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An Interview with Simon Claisse - former Clerk of the Course at Cheltenham Racecourse

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

Simon Claisse gained a BSc Hons in Agriculture from Reading University and then had many roles within racing, including amateur jockey, in point-to-point authorities and the Jockey Club. He says, with a chuckle, ‘I convinced Sam (Lord Vestey) and Managing Director Edward Gillespie that I was the right man for the job!’ That job was Clerk of Cheltenham Racecourse and it was what Simon was renowned for. His twenty-two year and two month reign at Cheltenham is the epitome of the turbulent career of any Clerk.

The highlights, such as Best Mate’s three Gold Cups, weighed fully against all the challenges. The cancellation of the 2001 Festival due to Foot and Mouth, the extreme weather from wind to frost, the threat of Equine Influenza in 2019 and the ever-controversial continuation, all within government guidelines. of the Festival, when Covid-19 was tightening its grip in 2020.

Simon retired at the end of a smoothly run Paddy Power meeting in 2021, taking away the buzz and many memories. He was awarded the Judges’ Choice Award for Special Recognition at that year’s McCoy Awards ceremony.

He grew up in Fareham, Hampshire and now lives in Naunton in the Cotswolds with Annabel and two stepsons, Leo who is studying at Nottingham Uni and Elliot who’s just left school and wants to be a jockey. The family also includes Margo the lurcher, Tommy the miniature wire haired dachshund, chickens, guinea fowl and four horses, called Russell, Marty, Belinda and Tilly!

Did you have a horsey childhood? I rode ponies from the age of seven, hunted and evented lots.

Were you a jockey? I rode in point-to-points, and had thirty wins. I also held an Amateur licence and rode in bumpers, hurdle race and Hunter Chases, including the Foxhunter’s at Cheltenham in 1990.

What roles have you had in racing and for whom?

-Stable lad for permit holder Hilary Trigg for one season (1978/79).

-Secretary of Hursley Hambledon Point-to-Point ‘82 to ‘89.

-Manager of the BHA’s (Jockey Club at the time as regulator) Racecourse and Point-to-Point Department from ‘89 to ‘99.

-Chairman of the Point-to-Point Riders’ and Owners Association 2004 to 2009.

-Chairman of the Point-to-Point Authority 2009 to 2012.

-Clerk of the Course Cheltenham 1999 to 2021.

-Regional Head of Racing Jockey Club South West 2012 to 2021.

-Chairman of the Pony Racing Authority 2022-present.

Please describe the job of a Clerk:

To ensure memorable experiences for horsemen (stable staff, jockeys, trainers and owners) and compelling racing for all audiences. This includes the management of all aspects of planning and delivery of the racing as follows:

- Compilation of race programme and allocation of prize money.

- Managing all the on-course infrastructure (grounds, rails, obstacles, stables and stable staff accommodation, jockeys’ facilities, owners’ and trainers’ facilities).

- Managing the owner/trainer experience in advance of and on race day.

- Delivering on race day the safest environment for horses and jockeys.

- Planning and managing the veterinary and medical teams.

- Liaising with the media.

- Overseeing the on-course teams during racing.

How has racing changed over the years? Across all aspects of the sport the level of professionalism has risen, ensuring standards across the board have never been higher and the experiences of participants and public alike have never been better.

What did you love most about Cheltenham Racecourse? Witnessing sport being played out on a world-renowned stage from one of the best vantage points on the course.

What was your most challenging day at Cheltenham racecourse? The Tuesday of the Festival in 2013 when temperatures dropped overnight to -12C and the course was still frozen under the covers at 10:00am.

What was your most memorable day in racing? My stepson Elliot winning his first Point-to-Point on Easter Monday this year on my horse Robin Why Not.

In which year of the Festival, did the weather cause a nightmare? 2008 due to high winds.

Which was your favourite Gold Cup Winner? Denman.

Who was your favourite Champion Hurdle winner? Istabraq.

Which was your favourite racehorse? Quevega.

Who was your favourite jockey? Ruby Walsh.

Photo Credit: Pete Wilson

Which trainer did you most admire? Jonjo O’Neill.

Have themed race days (Irish nights, Ladies’ Days, Family Fun days etc) increased racing’s appeal? Yes, they have enabled the sport to reach out to a wider audience and broaden racing’s appeal.

Was there another racecourse you would have liked to work at? Hexham.

What was the best racing celebration you attended? The party hosted in 2015 by JP McManus to celebrate Sir A P McCoy’s career and record 4058 wins.

Other interests: Gardening, reading, travelling, skiing, tennis, fishing, property and farming.

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