Sulekha Varma is Racing Manager and Clerk of the Course at Hamilton Park and is leading from the front in developing the strategy to give back to the local community. Finding the smallest ways to help others can build a big reputation, as Sulekha explains.
First memories of racing
I was always keen on horses and, thanks to pester power, was lucky enough to start riding from a young age.
I remember sitting in a hotel room in Dublin aged nine watching Minnehoma win the Grand National – nine years on from that I had truly caught the racing bug and realised that there was the possibility of forging a career in the sport.
My first real foray into racing was at the age of 18, when I completed a work experience placement at Lucinda Russell’s yard. One ride up the gallops later and I was hooked.
BHA Graduate Programme
A Classical Studies degree from Durham University led to a place on the BHA Graduate Programme and then a placement at the Racing Post. I then returned to Lucinda Russell’s yard as Racing Secretary, then I was on the move once again, this time to Berkshire to be Racing Manager at the Arabian Racing Organisation.
In 2009, I joined The Jockey Club as a Trainee Clerk of the Course in October 2009, and once qualified I went on to run Market Rasen and Nottingham Racecourses for them, before a stint at Warwick and Huntingdon Racecourses.
Those travels through the sport have brought me here… to Hamilton Park as Racing Manager & Clerk of the Course where I’ve been in post since January 2016.
Community Engagement in Scotland
Community Engagement was largely new to me when I was asked to take responsibility for Hamilton’s strategy at the end of last year. That said, I already had an appreciation of its importance to any business to ensure there is effective engagement with their local community.
The involvement of Racing Together, and particularly our new colleague in Scotland, Eleanor Boden, has given Hamilton Park a knowledgeable and experienced resource from which to bring together our Community Engagement projects under one banner.
The Hamilton Park team has carried out plenty of Community Engagement projects over the years – everything from sponsored-zipline jumps to helping at a food distribution centre where unwanted food from supermarkets is shared amongst homeless shelters in Glasgow. The drawback was that the various activities had always been quite detached.
My challenge has been to bring everything together and we have been working towards that by grouping and targeting our activities under eight main areas:
• Charity Involvement
• Animal Welfare
• Environmental Effects
• Responsible Gambling
• Responsible Drinking
Bringing CSR to life at Hamilton Park
Under the Charity Involvement heading, our long-standing relationship with Marie Curie has led us to provide Hospitality Boxes, so that some of Marie Curie’s beneficiaries can have a day at the races. We also work closely with the Les Hoey Dreammaker Foundation, Variety Club Scotland and Saints & Sinners Charity, helping them to arrange large raceday fundraising events at the racecourse.
Thanks to Eleanor Boden, who is leading the Racing Together pilot to support all Scottish racecourses, we have now built a relationship with Alzheimer Scotland. Some of the team completed a ‘Dementia Friends’ Course, and we will be using that knowledge to ensure our facilities and our staff are as ‘dementia-friendly’ as possible.
Encompassing both Family and Community, we have worked with our local Pony Club to give the youngsters a chance to see behind-the-scenes at the course, in the hope they might be inspired and excited by the idea of taking on a career in racing. We have also hosted two visits from local school pupils through Racing To School and taken part in Racing Welfare’s Racing Staff Week, hosting a BBQ for staff from local yards and racing businesses.
Small things mount up to make an impact
The most important thing I’ve learned so far since taking responsibility for Corporate Social Responsibility is how much difference small things can make.
Actions that seem fairly run-of-the-mill, such as providing clean and tidy baby-changing facilities or providing easily-available free drinking water, can make a huge difference to people’s experience and therefore directly influence the wider reputation of the business. It is not all about grand gestures and big events.
There is plenty that we do well already. We just haven’t recorded or shared it as successfully as we might have done and working as a partner with Racing Together is a big help.
Not forgetting the Environment
In terms of pushing our CSR programme further, I plan to spend some time while we are in our close-season working with the team to reduce the environmental effects of our business further. We already do things such as only using organic fertilisers on the estate and recycling as much waste as we can, but, with an on-site hotel opening imminently, our use of resources will need to be optimised as much as possible.
We’re also looking forward to running a Community Engagement project to tie in with the opening of the new hotel, which will engage local youngsters in the social history of the racecourse – their racecourse.