Zoe Smith

Sulekha Varma talks Aintree with Zoe Smith

Recently I caught up with Sulekha Varma and we spoke about her role at Aintree Racecourse as Clerk of the Course, what goes on behind the scenes and the pressure on this years Grand National meeting after a year like no other. You can read part one of my interview below.

Zoe: Firstly, can you tell us a bit about your background and how did you get into your role as Clerk of the Course at Aintree Racecourse?

Sulekha: It’s a good question, I had always enjoyed riding when I was younger. I pestered my parents when I was much younger, I always wanted to learn to ride and eventually they gave in. I think in the hope that I would fall off once and that would be the end of it, but it really wasn’t. I carried on riding whilst I was a child, I was lucky enough to have my own pony. I went through pony club and I had a go at most disciplines, bit of show jumping, bit of pony club games – all those types of things. But never really discovered racing, never really got to know anything about it.

Before I went to university I went on a work experience placement which was with a friend of mine. Her mum used to organise work experience placements for another school and she wanted to try and set one up in horse racing so myself and her daughter, Lauren, were sort of sent to try it out. And that landed us at Lucinda Russell’s yard. We spent a week there and that was what got me absolutely hooked on racing. Going up the gallops on a racehorse, I’d never done that kind of speed on the back of a horse before, so it was quite incredible.

I then went off to university and would go back to Lucinda’s to ride out during the holidays and that’s when I started to realise there might be an opportunity to forge a career in horse racing. I did some research and found out about the BHA Graduate Programme, which now isn’t just restricted to graduates, but it was back then, but it’s a lot more open now – which is brilliant. So I did that, actually with every thought that I wanted to get into journalism, I really enjoyed writing, life took a different turn.

I went through a variety of roles. I went back to Lucinda Russell’s as a racing secretary, worked for the Arabian Racing Organisation for a while as well and then I managed to get a position as Trainee Clerk of the Course with The Jockey Club in October 2009 and that was how it all came about really.

Zoe: For people who may not know, what does your job as Clerk of the Course entail? What responsibilities do you have and then on race days what responsibilities do you have?

Sulekha: My overall responsibility is for the sport at the racecourse, the sport of horse racing, and that covers a variety of areas. The three main areas are:

The turf management – working with the head grounds person and the grounds team to make sure the track is ready and looked after correctly, everything from helping them make sure we have the correct machinery to look after the course to irrigation to making sure the fences and the hurdles are ready and correctly constructed to moving rails.

It then also includes the race planning side of things – which is prize money, race programme, what races we’re going to run when, what fixtures we’re going to have – pulling all of those things together.

And then probably the most visible bit is the race day clerking – which is, I often describe it as conducting the orchestra. On the race day most of the day you are not really doing very much other than keeping an eye on things. But when something does happen like there’s a faller or a loose horse or something like that, you’re making sure that all the members of your team like doctors, vets ground staff, anyone who is meant to be catching horses or screens, making sure that that’s happening as it should.

In theory as long as you’ve planned everything correctly, all of that should fall into place when it needs to. But it’s a case of always making sure you’re always keeping an eye on things. Then there is a lot of liaison with jockeys, trainers, the organisation bodies.

Zoe: With last year’s Grand National meeting being cancelled, do you feel like there is any additional pressure on this year’s meeting to make it perfect as there will be more eyes on the 3 days?

Sulekha: I think there probably is. The fact that there will be so many more people watching from home rather than being at the racecourse has gave us a slightly different focus on certain areas. Thinking about how we present the racecourse. The areas that in that past would have great big marquees all over them for bars and food outlets, shops and displays, all of those kind of things we normally have are not there. So, it’s about making sure the site still looks amazing even though it’s not going to be full of people. So for things like our sponsorship and marketing team it’s making sure that for our sponsors that they get prime opportunity for their brands to be seen. In spaces that are normally crammed with people will be empty spaces, so it’s deciding how we’re going to use those in a clever way. So from that side of things, it’s been very different.

On the track not a lot has changed. The racing itself – there’s social distancing and people wearing masks which we’re all used to these days and the team here have been working in that way for 12 months now. But the actual racing is unchanged, the preparation of the track, we have the same high expectations as any other year.

Zoe: Touching on the pandemic, what protocols have been put in place on a regular day and on race days for your staff?

Sulekha: Quite a lot really! On race days we’ve been operating under the BHA guidelines which were introduced last June, which enforce social distancing. For example, for the Grand National meeting we’re going to have 3 separate jockey changing rooms, where the jockeys all used to fit into one changing room, and they’d all sit right next to each other and be chatting to each other face to face and they’d sit in saunas and shower next to each other but none of that can happen anymore.

They all need a 2-metre individual space, so we’ve built another weighing room on top of the existing weighing room which is where a marquee that would normally be a hospitality area, and then we’ve converted another building on the racecourse into a changing room as well.

We also have temperature checks on arrival, everybody must do a medical questionnaire. We will be having owners on course for the Grand National but they’ll be in a separate zone. We have what’s called the green zone which is for participants and officials. So all of the stable staff, horses, jockeys, BHA officials, myself, the ground staff, they’re all in the green zone which includes the track itself. Then we have the amber zone which is for the owners, so the two don’t actually cross over on the day.

Part 2 coming soon!