Monsieur le président
By Alex Cairns
The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is often cited as one of the races trainers would most like to win. To reach such a pinnacle generally takes a lifetime of steady building. Powerful owners must be recruited, facilities enhanced, elite stock acquired. So when three-year-old colt Saumarez landed France’s premier prize in 1990, his trainer Nicolas Clément signalled himself as a major outlier. In just his second full season with a licence and with his first Arc runner, he had become the youngest trainer ever to win the race. Aged 26, he went from relative obscurity to international renown. But this was no flash in the pan. With 30 years’ training experience now under his belt, Clément has proved he does consistency as well as precocity. And he will surely leave a notable legacy through both his on-track achievements and his actions as president of the French trainers’ association. We tracked Nicolas down on the wooded gallops of Chantilly to talk communication, competition, and cooperation.
Being raised in Chantilly is always likely to increase one’s chances of being involved in the racing world. Add in being the son of Classic-winning trainer Miguel Clément and Nicolas’ vocation appears predestined. It could have been very different however.
‘I went to high school in Paris and my mother wanted me to go into business. We compromised with vet studies, but I only lasted two months and then told her I’d got a job on a farm in Normandy. I had always been drawn to horses and racing was my passion from a young age. I spent some time at Taylor Made in America, learning how the whole thing works straight from the farm. This gives a great understanding of the whole cycle; breeding to race and then racing to breed. After that I worked for John Gosden, Vincent O’Brien, and François Boutin. So I was lucky to learn from some of the best in the business. I then got my licence and set up in my father’s yard in 1988.’
This was the yard from which Miguel Clément had sent out Nelcius to win the Prix du Jockey Club in 1966, just one highlight from a successful career sadly cut short at the age of 42. Despite Miguel’s early death, Nicolas still feels a paternal influence.
‘I was very young when my father died, so didn’t get the opportunity to learn as much as I might have from him. He was always an advocate of keeping your horses in the worst company and yourself in the best and I have certainly tried to follow that ethos. He was good friends with a lot of influential people such as Robert Sangster and he had many English and American owners. This open, international approach wasn’t so common in my father’s time and I took a lot from it.’
Taking on the family business in his mid-twenties surely came with a degree of pressure for Nicolas, but winning the Arc at the first attempt is not the worst way to establish one’s credentials.
‘Winning the Arc at such an early stage of my career was exceptional, but it didn’t turn my head. I’ve always known this game is full of ups and downs. Saumarez’ victory definitely put my name out there all the same and helped me expand my stable, with more owners and better stock. Since then we’ve enjoyed more big days thanks to the likes of Vespone and Stormy River. Style Vendome won the French 2,000 Guineas for long-standing owner André de Ganay in 2013 and that was something special. I had bought him at the sales with my partner Tina Rau for less than €100,000. Not many sold at that price go on to be Guineas winners. In the past few seasons The Juliet Rose has been a wonderful filly for us. She took time, but excelled over a mile and a half.’
With 30 years in the business, over 900 winners to his name, and over €30m earned, Clément can boast impressive stats. Racing’s fast pace won’t allow for resting on laurels however.
‘Each season I set myself goals depending on the stock I’ve got. With 70 horses, which is the average I tend to have, I try to have at least 35 winners and any year in which we earn over €1 million including premiums is a good year. Most years we have reached this goal. Our number of stakes winners is also an important measure. If we manage six or seven black type horses I consider that a pretty good achievement.’
Being the youngest trainer to win the Arc is certainly a way to grab people’s attention, but might it have resulted in some middle-distance type-casting?
‘Maybe in the early days, but I like to train any nice horse. Some people think that if you train one to win over a mile and a half in the Arc it means you are a mile and a half trainer, but I don’t like to be pinned down. I learnt a lot from François Boutin, who was brilliant with two-year-olds and I love to train them. I just wish I had a few more forward types these days, but I’m generally happy with the range I get through the yard. I would love to win more Classics and as many Group 1 races as possible. One race that has always attracted me is the Epsom Derby. And I’d like to win the English Guineas. We came very close with French Fifteen when he was second behind Camelot in 2012.’
Saumarez was owned by an American. French Fifteen by a Qatari. Style Vendome by a Frenchman. The Juliet Rose by a South African. It seems Miguel Clément’s international outlook really did leave a lasting impression on Nicolas.
‘Racing is an international business these days and my owner profiles reflect this. I have quite a few from America, partly due to the fact that my brother Christophe trains over there. I send him some horses and once in a while he sends me an owner who would like to own in Europe. We also have owners from Ireland, Germany, England, Scandinavia, Switzerland, South Africa, and elsewhere. So it’s a very diverse group, spread across the globe. I am a great believer in communication and think you have to provide a proper information service in order to satisfy owners and spread the word. We have a good number of French owners too, but there is a lack of racing culture among the general public in France these days and if you have a newcomer owner then you have to explain so much. It’s not easy and of course training racehorses is a game where there tends to be a lot of bad news for the few moments of joy. That’s part of the reason I enjoy working with owner-breeders because they know the game is a rollercoaster and see things from a long-term perspective.’