First published in RPSunday on August 31, 2014
Self-parody is a revealing ingredient in the make-up of any individual. It speaks well of those who embrace it, especially in the realm of racehorse trainers, many of whom take themselves and their profession far too seriously.
In Luca Cumani’s case, self-parody is evident from the moment you enter the office at his Bedford House stables. Tucked away in a corner are a pair of car registration number plates bearing the inscription WOP 1.
“Yes,” Cumani acknowledges with a smile, “that was my one indulgence. After Presvis won the Dubai Duty Free three years ago I decided to buy a Maserati – but only on the condition it came with those plates. Sadly the number wasn’t available, but when the dealer delivered the car he got the plates made up anyway so as to keep his side of the bargain.”
The origins of the number plates date back four decades, when Cumani, now 65 and then in his mid-20s, left the family home in Milan to work as pupil-assistant to Henry Cecil. During his two seasons at Marriott Stables Cecil christened him The Wop.
It was hardly an original line but Cumani couldn’t have cared less. “It was a very exciting time,” he recalls. “I was young and I only had knowledge of racing in Italy [where his father, Sergio, was champion trainer]. I was completely smitten by British racing. I thought it was the best in the world and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
When Cumani arrived in 1975 Cecil was established within the Newmarket hierarchy. He won that year’s 2,000 Guineas with Bolkonski, who was owned by another Italian, the lawyer Carlo d’Alessio. The following year Cecil won the race for the same owner with Wollow, by which time Cumani had moved into Bedford House. He has been there ever since.
“Back then, Robert Armstrong had the biggest string in Newmarket with 60 horses,” he says. “But Henry was not far behind. He had around 50, which in those days was a very big string.”
Cumani was in the vanguard of trainers for whom 50 horses would come to represent a medium-sized string. By the late 1980s his numbers swelled north of 150 as he set his sights on toppling the duopoly of Cecil and Michael Stoute. He was at the last camp beneath the summit and ready for the final push.
He then walked straight into a blizzard. The Aga Khan, incensed at the Jockey Club’s handling of Aliysa’s failed post-race test after she won the 1989 Oaks, withdrew all his horses from Britain. It was a major reverse for Cumani, who had won the 1988 Derby for the Aga with Kahyasi. A few years later, Sheikh Mohammed decided to set up Godolphin and Cumani’s supply line to the sheikh’s horses was cut off.
“It was a serious double whammy,” he reflects. “At the time you are not cross or angry because you know why it happened. It was just sad because it took us down a peg or two. We lost 50-60 horses and the worry was that we would become less competitive at the highest level.
“It made life difficult but in the end I had to settle for what I had,” he says. “When you don’t attract the big owner-breeders you know you can’t be competitive at the top, which is where we all want to be. You cut your cloth accordingly.”
For all that, York’s Ebor meeting saw a return to halcyon days. Postponed careered away with the Great Voltigeur Stakes to hint at better things to come. The same is true of White Lake, a rare debut juvenile winner for Cumani in the Convivial Maiden.
And in different circumstances Connecticut might have defied top weight in the fiendishly competitive Melrose Handicap. One detail within that sequence is revealing. All three horses are owned by Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum, for whom Cumani won the Derby with High-Rise in 1998.
“The first two horses I trained for Sheikh Obaid were High-Rise and Zomaradah [winner of the Oaks d’Italia and EP Taylor Stakes], so that wasn’t a bad start,” Cumani says. “For some years after that he sent me three or four homebred yearlings and a couple from the sales that weren’t very expensive. Then, over the last few years, he started getting stuck in. He gave me a decent budget for the yearling sales and we are seeing the results.”
A cousin of Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Obaid is an interesting character. “They tell me he was a very brave soldier in his day,” Cumani says. “At one point I believe he was head of the equivalent of the SAS.” Indeed, he once led an elite squad who stormed a hijacked plane at Dubai International Airport. He was first on to the plane and brought about a successful conclusion to the standoff. His other claim to fame within racing is that he bred Dubawi, who is out of Zomaradah.
