By Emma Berry

In three generations the Cumani family has set up training businesses across three different countries on two continents.

Sergio Cumani started the familial tradition in his native Italy. His son Luca spread his wings to become one of the most respected trainers in the British racing heartland of Newmarket, and Luca’s son Matt has flown farther still, to Australia, where he has been training since 2016.

Now in his third season with a licence, and with a wealth of international experience behind him, including stints with Todd Pletcher, Paddy Gallagher, Ed Dunlop and Chris Waller, Matt Cumani is enjoying the challenge of immersing himself in perhaps the most vibrant racing nation in the world.

“The racing is nonstop here and it’s hard to keep tabs on what’s going on at home, but I do try,” he says. “I’m still learning the pedigrees but I fall back on what I know about horses and judge them on their work and their physical type. I was invited to a pedigree club the other night which was fascinating, but as for getting a handle on Aussie racing, I thought it would be a little more straightforward than it is.”

He continues, “I think I’m really getting a grip of it now and understanding what sort of skills a horse needs to really excel here. Also, whether this helps or hinders, you need a lot more luck because of how tight the tracks are down here. I remember I used to think how impossibly tight Chester was, but that’s probably about the average of Australian tracks.”

Though not at one of the main city-based training tracks in Victoria such as Flemington or Caulfield, Cumani has chosen to make the upwardly mobile Ballarat, west of Melbourne, his base. It’s no backwater, having been the launchpad for Victoria’s champion trainer Darren Weir, as well as another British ex-pat who has made a flying start in Australia, Archie Alexander.

Both Alexander and Cumani have been given significant support in their start-up ventures by Terry Henderson of OTI Racing, which the latter is quick to acknowledge.

“OTI were instrumental in me setting up here, not just in convincing me and giving me the confidence to do it, but then helping me with actually setting up the business and supporting me with horses,” says Cumani.

“They have interests in 11 horses with us at the moment, not necessarily wholly owned and they continue to be great supporters and advisors.”

OTI Racing has been one of the forerunners in international syndication, an element of ownership which is now particularly prevalent and successful in Australia, which to an extent has stolen a march on the rest of the world in this field.

“Owning a horse is no longer the preserve of the elite, a pastime associated with royalty, captains of industry or movie stars. Especially not in Australia. For the price of the average household appliance you can become the part-owner of a horse. For less than the cost of a family car you can keep it running for years,” states the website for Aushorse, the marketing arm of the country’s racing industry. And indeed, the lucrative prize-money on offer across the country coupled with a forward-thinking approach from many stables has led to a situation whereby one in around 300 Australians owns or part-owns a racehorse.

“Syndication opens up the field to anyone who wants to give it a crack,” says Cumani, who grew up among the stock of a number of Europe’s elite owner-breeders at his parents’ Bedford House Stables.

“You can really reduce the cost of having a share in a horse so it also means that any trainer gets a chance, not just those with good connections. If you put work into advertising yourself and selling yourself you can get anyone to get involved in racing.”

This of course has changed the way modern-day trainers have to operate and communicate.

“You have to add to your skill set a little bit,” he admits. “I’m not particularly good with names and faces but you have to get good at that. With 60 horses on the books I have about 600 to 700 owners. Obviously it’s a huge number and I can’t possibly know all of them individually but I am getting quite good at developing those skills.”

He continues, “Technology helps very much nowadays when it comes to communicating and the most important thing is that it creates a really healthy ownership base for racing. It gives racing a future because the pyramid of owners has a really solid foundation to it. If one in a hundred of your syndicate is perhaps developing his or her own business and gradually takes a bigger share or eventually has a horse of their own, then it’s feeding the top of the pyramid. It does seem to me that England struggles a bit and that the ownership is very top heavy compared to Australia.”

Through his OTI connection, Cumani achieved what many trainers dream about by having a runner in the Melbourne Cup in his first year of training. The now 6-year-old Grey Lion (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) is a typical OTI import who, having been bred by German-based Gestut Ammerland, raced first in France for Andre Fabre before shipping to Australia. The four-time French winner, who was runner-up for Cumani in the G3 Queen Elizabeth S. at Flemington, has subsequently had his partnership increased further to include Aquis Farm.

Grey Lion will be one to follow as the staying races of the Australian spring get underway, as will Etah James (NZ), who became his first group winner when landing the G2 Lord Reims S. back in March. The 5-year-old mare is a daughter of the New Zealand-based stallion Raise The Flag (GB) (Sadler’s Wells), a rare under-achiever on the track for the great broodmare Hasili (GB) whose enticing pedigree was enough to find the half-brother to Dansili (GB) a home at White Robe Lodge on New Zealand’s South Island.

“She’s such a tough, robust, good mare and one that came to me in slightly funny circumstances,” Cumani says. “The owners called me out of the blue and they told me they had an unraced 4-year-old mare by Raise The Flag and I was embarrassed to say that I hadn’t actually heard of the stallion, but when I looked into him I realised quickly that his pedigree is fantastic.”

“Etah James is just an absolute gun, as they say here. She’s gone from strength to strength and I don’t think I’ve ever had her 100% fit. She’s a really big, heavy filly and she’s just done it all on her own ability. I’m hoping that when we get to the major races she’ll be really ready to put in her best performance. She’s had a spell and will be coming in within the next two weeks and we’ll try to get her ready for a race in August and then aim for some of the bigger races in the spring.”

This time last year the 37-year-old trainer was forced to take a brief spell from his fledgling career after having his licence suspended for 2 1/2 months for failing to adhere to Racing Victoria protocols following the outbreak of strangles at his stable.

“I have a great team at home and we drafted in an experienced older trainer to work with my team, and my assistant Andrew Bobbin is great, a really good all-rounder who loves his racing and is a star with the horses,” he says. “Andrew held it all together and it was good to come back and have all the horses in good nick and really ready to kick off and start winning in the new season, which they did in September and October.”

The temporary hiatus has not affected business, with all 60 of the boxes at the Cumani yard full and plans for growth in the pipeline.

“We’re actually looking to expand a bit and hope to build some more stables at the end of the winter. We have about 30 yearlings to come in at some point,” he says.

“Ballarat is fantastic. It has everything you really need. Okay, it doesn’t have a beach but there are sand tracks, good turf and they are developing at a fantastic rate and putting in a full Polytrack racecourse in May next year, so it’s got a bit of everything.”

With the equine numbers increasing along with many syndicate owners, the pressure is on the young trainer to ensure that he keeps them all fully up to date with their horses’ progress. He says, “Technology is fantastic but you’re always chasing your tail a little bit to be the most innovative when it comes to communication and providing interesting content each week. If I get much bigger I’m going to have to employ somebody to be solely in charge of producing videos and reports. It has its costs but I think their benefits are really worthwhile.”

As well as a booming business, Cumani’s personal life has been very much enhanced this year by his marriage in February to Sarah, not to be confused with his mother, Sara.

“My wife is another Sarah Cumani, and another force to be reckoned with,” he says with a grin. “She’s great and is getting involved in the business, riding four lots in the morning and then helping out in the office. While Sarah’s family is not directly involved in racing, her grandfather [Jim Bell] was head of the AJC in Sydney, so she comes from a good racing heritage without being directly involved.”

That good racing heritage on both sides will doubtless help the newlyweds to ensure that Cumani Racing becomes a respected brand in two hemispheres.

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