Grand National 2021: Sulekha Varma finally gets to ‘conduct the orchestra’ at world’s greatest race 

Sulekha Varma’s career as Aintree’s first female clerk of the course became one of the biggest false starts since the void Grand National of 1993 when what was due to be her first National 12 months ago became, like everything else at the time, a casualty of Covid.

But instead of barely having her feet under the table, she is now 14 months, three meetings and, importantly according to her, two races over the National fences into the job.

“Having only arrived in February last year it was pretty daunting,” recalls Varma, 36. “Even though I’d been helping my predecessor, Andrew Tulloch, on race-days for 10 years, that had only involved arriving a couple of days before, getting through the three days and leaving.

“It takes time to get to know the track and the people at any racecourse but my head groundsman, Mark Aynsley, does not need a huge amount of interference from me and I’m inheriting something in a good place.”

A bit like a referee in football, if a clerk of the course is getting publicity it is generally because something has gone wrong.

“The most public part of the job is giving going reports but it’s a very small part of it,” she explains. “I take responsibility for the racing side of things, liaison with owners, trainers, jockeys but on race-day a clerk essentially conducts the orchestra and manages the incidents.”

Besides deciding whether to water the course in order to produce at least good to soft ground, it will be her call in the race if a fence has to be bypassed or, worst case scenario, if the race had to be voided.

However with nine head groundspeople imported from racecourses across the country around the famous course she will not lack experienced advice on the ground to help her make those decisions.

She admits a thick skin is a handy attribute for her profession and she would not be the first clerk of the course to have been on the receiving end of a sharp tongued trainer if that were to happen.

“A lot of it’s about building relationships and mutual respect,” she says. “I don’t believe there is any excuse for anyone to rant and rave at anyone else in this day and age. There are decisions I’ll make which are not suitable for everyone. A lot will criticise with the benefit of hindsight but, with watering for example, I can only act with the information available at the time, there’s not a lot you can do if there is a deluge which is not forecast.”      

In many ways her posting at Aintree and as custodian of the world’s greatest race is coming full circle for Varma.

Her father, TRK Varma, arrived in Liverpool from Delhi in 1972 to work as a junior doctor having qualified as a medic in India. Eventually after moving via a hospital in Cardiff to Dundee he became a leading neurosurgeon.

When he lived in Liverpool he clocked the football but, even though it was the time of Red Rum, not the Grand National. His daughter, however, rode from a young age. “I think my parents hoped I’d fall off once and that would be the end of it,” she jokes.

Sulekha Varma at Aintree


The stands will be empty but at least this year the world’s greatest steeplechase will take place


Credit: PAUL COOPER FOR THE TELEGRAPH

She did the Pony Club thing and when she was 14 the family moved to Southport for her father’s second stint in Liverpool. She rode her pony and drove a car for the first time up the same beach on which Red Rum was famously trained by Ginger McCain.

At school a friend’s mum wanted to set up racing as a part of the work experience programme and, as something of a guinea pig, she was sent to Lucinda Russell’s in Scotland where she started to get a glimpse of an industry she thought she could work in and, after studying classics at Durham, she joined the British Horseracing Authority graduate course.

“I wasn’t going to be a jockey and initially it was journalism which interested me,” she recalls. “I was placed with the Racing Post and was straight in at the deep end. The last article I did was a double page spread on the 10th anniversary of Frankie Dettori’s Magnificent Seven and what had happened to the horses. One of them, Diffident, had ended up at stud in India.”

She had been doing a ‘stable tour’ with Russell for the Post when the trainer asked what her next move would be. “I’d been for a job interview to be secretary to Gary Moore and Lucinda said, ‘Do you want to be my secretary?’ She was doing all the paperwork herself at the time and it allowed her to concentrate on the horses.”

She then moved to the Arabian Racing Organisation which gave her a taste of racing administration after that applying for a trainee clerk of the course job with the Jockey Club. She got the job, qualifying in March 2010, by which time she was already running Nottingham and Market Rasen.

She did four years at Huntingdon and Warwick before leaving the Jockey Club for Hamilton. “I thought it important to spend time at an independent course,” she says. “As clerk you are part of the management team but at an independent you only have each other, you don’t have a bigger umbrella company to fall back on. It was a great learning process.”

So what will be the best result for Varma on Saturday? “Whoever wins, it’s usually always an exciting story, that’s the beauty and the magic of the race,” she says. “But everyone coming home safe – that’s what success looks like for me.”   

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