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Claisse happy to take winter criticism to ensure best surface for March

Simon Claisse: clerk's every meteorological utterance will be hung on
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Simon Claisse on Monday insisted Cheltenham was doing everything it could to provide the best possible racing surface at its non-festival meetings but admitted the need to provide four days worth of championship-class ground in March made that tough when bad weather struck.

Conditions at the November meeting worsened dramatically after 12mm of rain on the Saturday, with the going changing to soft, heavy in places. Champion jockey Richard Johnson, who described it as "very tacky" on Sunday, wondered whether it was possible to provide fresh ground each day. 

But Claisse, Cheltenham's clerk of the course, explained the track was limited by the amount of racing surface available.

He said: "The reason we were unable to is because we don't have any more fresh ground. The management of the track here historically – and I have continued it for the 19 years I've been here – want to preserve ground on the inner of both chase and hurdles tracks, Old and New, for March because if you utilise it November, December and January and you trash it and it doesn't recover, then you haven't got a very good surface for March.

"Festival Trials day we often have the same thing, and of course we'd love to be able to open up new ground and I'm aware of the comments. But unless we consider the festival ground sacrosanct we could run into awful trouble come March when we need the best quality surface of the whole season."

'Stomach the criticism'

Claisse, who added five acres to the racing surface when expanding the course to the limits of the enclosures, streams and service roads in a £500,000 project in 2003-04, admitted there simply was not the ground available to provide fresh ground each day in bad conditions.

"Our duty is to provide the best possible racing surface," he said. "We have to manage our way around the weather conditions – forecasted or not – and do the best we can in the circumstances. We've known for a long time that the quality of our programme at times exceeds our capability to provide the surface that is expected – but that has been the situation for years now and we can only manage the manageable bits.

"If we had a miraculous way of making grass grow through the winter months we might well think 'well, we can go on to that ground we've set aside for the festival' – but my goodness there would be criticism if we got it wrong for March, so we just have to stomach the criticism through November, December and January.

"In your mind there's a lovely New course sitting there that we haven't set foot on, and there's all that fresh ground on the inside of the Old course and I understand why people think 'well, why aren't we on there?' But we keep that for March."

On the possibility of reordering races, given Sunday's card started with a 19-runner handicap hurdle that cut up the track, he added: "The running order is something that is annually reviewed. There are complications around sponsorship deals and ITV broadcasts, it's not carte blanche for me to decide which races go on which days. But that will certainly be part of our review of this year's November meeting."

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Unless we consider the March ground sacrosanct we could run into awful trouble come March when we need the best quality surface of the whole season

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