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Simon Claisse to step down as Cheltenham clerk later this year

Cheltenham clerk Simon Claisse is to step down from his role at the end of 2021.

Claisse first began working at the track 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.

Claisse will remain in his role for Cheltenham’s October meeting, and will then step aside before the end of the calendar year.

He said: “By the time our new season begins in October, I will have worked for the Jockey Club for 32 very fulfilling and rewarding years, with over two decades at Cheltenham, where it has been an honour and a privilege to have played a part in the development and on-going success of the racecourse and in particular the Festival.

“Throughout my career in racing I have been blessed to have had the support of wonderful colleagues and teams, who together with the horsemen have been instrumental in our and jump racing’s success over the past two decades.”

Six-time champion trainer Nicky Henderson paid tribute to Claisse’s achievements at the track.

He said: “In all my training career, I have only known two clerks of the course at Cheltenham, Philip Arkwright and Simon Claisse.

“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.

“I have much enjoyed working with him, and wish him all the best for the future.”

Unexpected rainfall turns Cheltenham ground soft

The going at Cheltenham has eased following unexpected rainfall of 10 millimetres overnight.

While a dry week is expected, the official description is now soft, good to soft in places for the start of the Festival.

Both the Old Course, used on the first two days, and the New Course which comes into use on Thursday and Friday, are described the same following the rain.

Clerk of the course Simon Claisse said at 8.30am on Monday: “It was unexpected, yes. No forecast I’d seen suggested more than one or two millimetres last night, and we ended up with just over 10.

“We’ve now gone soft, good to soft in places on all the courses.

“We’re not forecast particularly warm weather – although having said that, the forecast temperatures have gone up a little during the week to what they were earlier.

“We’ll just have to see how things pan out (whether any watering will take place later in the week). It’s too early to speculate.”

Simon Claisse predicts good to soft for start of Festival

Cheltenham clerk of the course Simon Claisse expects the ground at Prestbury Park to be mainly good to soft for the start of the four-day Festival in 13 days’ time.

Claisse’s assessment is the going report will also contain either good or soft in places.

“As things currently stand I have a good sense we are going to start with good to soft and ‘something’ in places – whether it is good in places or soft in places – with the normal caveat based on the current forecast,” he told a press conference zoom call.

Despite a very wet mid-winter, Claisse is happy with conditions on all three courses – the Old, New and Cross Country.

“The track is looking in great nick – and maybe we could be looking for some rain in a week or so’s time, which is ironic in a way,” he said.

“All courses are now set up and ready to go and where we want to be with a fortnight before we start racing.

“The Old course, which is the one we use on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the Cross Country on the Wednesday, is currently good to soft, soft in places and the New course too for Thursday and Friday is good to soft, soft in places.

“It’s where we would like to be with 13 days before we start racing.”

The current dry spell has been well-received, after the wettest winter Claisse can recall.

“What a relief after a wet winter we’ve had eight dry days, which have helped ground staff out enormously with their preparations,” he went on.

“We’ve really had unprecedented rainfall over the winter, and particularly over Christmas, that sadly saw us lose the first of January and again at the end of the month when the course was flooded three times across in less than 24 or 25 days – something I’ve never seen here in 20 years.”

As for the forecast – for which Cheltenham have John Kettley as their weather consultant – Claisse said: “It is looking like the dry spell will continue until the early part of next week, so every expectation at the beginning of next week we will be looking at ground as good to soft, good in places.

“There is then a spell of rain which would bring us back to where we are at the moment – good to soft, soft. It might flip it to soft, good to soft – but beyond next Wednesday/Thursday it turns slightly cooler again and is looking like being a dry weekend before the Festival.

“I’m not going to speculate as to what is going to happen the week of the 15th. At the moment everything is in fine shape.

“The ground we use at the Festival is preserved behind rails throughout the season, October to December – so basically what we’re racing on, no horse has set foot on for the best part of 12 months.”

