.
"However, most of the money was made up for by selling tickets," he added.
Abdul Mannan said that he also participated in the competition with his own two horses and by renting two others from Bogura.
"I hired two riders: DJ Maruf and DJ Sajib. They were paid Tk4,000-5,000 to participate in the competition," he said.
"We have had horses in our house since the time of our ancestors. From an early age, my father and I competed in various districts. However, back then competitions were small with 20-30 horses. Most were also festival-centric. Now, the races are held on a large scale," he said.
The races follow particular rules. For instance, all the racecourses are of similar size. The course length is generally determined to be one to one-and-a-half kilometres.
Some of the races are free for spectators, while tickets are sold for others.
According to the organising committees, big races yield big prizes worth lakhs of taka. The organisers also pay for the commute, lodging and food for all of those who take part.
Those who organise the competitions, take part in those or are spectators, all keep in communication so as to know when the next race will be held and where.
Young children and adolescents are mainly the jockeys, because the lighter the rider, the faster and further the horse is able to run.
Although the sight of children racing on horses can be jarring at first, they all join willingly and are most often quite competitive, and take pride in their work, those involved said.
Abdus Salam, a 60-year-old horse racing fan, said that although he did not take part, he went to different parts of the country to spectate. He enjoyed the races very much, saying that they had horses in their house since he was very young.
The races can also be used for canvassing votes for local elections. Being an intrinsic part of regional cultures, people can gain popularity among their constituents by arranging the competitions.
Nazim Uddin, whose election poster reads Nazim Uddin Nazim Ghorawala, became a member of Dargadanga in Tanore, Rajshahi, after organising horse races for four years.
"I was elected as a member this year by organising horse races. The love of the locals which I gained has helped me become a representative of the people."
He said that he organised a three-day race in December last year in Dargadanga and a two-day race in Koelhat. The Dargadanga one was attended by 30-40,000 people. Seventy-five horses competed in three categories and the races were open for all, free of cost. Local MPs Omar Farooq Chowdhury and Upazila Chairman Lutfar Haider Rashid Maina paid the lion's share of the money spent on organising the event.
The child-jockeys and the blind-eyes
As children are the preferred jockeys in the races, the risk of accidents hangs over the heads of both participants and organisers.
The practice of employing children is also illegal, but organisers rely on the authorities turning a blind eye. So far, no initiative has been taken by the police or the administration from stopping the use of children as jockeys.
According to sources, while organisers are supposed to take permission for holding the races, they often choose not to. Emboldened by the presence and patronage of local MPs and chairmen as chief guests, official permission is treated as an afterthought.
Furthermore, law enforcement officials are also often present in the races as security personnel for the MPs.
Looking at the major races organised in Tanore, Mohanpur and Bagmara, in Rajshahi, it was found that none of the organisers took any permission. For the race in Tanore, Omar Farooq Chowdhury, a local MP from the area, was present as the chief guest.
Large-scale races were also organised at Mohanpur in Rajshahi, in the presence of the local MP and chairman.
Abdul Mannan, the organiser of the race in Mohanpur, said that small and big accidents often happen during the races.
"Last year my horse had an accident in Chapainawabganj. The rider's arm was broken in the accident," he said, adding that so far no one had been killed.
Regarding permission, he said that although they had to take the consent of the deputy commissioner, there was no need as local MPs and chairmen were usually present as chief guests. Mamun Khan, a race organiser in Bogura, said the same.
Mamun said his horse was involved in an accident in Tangail only last year, but it wasn't major and these things "happened all the time".
Contacted, Rajshahi Superintendent of Police ABM Masud Hossain said, "If you want to organise a race, you must take permission. But many organisers do not as the races are held at union levels.
On the use of children as jockeys, he said that the law clearly stated that children cannot be used for any risky work. "That's not right. In most cases, we don't even know that races are being organised," he admitted.
At present, three races are being held in Sirajganj. When this correspondent reached out to Sirajganj Deputy Commissioner Farooq Ahmed, he said that he had no idea about any of the races.
"We do not know anything about it. But we will find out," he said.