Clement's Enduring Love For The Game

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Nicolas Clement oversees his horses on the Chantilly training grounds | Emma Berry

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Never mind Emmanuel Macron. France has a new president and he's not one who has parachuted into his position of power in the blink of an eye.

In February, French racing lost its doyenne, Criquette Head-Maarek, whose retirement saw her yard sold to rising young trainer Henri-Francois Devin. Her responsibilities as the president of the French trainers' association, however, have been passed on to fellow long-serving Chantilly trainer Nicolas Clement, whose statesmanlike demeanour and 30 years with a licence stand him in good stead to represent his colleagues.

“Criquette was president for 20 years and I was part of the board for 15 years so she asked me to take over,” says Clement during a pause between lots on one of the first warm mornings of the year in Chantilly.

“Obviously my priority is training my horses but sometimes you have to get involved and there's a good team behind me, some young blood like Francis Graffard and Mikel Delzangles in Chantilly, and good people from the country like Philippe da Cruz and Etienne Leenders.”

The giant magnolia tree in Clement's immaculate garden is struggling back into bloom, just as the 70 horses in the yard on the other side of the house are surrendering the last of their winter coats, both processes encouraged, finally, by the appearance of the sun.

“It's a big continuity game, training,” says Clement. “I love to see the offspring of stallions and mares we've previously trained. We're fortunate that four or five years ago we had some very nice Classic colts, like French Fifteen (Fr) who was second to Camelot (GB) in the Guineas, then [Poule d'Essai des Poulains winner] Style Vendome (Fr) came a year later, which was very satisfying as we bought him with Tina at the sales from Haras de Colleville for one of our longest standing owners, Comte Andre de Ganay.”

'Tina' is the trainer's partner, the effervescent bloodstock agent Tina Rau, a graduate of the first Darley Flying Start course and German by birth but impressively multilingual, like Clement himself. The pair work closely at the sales and Rau's valuable input closer to home is clear as she tours the boxes, reciting the pedigrees of the horses within and their progress to date.

Among the current intake are several youngsters by the aforementioned Style Vendome, the son of Anabaa now standing at Haras de Bouquetot with first 3-year-olds this season. That debut crop includes the Al Shaqab-bred Talbah (GB), who made a winning debut at Deauville in March before returning a month later to take third in the G3 Prix Imprudence.

“Talbah seems very promising,” says her trainer. “She was great after her race but we won't go for the Guineas as she's only run twice. We'll try to go an easier way with a listed race in early May then the Prix de Sandringham in June at Chantilly, which is a Group 2 over a mile. Let's hope she lives up to expectations.”

Representing the first crop of the Gestut Fahrhof-based Maxios (GB) is another 3-year-old who appears to have a bright future in Woodmax (Ger), an expensive purchase by Mayfair Speculators from the BBAG Yearling Sale who became one of his sire's first winners last season when saluting at Evreux and following up that success with a metropolitan win at Maisons-Laffitte. The neat dark brown colt ended his season with a fourth-place finish in the G1 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere just behind recent wide-margin Craven S. winner Masar (Ire) (New Approach {Ire}) but struggled in his seasonal debut at Longchamp in the G3 Prix Djebel.

Clement says, “You need to write off Woodmax's race the other day as the ground was too heavy and he probably blew up, but he showed that he was very close to the top in the Lagardere. It's the same thing for him really. We're tempted to go for a listed race at the end of April then decide if we go for the French Guineas, or we might be tempted to go for the German Guineas. He might also be a good horse to travel. There are very good purses in America and a race like the Belmont Derby might be ideal for him, but we'll take one race at a time.”

Clement, who trains from the yard previously run by his late father Miguel, has particularly close links to America though his brother Christophe, who eventually settled thousands of miles away from his Chantilly home and now has teams based primarily at Belmont Park in New York and Florida's Payson Park. The brothers liaise regularly, particularly on the subject of filtering horses to each other's stables.

“Christophe and I speak twice or three times a week, sometimes more depending on runners that I might have sent him or the other way round. We're very close and he tries to come here once or twice a year and I try to do the same,” says Clement.

The older brother by two years, Nicolas Clement briefly entertained the idea of an alternative career before setting out on the path already trodden by his father and becoming, in 1988, the youngest person ever to hold a training licence in France. Prior to that, he put flesh on the bones of his experience with stud farm stints at Haras de Clarbec and Taylor Made in America, where he went on to work for a young John Gosden and then on to Gosden's former mentor, Vincent O'Brien. Eventually returning home, he studied at the hand of his father's old friend Francois Boutin, whom he describes as “a great trainer but an even better man”.

