|Thursday, 13 February 2003|
A tribute to the late Upali Wijewardene
The Sri Lanka Turf Club reminisces the disappearance of Upali Wijewardene 20 years ago. On 13th February 1983 the famous business entrepreneur, Turfite and Sportsman disappeared on his way from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo over the Malacca Straits in his private Lear Jet. Upali Wijewardene was the Chairman, Board of Stewards of the Sri Lanka Turf Club at the time of his disappearance.
The young Upali who lost his father at the tender age of 1 2/1 years was brought up by his mother Anula Kalyanawathie Wiewardene, Upali had his primary education at Ladies College and Royal College Colombo. He later graduated from Queen's College of Cambridge University in England.
On his return to Sri Lanka Upali commenced his business career as a Management Trainee at Lever Brothers. Thereafter, he ventured out on his own and founded the Upali Group of Companies under the sign of the eternal symbol of energy "The Sun". Upali's maternal uncle the late Sarath Wijesinghe, President of the Senate and Chairman Board of stewards of the Ceylon Turf Club was a great inspiration to him in both his business and horse racing career.
"Upali Group" pioneered by one man, began as a small candy manufacturing factory under "Delta" brand in Sri Lanka. Next he was the pioneer to assemble radios, clocks and TVs under the "UNIC" Brand. Upali Motor Company was next on line. The UMC Mazda and Upali Fiat were assembled at his Industrial Complex in Homagama in the early 70s. He also started the first domestic airline and helicopter service "Upali Aviation".
Upali next acquired "Kandos Chocolate Company" from his uncle Sarath Wijesinghe. His next venture was "Consumer Products" such as "Sikuru" and "Crystal" soap which are a household name in Sri Lanka today. He also started the Upali Newspapers Ltd. by publishing "Island" and "Divaina" Newspapers. His paternal uncle late D.R. Wijewardene Founder of Lake House was his inspiration for this venture. The Upali Group employed 33,000 workers worldwide during Upali's time.
Upali Wijewardene was a man of many parts. He was the Basnayake Nilame of the "Raja Maha Viharaya, Kelaniya". This position he inherited from his father, late Don Walter Wijewardene, son of Helena Wijewardene Lamathani, who renovated the present Kelaniya Temple after its destruction by the Portuguese.
His religious belief was such that whatever he produced, he first offered to the Kelaniya Temple. The name Upali Wijewardene is synonymous with "The Sport of Kings, Horse Racing". Upali was the Chairman, Board of Stewards of the Sri Lanka Turf Club, he was a keen turfite and raced in Sri Lanka and England where he won the "Royal Ascot" with "Rasa Penag" ridden by the world famous Jockey "Lester Piggot".
He also won the "Singapore Derby" and "Perak Derby" - 1980 with his horse named "Varron". He raced "General Atty" too and won many races in England. He flew to all these countries where his horses were racing in his private aircraft. Upali made it a point to fly from New Market to Nuwara Eliya to watch his horses and ponies racing there too. He would land in Katunayake Airport and make a quick tarmac change to his private helicopter to fly to Nuwara Eliya. Upali was responsible in reviving pony racing and thereafter to horse racing during the time there was a lull in racing.
His pony mare "Amal" won 40 races and entered the Guiness Book Records. He imported 3 horses "Kandos Man", "King of Zulu", "Cornwall Garden" to revive horse racing in Sri Lanka.
Upali Wijewardene raced under the famous racing colours first used by his uncle Sarath Wijesinghe "Red and Gold Cross Slash". At present these colours can be seen at our turf on the horses raced by Dhammika Attygalle nephew of Upali Wijewardene.
Upali had two sisters namely Anoja Wijesundera and Kalyani Attygalle, two nieces and six nephews. One of his nephews Dhammika Attygalle is the current President of the Sri Lanka Turf Club, Shalitha Wijesundera was the past Treasurer of the Sri Lanka Turf Club and Dr. Rohan Wijesundera is also very keen on promoting horse racing in Sri Lanka.
Another hobby of Upali was rearing Pedigreed Dogs. He imported 4 higher pedigreed Labrador retriever from England to revive Labrador breeding in Sri Lanka in the 70s. The first two Labrador dogs imported by him were "CH Kingsbury Caramel" and "CH Royalwood Jane" the next two were "Lady Lyndhurst Raqual" and his favourite yellow Labrador male "Charlie" who missed his Master so much when Upali disappeared and waited daily by the back gate for his dear master to return. He enjoyed handling his dogs himself at the dog shows organised by the ladies Kennel Association of Sri Lanka. He showed these dogs under his kennel name "Sunny Croft".
Upali was keen on Motor racing too. Having raced his mother's "Opel Kapitan" at the Katukurunde Races in early 60s. He was so enthusiastic about racing that he imported an "M.G.A. Sports Twin Cam", which he raced at the Mahagastota Hill Climb, His enthusiasm to motor racing made him phone from London and buy a "Mitsubishi Lancer" to be raced at the Nuwara Eliya Road Races and Mahagastota Hill Climb in 1980.
Upali imported a luxury S-Class Mercedes Benz 126 from Malaysia. This was the first car of this type in Sri Lanka.
He got married on 7th November 1975 to Lakmini, daughter of Dr and Mrs Seevali Ratwatte.
The creation of GCEC (now the BOI) was the brainchild of Upali Wijewardene. His Excellency the President J.R. Jayawardene who was his cousin appointed Upali Wijewardene as the first Director General of the GCEC. Upali's political aspirations were to see to the welfare of the people of Kamburupitiya and serve his motherland. He was the Founder of the Ruhunu Udanaya, which developed and uplifted the economy of the Southern people.
The Sri Lanka Turf Club is thankful to Upali Group for the sponsorship of "The Upali Wijewardene - Kandos Trophy" for Class I Thoroughbred Horse Race held at the Nuwara Eliya Race Course in April in memory of their Founder Chairman to promote and develop this sport.
It is sad to say that the disappearance of Upali Wijewardene at the prime of his life has left a void in Sri Lanka which cannot be filled.
May he attain Nibbana.
Sri Lanka Turf Club
Produced by Lake House