Simon Claisse described his 22 years at Cheltenham as “an honour and a privilege” as he enjoyed his final day as clerk of the course on Sunday.
Claisse first began working at the home of National Hunt racing in 1999 and has since overseen 20 Cheltenham Festivals – a tenure that has coincided with the eras of great horses such as Best Mate, Kauto Star, Denman, Istabraq and Sprinter Sacre.
Away from the track, Claisse was instrumental in establishing the Tattersalls Cheltenham Bloodstock sales and the Jockey Club South West syndicate, as well as acting as a member of the judging panel for the annual McCoys awards.
However, he announced he would be stepping down from the role earlier in the year and on taking charge at Prestbury Park for the final time, Claisse admitted to conflicted emotions.
He said: “(I’m feeling) inevitably a bit mixed, it’s been 22 and a bit years – it’s been my life. I felt in the summer it was the right time. I’m still at an age where I can go off and pursue other interests.
“I want to reiterate the point I’ve made many times in the last few months – it’s been an honour and a privilege to play a part in not only the development of the racecourse, but the success of the Festival too over that time.”
Claisse presided over some key moments in Festival history, but also faced significant challenges – not least when the meeting was cancelled in 2001 due to foot and mouth or when the Wednesday of the Festival was called off in 2008 after high winds damaged some temporary structures at the venue.
However, Claisse pinpointed the 2021 Festival – held behind closed doors – as the biggest challenge of his Cheltenham tenure as an ‘Irish bubble’ was created at the track to ensure the raiding party could compete in a way that minimised the threat of spreading or contracting Covid-19.
He said: “I won’t miss the anxiety – you know, have we irrigated enough, have we put on too much, is it going to freeze? I won’t miss that side of it, but I will clearly miss all the people I’ve worked with.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have brilliant teams in support of particularly the racing function, but also other colleagues across the business who look after all the other bits and pieces.
“I think that really struck home at this year’s Festival when we had the disappointment of no owners and no race-going public, (but) we were able to deliver what was needed to get the Irish contingent to come over by creating in essence an ‘Irish bubble’. That was (my biggest challenge).
“To have done that is just testimony to the way everyone was working together and the relationships we had with the BHA and Horse Racing Ireland to be able to have done that.
“I think in terms of operational achievement over the years, that would be the big one, probably even more so than the one that we all recall, ‘Windy Wednesday’ in 2008.”
The cancellation of that Wednesday led to packed cards on Thursday and Friday, with 19 races contested across just two days.
Claisse recalled: “It was an interesting morning as the wind had done its damage and quite a lot of people were saying ‘why can’t we go ahead’ – but the site wasn’t safe for participants or racegoers.
“When Edward (Gillespie, managing director) and I started looking at it at about 5.30am, as the damage had been done from 3.30/3.45am, we were talking about ‘you know, we can put the RSA in on Thursday and the Queen Mother maybe on Friday’ and I suddenly said ‘look, the weather’s set fair, why don’t we go for it?’.
“It worked – 19 races across two days. I remember Ruby (Walsh) saying to me when I think he had his 16th ride on I’msingingtheblues in the County Hurdle, as he went past me in the parade ring he said ‘I think I want to go home now!’.”
Claisse’s final November meeting certainly did not pass without its dramas, with Friday’s two-runner novice chase attracting all the headlines as Mr Drogo and Gin On Lime both hit the penultimate obstacle, with only Rachael Blackmore’s skill in maintaining her partnership with the latter saving the day.
Claisse said: “My colleagues said the things I hadn’t experienced in nearly 23 years were either a walkover or a race with no finishers, and having escaped the walkover, I was thinking we weren’t going to have any finishers.
“Bless Rachael, she came to our rescue!”
Claisse expects to miss the thrill of Cheltenham in the future.
He added: “This place gets to you. Sprinter Sacre coming back into this winner’s enclosure in 2016 – it’s spine-tingling stuff. I don’t get it anywhere else.”
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