He says, “At 18 I was going to be a vet but I lasted only two months at vet school because I got bored, there wasn't enough action. I wanted to be a trainer, I guess.”

Clement continues, “I've been doing this for 30 years now but it seems like it was only yesterday that I started. There used to be an age limit of 25 to have a training licence in France but we had special authorisation for me to take it a year early and after that it went down to 21. I had the passion to train so I thought I'd give it a go and fortunately I love what I do. I still have the drive and the energy—I'm always looking towards the next runner or the next winner.”

Just two years into his training career, a colt arrived in his yard from Henry Cecil's stable who would give him the start every young trainer dreams about. Saumarez (GB) (Rainbow Quest) was in the process of switching ownership between Charles St George and Bruce McNall, and thanks to Clement's bravado, ended up winning the G1 Grand Prix de Paris and G1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

“I was very fortunate, thanks to Narvick International and Emmanuel de Seroux, who bought the horse for Bruce McNall, as he was supposed to move to Charlie Whittingham but as he was working so well I begged them to supplement him for the Grand Prix de Paris,” he recalls. “It wasn't an easy thing for a young trainer to convince some senior owners and managers but they listened to the young trainer and the horse won by six lengths with Steve Cauthen. That got me going. Then he went on to win the Arc in the autumn.”

Clement is a walking promotional tool for Chantilly, clearly still under the magical spell of France's premier training centre as he describes the benefits of the place he has called home for most of his life. Situated between the town of Chantilly and its neighbouring training hub of Lamorlaye, Clement has the best of both worlds, his horses being able to gain easy access to the gallops on Les Aigles and Les Lions.

“We've seen some changes here over the years but one thing that has not changed is that Andre Fabre was starting to lead the table when I first set up and he's still leading the table. We have to praise him because he's broken all the records in longevity and he's still teaching us a few things,” Clement says with a smile.

“French racing has gone a step higher in the quality of horses. We have some very good trainers and some good ambassadors, the likes of Goldikova (Ire) going to the Breeders' Cup and also Talismanic (GB), but also horses like Dunaden (Fr) winning the Melbourne Cup and in Hong Kong, and Vazirabad (Fr) winning in Dubai. You can train at a very high level in this country, particularly in Chantilly, which is close to the airport for shipping the horses. But in the south there are some very capable trainers too, like Jean-Claude Rouget. It's a tough circuit.”

The subject of travelling horses is one to which Clement, with a varied international client base, frequently returns. And it's not just America in his sights.

“Racing has gone global. Our purse structure is good in France but sometimes it's better abroad for certain horses,” he says. “With my close links with my brother sometimes I can send him some nice horses and target some US races but I would also be very keen to run in Australia. The Melbourne Cup is a race with a great reputation and it's a big aim for me. Year after year we've seen European horses do well there. I think in Chantilly we train horses to develop at a later stage. Of course you can train a 2-year-old here but they are given a bit more time here and in Britain and you end up with a horse like Gailo Chop (Fr) who is still doing well in Australia [at age seven]. We are building up an athlete. The 2-year-old year is important but we are looking ahead and ensuring that they can have a longer career.”

Wit an eye on the long term, the trainer is not afraid to trade when the time is right, whether it's to give a horse an opportunity to race in another country or under a different code. Only last week at Fairyhouse, the steady preparation of a Clement stable graduate was seen to good effect when Saglawy (Fr) (Youmzain {Ire}) won the G2 Juvenile Hurdle for Willie Mullins, having previously been listed-placed on the Flat in France.

“I'm pretty open to ideas and I went to visit Willie Mullins last year which really opened my eyes,” says Clement. “I think you have to be open and progressive in your training. You should never say 'that's wrong'. There are many ways to train a racehorse. Some people canter four furlongs, five furlongs, interval training, others will go long. You have to take the best of everything and try to have a bit of a scientific approach and try to understand why something is working or not working. There's a lot of common sense needed in our game. The wellbeing of the horse is most important, making sure they are happy. I guess it's a bit of an instinct, and observation is a key thing, when to step up and when to step down.”

He adds, “The time I spent in America was very good experience because you see so many different things, the leg work, the work pattern, which is very different to Europe. Wherever you are in the world around racehorses you can always learn.”

No matter one's level of experience, a willingness to keep learning is paramount for success, but Clement has plenty to teach, too. His training colleagues in Chantilly and beyond appear to have found the perfect man to represent them, both at home and abroad.

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