There’s no Grand National this year, but Sulekha Varma talks about a whole decade working at the famous meeting, as told to Kate Johnson
I was 10 when I got my first pony, Bimbo; I haven’t always had horses, but they’ve always been in my life. At 16, I did a week’s work experience with trainer Lucinda Russell. My first trip up the gallops was amazing. I wasn’t on a particularly speedy or high-quality racehorse but the feeling was unbelievable. That experience bit me with the bug.
I saw Anthea Morshead, clerk of the course, on my first trip to a racecourse, at Perth. I didn’t know what her job was but she was organising people, making sure everyone was OK and in the right place, and it must have planted a seed.
Later, I worked at the Arabian Racing Organisation. They’d hire an entire racecourse for a day and host a race meeting. We’d arrange everything from medical and veterinary cover, registration, entries, sponsors, then turn up, run a raceday, pack up and leave. It gave me exposure to clerking and that’s when I thought it might suit me.
I used to look after a horse called Low Reactor at Lucinda’s yard. He was no world-beater, but he was very kind and I really bonded with him. He won one race in his career — a handicap chase at Newcastle in 2007 — when I was looking after him, which makes me proud.
It made me realise your horse doesn’t have to be a Gold Cup or Grand National winner to be special. Winning means so much to everyone connected; the hard work and investment pays off. I still have a picture of us all in the winner’s enclosure in my kitchen.
Frankel’s 2000 Guineas win in 2011 still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. That was the moment everybody was wowed. I could watch it again and again and still not quite believe it.
My job has only come up every quarter of a century in the past 100 years. In the world of racing, there’s been real change; Delia Bushell is CEO of The Jockey Club, Annamarie Phelps is the chair of the British Horseracing Authority, Rose Paterson is chair of Aintree. It’s important to remain a meritocracy and be given a job on your own merits. I am the first woman to hold the role of north-west head of racing for Jockey Club Racecourses and Aintree clerk.
It’s my 10th year working at the Grand National, starting out when I was a trainee clerk in the pull-up and washdown area, and I’ve spent the past five years assisting my predecessor Andrew Tulloch in all areas of the organisation. Quite a few clerks from other racecourses come to the meeting because it’s such a big track and high-profile event; I was one who was asked to help.
The Grand National is the ultimate test of the relationship between horse and jockey as athletes. It’s a fine balance to provide a spectacle and test while making sure it’s safe, which is hugely important for us. The transformation of fences and quality of runners has really increased. I don’t think it’s lost its character. It’s still a great race in the calendar, very competitive, and people still really want to win.
The Grand National I enjoyed the most was in 2017, won by One For Arthur, because of my connection with Lucinda’s yard. Lots of friends still work there and I know how much it meant to racing in Scotland. He’s a very special horse, he lights up over fences and plugs on at the end of a race.
I was working at Aintree that day; he crossed the line and I was occupied making sure every horse was back and accounted for. We got the all clear and Andrew Tulloch said, “It’s OK, you can celebrate now!” I did a bit of jumping around and found my friends. It was very special for the people who worked hard and greatly deserved a day like that.
Whatever job you do in racing, you’re only there because the horses are there. Our sport revolves around these amazing animals; they are the centre of it all and they bring us so many opportunities and so much enjoyment.
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 April 2020