Claisse planning BHA discussion following light issue

Officials at Cheltenham will consult with the British Horseracing Authority to see if anything can be done to prevent a repeat of the light issues that affected the final race on Saturday’s card.

The closing mares’ bumper was staged in murky conditions and following a thrilling finish, a dead heat was called between Harry Fry’s Ishkhara Lady and the Dan Skelton-trained Elle Est Belle.

However, the dwindling light at the course made the official photo hard to read, prompting some outcry about the result on social media, and clerk of the course Simon Claisse is keen to avoid a repeat of the situation if possible.

“The judge can only do so much in those conditions,” he said.

“We’ll be looking to see if there’s anything we can do to help minimise the risk to stop these things happening.

“Our race schedule is really based around ITV and we’re very lucky to have them here – it’s not the simple matter of starting earlier and getting the racing under way and finished before sunset.

“At the minute the rules say 15 minutes before sundown, which was 4.18pm yesterday, so we were in plenty of time. It was just one of those unfortunate sets of circumstances when it turned very dark because of the heavy rain.”

Claisse said there are a number of issues preventing them from just starting at an earlier time.

He told Racing TV: “There are all sorts of factors to bear in mind and betting turnover increases throughout the afternoon. It’s not as simple as saying ‘why don’t you start earlier’.

“We’ll take a look at it with the British Horseracing Authority in the weeks to come. If there’s anything we can do to reduce the risk of these things happening, we’ll certainly look at it.

“The race times are set by the BHA, in conjunction with the racecourses, but if we started earlier, someone else would be going later, so you may end up just pushing the issue from one racecourse to another.”

Cheltenham about to resume in a much-changed world

Racing returns to Cheltenham on Friday for the first time since the Festival meeting in March.

Exactly 32 weeks since an official crowd of 68,859 witnessed the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo successfully defend his crown in the Gold Cup, the scene at Prestbury Park will be altogether different.

The coronavirus pandemic was still very much in its infancy when the Festival began on March 10. Extra hygiene measures – including banks of hand sanitiser dispensers – were installed, and 251,684 people attended across the four days, although many of those were repeat visitors.

Crowds in the grandstand during Gold Cup day at Cheltenham
Crowds in the grandstand during Gold Cup day at Cheltenham (Andrew Matthews/PA)

It was clear by midweek a change of approach from Government was imminent – and while the Festival did go ahead in its entirety, within a matter of days the sport was shut down completely until racing resumed behind closed doors on June 1.

Cheltenham received plenty of criticism in the weeks that followed the Festival, with images of the packed grandstands in the Cotswolds beamed around the world amid a steep rise in positive cases and deaths.

While a couple of crowd pilot events elsewhere in recent months raised brief hope that racegoers would be able to return to Cheltenham by the time this weekend’s Showcase Meeting came around, restrictions are being tightened once more – and just some owners and essential workers will be in attendance.

Simon Claisse, regional head of racing and clerk of the course, points out that all the way through the Festival, Cheltenham followed advice from the Government.

“Whenever the Festival was brought up in the early stages of the pandemic we just had to remind ourselves that we followed the Government’s advice the whole way through. That was all that we could do,” said Claisse.

“We’ve been very busy since March – of course we’ve been able to familiarise ourselves with the protocols needed for racing behind closed doors at other courses.

“We’ve been working with the BHA for the last two months to make sure we are set up appropriately to maintain social distancing and making sure people can do it here.

“Until you’ve been racing on a day with no crowd, it is hard to envisage it, but we’re looking forward to welcoming some owners. We’re not sure how many, because the team are still working on that, but we’re eager to get going again – it’s been a long seven months.”

For Claisse, the condition of the track now becomes his priority with racing set to return.

He said: “We couldn’t be happier with where the ground is. Good, good to soft in places is where we are – with little bits of rain around.

“To be starting on the slow side of good for the first meeting (of the season) is just where you’d want to be.”