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An Interview with Sulekha Varma - Clerk of the Course at Aintree

After reading Classics at Durham University, Sulekha Varma, knew she wanted to work within the horseracing industry but was unsure in which direction. After taking part in the British Horseracing Authority’s Graduate Scheme, Sulekha ticked off a few more experimental roles including a rookie journalist, racing secretary and within the Arabian Racing Organisation (ARO).

Eventually, her inspiration to be a Clerk of the Course arose and she ended her traineeship by the springtime of 2010. In December 2014, she got her present position at Aintree Racecourse. Being at the forefront of the biggest race meeting of the winter calendar is a dream. As is managing those wonderful days throughout the year where the best ground is always of utmost importance and those races over the famous ‘big’ fences, especially as Aintree is the pride of Liverpool’s people.

Photo credit: Bradley Ormesher/The Times

Yet, it’s on returning home, the hustle and bustle of the packed racecourse behind her, that Sulekha, 38, feels the flush of pride – of a ‘job well done when everything goes smoothly.’ She credits every member of her team, that they were ‘in the right place and manage the day well’ and there were no injuries to human or horse. She lives in Preston, Lancashire with husband Gary Capewell, a freelance broadcaster. Like any love story, they met many years ago through Arab racing and went their separate ways but to meet again five years ago. In their happily ever after, they married two years ago.

Did you have a horsey childhood? I don't have horsey parents but as a kid, I somehow made up my mind that I wanted to learn to ride so through pester power, I eventually had lessons. I rode until 16, doing a bit of everything; jumping, Pony Clubbing; I particularly enjoyed dressage. I then gave up riding to focus on school and uni.

How did you get into racing? It was by chance. I hadn’t realised that I could make career out of horses without necessarily being a rider.

During the summer holidays after finishing school, before starting university uni, I was offered a work experience placement at Lucinda Russell's. So, I went there for a week and after the first time up the gallop, I was hooked. That's where I first got the idea that racing would be the place to make a career. Lucinda was also a great person to learn from.

What roles did you have in racing before becoming a Clerk? After graduation, I did the BHA Graduate Programme, during which I worked at the Racing Post, thinking that journalism was the route I wanted to go down. I enjoyed the writing but I didn’t enjoy looking for bad news or hunting people down for stories. Some people are made to do that but I wasn't. During the six-week placement, I got some great opportunities, wrote a double-page spread and did all sorts of things.

I went back to Lucinda’s full time as racing secretary and then I went to Arabian Racing Organisation (ARO) for two years. There, I did all sorts from memberships, admin, race planning to booking vets, doctors and everything else we needed to run the race days. It was during this time that I first clerked and I soon realised that was the route I wanted to go down. Whilst I was there, I applied to the Jockey Club to be a trainee Clerk of the Course.

I didn't expect to get the job but I did. So, in October 2009, I started training at Haydock and by the January, I had a job at Nottingham and Market Rasen. I fully qualified in March 2010 and then I worked at various racecourses before getting Aintree three years ago.

What training did you do to become a Clerk? The Clerk training programme involved covering race planning, raceday clerking and turf management. Much of it was going round the country and shadowing people in their roles in the BHA and as doctors and vets etc. It meant spending a lot of time with other Clerks and ground staff on lots of racecourses. The idea was to start clerking with an understanding of how the whole race day functions.

It was useful to me knowing how yards work and how staff operate, but I had to learn a lot about turf management. Race planning still isn't my favourite part of the job. Some take to it like a fish to water but I’m not the most enamoured by it.

Which racecourses have you worked at? I've been at Market Rasen, Nottingham, Warwick, Huntingdon, Hamilton and now I'm at Aintree.

Which racecourse haven't you worked at but would like to? Being with the Jockey Club meant I spent time on most courses. I actually like learning about the running of other major sporting events. This summer, I went to Wimbledon and, as much as I loved watching the tennis, I was intrigued about how the day was set up and managed.