In normal circumstances Cumani would have trained Dubawi for Sheikh Obaid, whose racing and breeding interests, although centred at Darley, he runs as his own entity. But Dubawi was an exception: he was from the only foal crop sired by Dubai Millennium, Sheikh Mohammed’s favourite racehorse.
When Dubai Millennium perished from grass sickness in 2001 the sheikh resolved to buy every one of his sons and daughters. Dubawi was diverted to Godolphin, for whom he won the Irish 2,000 Guineas and Prix Jacques le Marois. “I did get a little bit of revenge when I beat Dubawi with Starcraft in the QEII in 2005,” Cumani says.
Sheikh Obaid remains the outright owner of Dubawi, who has become one of Europe’s most sought-after sires. “That helps a lot with Sheikh Obaid’s yearling budget,” Cumani says with a smile. “He has also increased the size of his broodmare band to around 12 now. He is upping his game.”
Postponed cost 360,000gns as a yearling and his price emphasises a truism: trainers can only play at the top table with the right hand. “You definitely need owners like Sheikh Obaid,” Cumani says. “The big conglomerates have so many extremely well-bred horses. They have both numbers and quality. We have some quality but nowhere near the numbers.
“We saw at York that you need to have the budget to be at the big meetings. Either that or you have to have speedy two-year-olds, and that has never been my game. I won the Windsor Castle Stakes with Sunny Spring in my first season training  but I was soon put off two-year-olds because the horse never won another race.”
Postponed is much more in the Cumani mould. The son of Dubawi has made eight career starts but only come into his own on the last two, most recently at York, where he beat a strong field of St Leger aspirants. However, the trainer’s first reaction was to rule out the Doncaster Classic.
“I don’t think he would be suited by the extra distance or by the slower pace,” Cumani argues. “He’s a horse who thrives on a fast-run race on fast ground but I don’t really want to take him to Canada or the States because he started work in March and he hasn’t missed a gallop. We can look forward to next year, when I think it is not inconceivable he could be a proper horse.”
That reflects a modus operandi that has never changed, in good times or bad. Cumani will not waver from what he instinctively believes is in the best interest of each horse. He is prepared to stand his corner with owners, although in other respects he is far from dogmatic. Raise an issue you feel sure will trigger his ire and the response is often surprising. He accepts the logic of an argument he may not instinctively support. He can readily accommodate the opposing point of view.
He is also a fiercely proud individual who never subjugates his principles to suit circumstances. Frankie Dettori will vouch for that: the two did not speak for years when they fell out soon after Dettori started riding for Sheikh Mohammed. Other jockeys, like former Bedford House staple Ray Cochrane, have experienced Cumani’s wrath and been taken aback by its intensity.
Part of his mindset is governed by an inability to suffer fools gladly. Cumani’s forensic mind is restless in its search for knowledge, especially in a profession which, although occasionally frustrating, holds him in thrall. For that reason he laments the diverse paths the game in Europe and America has taken.
He should know, having achieved a major transatlantic breakthrough in 1983 when saddling Tolomeo to win the Arlington Million. Then the richest turf race in the world, the Million brought Cumani kudos and contact with prominent American owner-breeders: the likes of Arlington Park proprietor Dick Duchossois, Peter Brant, John Mabee and Helen Alexander.
“Those were very exciting times,” he says. “Each of them had a good horse or two with me, but what I remember most about it is that it improved your thinking when you had people mingling from all over the world. You were learning all the time.”
Raising the bar of knowledge was one inspiration behind the establishment of Fittocks Stud, the family nursery that is run by Cumani’s wife, Sara. Set up in the early 1980s, the stud has bred some top-class horses.
“I always thought I’d be a better horseman if I knew the product from the beginning to the end,” Cumani says. “We couldn’t afford to buy that kind of horse at the sales so we thought it would be cheaper to make them. Then stallion fees exploded. The stud has to meet its costs, so we do to ourselves what all my owner-breeders do to me, which is sell off the best yearlings.”
