Sulekha Varma will become the first woman to take charge of the Grand National after being announced as the new north-west head of racing for Jockey Club Racecourses.
The 34-year-old, who has previously cited the animal welfare lobby as the "greatest challenge" facing her sport, has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the racing ranks to become clerk of the course at Aintree.
Varma succeeds Andrew Tulloch, who has run Britain's most famous steeplechase for nearly a quarter of a century. He stands down after Saturday’s Becher Chase meeting, while Varma leaves her current post as racing manager and clerk of the course at Hamilton Park.
"While British racing has faced and will face challenges, I hope Aintree will continue to be at the forefront of addressing many of those and showcasing our wonderful sport to an ever-wider audience," said Varma, who added she was "honoured" to be taking one of the most senior roles in racing.
Varma is part of a generation who have changed the face of racing, with increasing numbers of racecourse officials and female jockeys welcomed into racing. In terms of return on investment, recent research by the Racing Post over five jump seasons showed female riders outperformed male jockeys in all but the 2016/17 campaign. At the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, 14.3 per cent of wins came from female riders – two for Rachael Blackmore and one apiece for Bryony Frost and Lizzie Kelly – despite receiving only 9.2 per cent of the total number of rides available.
For Varma the main issues facing her sports remain concerns over animal welfare. In a previous interview with Thoroughbred Racing, Varma, who began as a trainee clerk of the course with the Jockey Club at Haydock in 2009, expressed concern over the threat facing racing from the likes of Peta, who vehemently oppose the sport due to its record on its equine deaths.
"It is an issue that has crept up slowly, but it is rapidly gaining momentum and needs to be tackled head-on," she said. "The sport cannot bury its head in the sand, or declare that we won’t be dictated to by those from outside our sport. The simple truth is, if we don’t communicate our high standards more effectively, and continue to improve on those high standards, we will be dictated to by those outside our sport and the decisions will be taken out of our hands."
Since completing her training, she went on to serve as clerk of the course at Nottingham, Market Rasen, Warwick and Huntingdon between 2010 and 2016. "I'll be sad to leave the fantastic team at Hamilton, but it's a hugely exciting opportunity to join the team who stage the UK’s most famous horserace and I'm very much looking forward to getting started," Varma added on Wednesday. Dickon White, north-west regional director of Jockey Club Racecourses, said she "brings a wealth of experience and extensive knowledge of the industry".
"Her role at Hamilton saw the racecourse collect a number of awards and she is already a familiar face at Aintree, having worked closely alongside the team for the past ten years during the Grand National festival," he added.