Favourite racecourse: I do love Aintree. Even before this job, it was always somewhere I loved but Perth is the first racecourse I visited – it's friendly and it has a special place in my heart.

Favourite racehorse: A horse at Lucinda Russell's called Low Reactor – he wasn't the fastest in the world but he was a very sweet character. He napped quite badly with other people but he and I got on. He won one race in his career – a novices’ chase on the Fighting Fifth card but never won again. He was my best friend.

Favourite Grand National winner: Having worked for Lucinda Russell, One For Arthur and Corach Rambler were special and so was taking the race back up to Scotland.

Favourite meeting: I quite enjoy the summer Flat season, especially the big fixtures and the weather is nice. I also enjoy big days at Cheltenham – going racing on these days is as much about seeing friends as it is about racing.

Racing hero: I fangirl a bit over Rachel Blackmore. She's an amazing jockey and so talented but down to earth and such an incredible person and, also, all that she's achieved is phenomenal. I probably get a bit tongue tide around her.

What's your typical race day? I'm usually on site by 5:30 in the morning regardless of the time of the first race. I walk the course and liaise with everyone what the going is by 6:45, which is all done online these days via our phones.

Then I field phone calls from trainers and owners and make sure everything is set up and ready. Much of this is done the day before but I double check it’s all ok in the parade ring, weighing room, those sorts of areas, and make sure they have everything they need.

Two hours before the first race, I walk the course again with the Stewards Panel Chair sometimes the BHA course inspector is there too. We check there's no immediate concerns and to make sure what I called the going is correct. Sometimes, it is changed before racing dependent on the weather conditions.

I then get changed, go to the stewards’ briefing, check in with a couple of jockeys to make sure they're all happy and then racing starts. Often, when the racing is underway, I'm in the cycle of being in the parade ring to sort any issues there, as well as heading up to the side-on viewing box to watch the races. I make sure the vets and doctors are in position and any injuries are dealt with quickly. The day becomes a train that keeps running and it runs itself to a large extent.

At the end of the day, I make sure everyone's gone home before I go home and have a glass of wine.

What is the best part of your job? It’s satisfying when a race day has gone well and everyone is pleased with the ground and has gone home safe. That gives me a buzz.

What is the worst part of your job? Dealing with equine and jockey injuries.

What do you love about Aintree? The atmosphere of the Grand National is like nothing else. To see people at the racecourse enjoying the day out as well as enjoying the racing is really special, as are the people of Liverpool. The stable staff, owners and trainers all say the atmosphere is so unique, not just the quality of racing.

How has racing changed? I think the foundations of the sport haven't changed that much but I think the way we do things have with technology. There’s still a long way to go in some respects to do with injuries. University professors are looking into using AI to study lameness of horses. Racing is coming a long way and is using science a lot better. On our racecourses, in terms of turf management, we are constantly working to improve our standards and practices.

In your opinion, what is the future of racing? Racing does have a future but we have to manage that future. We have to accept we're living in a changing society and things that worked twenty years ago are not acceptable now – like the use of the whip, injuries and fatalities to horses, that type of thing. Society is shifting so racing needs to shift with it and that's the only way to evolve the sport.

What advice can you give someone thinking about becoming a Clerk? Get out there, meet people, ask people if you can go and shadow, ask people if you can watch. Perhaps get a part time job on a racecourse and don't expect to walk in as a Clerk or a trainee Clerk role. Try to get another job in racing, work in a yard or at a racecourse in a promotional or ground staff role to get a foothold.

Favourite meal: Pizza.

Favourite drink: Red wine.

Favourite snack: I'm not one for snacks – I'm happy with my two or three meals a day.

Favourite holiday destination: I don't have anywhere that is a favourite but I love to travel and see new places – anywhere the sun is shining and it is warm.

Favourite book: (laughing) I only read the Racing Post.

Favourite movie: I'm into the Marvel franchise and have watched all the movies and the new series.

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