The original foundation mare at Fittocks was Free Guest, whom Cumani brought through the handicap ranks with trademark dexterity to win the Sun Chariot Stakes in 1984 and 1985.
There were few who plundered handicaps like Cumani. He saw it as an intellectual challenge, although he did not care for the ramifications of being described as a master-plotter when he was trying to ascend the Pattern ladder.
That legacy is perhaps manifest in his fascination with the Melbourne Cup, in which he has twice saddled the runner-up via Purple Moon (by half a length in 2007) and Bauer (by a nose 12 months later). Once said to be almost obsessed by the prospect of winning it, he is now not quite so beholden to the idea.
“Yes I’d love to win it, but I’m not too fussed,” he says. “I’d rather win the Arc, which I’ve never done, or another Derby if I could. One would never die happy unless you had won the Derby. To win two is great.
“Having said that, the Melbourne Cup may not be the greatest race in the world but it is the greatest racing event. There is nothing like it. When Royal Ascot is going on, half of London doesn’t know it, whereas in Australia, you feel you are on a wave of interest that starts one week before the race.”
To envisage Postponed winning next year’s Arc may require too exaggerated a leap of faith. Then again, horses under Cumani’s tutelage can improve beyond recognition over time. For him, the opportune time to assess any horse in his stable is at the end of its four-year-old season, when its career strategy has run its course.
Little wonder, then, that his two Derby winners, cherished as they were but unraced from his stable beyond their sophomore seasons, do not feature in the cast of his all-time favourites.
“The two above all others are Falbrav and Barathea,” he says. “Falbrav was extraordinary; we only had him for one year and he won five Group 1 races, should have won six and might have won seven. He started in April and was still as good as ever when he won in Hong Kong in December, which was unbelievable.
“Barathea was part-owned by my great friend and mentor, Gerald Leigh, so it gave me real pleasure to win the  Breeders’ Cup Mile with him. It was a bit of a retrieval mission because although he’d won the Irish 2,000 Guineas and the Queen Anne, he hadn’t got the credit he deserved.”
In the end, however, Barathea had his day on his 16th and final start when it seemed he had already given all he had. Anyone who thinks the same of Cumani should consider that he is now better placed to plunder than at any time in the last 20 years. As the man himself puts it: “We are not without hope.”
CUMANI ON. . .
It’s a difficult situation. Matt [Cumani’s son] is 33 and very keen to start but I’m not ready to go yet. When I do, everything will be down to him because I will be out. Training cannot be done by committee, you have to make all the decisions and stand or fall by them.
A lot of decisions have to be made very quickly, especially at declaration time, so the person in charge has to be a dictator. When you have been doing full days, seven days a week as I have, to go from that to doing nothing is a big step. I’m not ready to take that step yet.
When Ryan Moore rang up for instructions before the race I told him to ride the horse like one of Stoutey’s first time out. So when he rang back afterwards I was able to tease him that he hadn’t ridden to orders.
I am all for giving the prize-money because owners need it, they are investing a lot of money and they should be rewarded with as much prize-money as possible. But I don’t believe in giving black type to two-year-olds before September.
There is a two-year-old black-type race for fillies in May, when probably only one-tenth of two-year-old fillies are in full training. How can that be right?
I think progressive, well-run racecourses should be rewarded. What York has done is fantastic; its contribution is great.
What I don’t like is the racecourse model that caters for poor horses and poor prize-money. I have always been one for aiming higher, whatever the enterprise.
I love travelling horses. The history of human endeavour and development comes about by different ideas, being confronted by them, and discussing them. I always want to improve what I am doing.
Everybody keeps saying that soundness in thoroughbreds is declining but I don’t think it is true. We have exactly the same problems we have always had in training horses.
We have exactly the same level of unsoundness, purely because you cannot breed soundness into a species over 200 years when the horse itself has existed for thousands of years. It just cannot happen that quickly.
First published as The Big Read in RPSunday – members can enjoy access to all RPSunday content from 6pm every Saturday with an Ultimate subscription