Amid the hoo-ha that surrounds Ascot week, one piece of Jumping news has escaped almost unseen, which will be viewed with sadness by a majority of the professional training community. Simon Claisse, Clerk of the Course at Cheltenham since 1999, is leaving the home of Jump racing.
With a background as a farm manager, and a pretty good record between the flags with some 60 winners to his name, Claisse was a perfect choice to take over from an equally well regarded predecessor in Philip Arkwright. Between them, they have clerked the past 46 Festivals since 1976.
Cheltenham, and the Festival in particular, is a theatre for dreams, but also has immense scope for drama behind the scenes. Both men saw the sharp end of that in an era when not only did the Festival grow to enjoy a much wider national appeal, but the risks accompanying it were magnified also.
Arkwright, of course, was in charge of racing operations when snow forced a delay to the Gold Cup of 1987. The runners were at the start as officials, Arkwright included, realized that the snow was balling in the horses' hooves. The field was recalled and the crowd waited for well over an hour until the flurry abated and the snow began to melt. As nerves go, it was a steely resolve that saw the day through, for which the late Arthur Stephenson, absent at Hexham, and his jockey, Ridley Lamb, had much to be thankful.
Claisse too has endured some pretty odd hazards to the continuance of racing. In 2001, he and racecourse boss Edward Gillespie were unfairly lampooned in the press after sheep, grazing on a pasture adjacent to the start, caused the cancellation of the entire Festival, when they became infected with foot & mouth disease, in what amounted to the early stages of an epidemic that destroyed 6m head of sheep and cattle.
In 2008, the second day of the Festival fell foul of the weather, on Windy Wednesday, when gusts of over 50mph damaged some of the temporary structures in the tented village. Nine and ten race cards on Thursday and Friday made for exhilarating racecards for those that stayed on.
And it was Claisse that devised, in tandem with the BHA's Race Planning department, the four additional races that made up the fourth day to the Festival in 2005: the introduction of the Ryanair Chase (then under the sponsorship of the Daily Telegraph), the Novices Handicap Chase that graduated to the Grade I Marsh Chase, the Festival Plate and the cross-country. Of course, further races have subsequently been added (or dropped) including most recently the mares steeplechase added for 2021.
In 2019, an equine flu scare quarantined 100 yards in February and threatened to scupper the March event altogether, not least with cautious Irishmen not anxious to take the infection back home.
One other drama dominated the first 20 years of racing at Cheltenham this millenium - low sun. Generations of riders since 1898 had ridden up the home straight in November and December without complaint, until a new set of riders discovered the sun shines at a low angle for parts of the afternoon on that stretch of the track. Today's collaborative approach and H & S compliance saw several occasions when all 4 fences in the straight were omitted, until Claisse rearranged the cards to avoid times of day most likely to casue problems. A lot of praying for overcast conditions used to take place in the office!
Clerking Cheltenham is a high pressure appointment complicated by the fact that you have toi manage a team of people remotely from an eerie in the grandstand. There is no opportunity to dash down to the track to attend to an issue in person. As anyone attending Cheltenham will attest, the distances are too long, and the lifts are too slow in any case!
As a testimonial, Nicky Henderson's comments today allow a true professional to leave the sporet with reputation intact, "
“Life is never easy as a clerk of the course – and since Simon took over from Philip, he has done a wonderful job.
“There have been hundreds of meetings and countless Festivals where Simon has had to make very difficult decisions, and he has done a brilliant job – you can never please all the people all the time, because everyone will have a different opinion.
“Simon has exemplified the two most important things in his role – he has always been incredibly helpful and always truthful."
One has to ask though why Claisse hasn't seen it through to retirement in 5 years. A 20 years stretch in any job is a long time, but increasingly this is a young man's game; I suspect patience, perhaps with the horsemen, but as likely with rule makers and racecourse executives, wears thin after such a long spell under the footlights.
These will be difficult shoes to fill for a course that prides itself on innovation and flair.
Going for Sunday April 3 - Good (Thursday)
6m SE Cheltenham, nr junction of A40 and A436 (Exit 11A, M5)