6 July 2003

After several years in the lower leagues, Newmarket trainer Luca Cumani has been promoted back into the big time after yesterday’s Group One triumph.

Form is temporary, class is permanent. That is true of Falbrav and it has always been true of Luca Cumani, who put his operation back in the big time by saddling the handsome five-year-old to Eclipse Stakes glory yesterday.

Let’s talk first about the horse. Falbrav is a magnificent athlete, big but beautifully balanced with an arched bay neck and with an apple divide above his quarters from which the sinews run as in a body builder’s hand book. “He’s a bull of a horse,” said Cumani afterwards, “he knows how strong he is both mentally and physically.” It is absolutely not hindsight to say that it looked like that beforehand.

It was hot at Sandown. The Williams sisters might have been working up a lather in the third set five miles away at Wimbledon but Islington, this Eclipse’s sole female participant, was awash even before Sir Michael Stoute legged Kieren Fallon into the saddle. Falbrav, who had come here via Italy, France, Japan and Royal Ascot, turned not a hair.

His was a maturity that has sharpened the talent not blunted it. The best reason for not campaigning a classic three-year-old into a four and, in Falbrav’s case, a five-year-old season, is that the athlete begins to lose his desire. Or to be more exact, all too often switches his desire for the more basic, much more lucrative, and very definitely more frequent duties at stud. But age has only strengthened Falbrav. The weight for age rules set him to give 11 lbs to the three-year-olds Hold That Tiger, Balestrini, Dutch Gold, Norse Dancer (third in the Epsom Derby) and Delsarte. They finished 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th with only the two pacemakers behind them.

But in that last line lay a story. After a furlong the race settled down with Izdiham, `domestique’ for Nayef, leading Narrative doing the same duties for Godolphin’s quirky Grandera with Richard Hills on Nayef parked handily behind them. Once in the straight Jamie Spencer on Narrative looked under his right shoulder to see what was behind him. It was not Grandera, but Nayef and while the favourite eventually got through between Narrative and Dutch Gold it was past a rapidly closing door whose slamming could arguably have cost Nayef the race and his tilt at the £1 million bonus on offer for winning this race, the Prince of Wales’s at Royal Ascot and the King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in three weeks.

The form book and the slamming-of-the-door (for which Jamie Spencer got a five-day suspension for “improper riding”) suggests that Nayef was unlucky, for at Ascot he had Islington second, Olden Times fourth, Falbrav fifth, Kaieteur sixth and Grandera seventh, all yesterday’s rivals. But there is another interpretation. Falbrav was stranded out wide at Ascot, got badly bumped on the turn and during the last week his connections were stating privately that they were very hopeful of turning the tables. The trick is to have the speed to take your chances when they come.

Nayef is a splendid horse and yesterday looked as lean and fit as the proverbial `gypsy’s dog.’ To date he has won nine races and £2.3 million in prize money but his talent is founded on a sweeping stride, not on acceleration. Falbrav has the latter. Yesterday, for the fifth time at Group One level, it was the killer quality.

In fact it almost took him there too soon. Once Darryll Holland went to move in the straight, Falbrav’s answer was so instant that he found himself in front facing up the hill with a full two and a half furlongs to go. “They were the longest two and a half furlongs I have ever watched,” said trainer Cumani afterwards.

The best compliment for both Holland and his horse is that for the uncommitted the pursuers never looked a real threat to their prey. Nayef led them, and right on the line he got to within three quarters of a length. But, in truth, neither he nor the 100-1 shot Kaieteur (3rd) or Olden Times (4th) ever looked a real threat. Falbrav has spent most of his career in Italy with only one run as a two-year-old, one victory at three but catching fire last season with two Group One successes before following an unsuccessful Arc de Triomphe attempt with a brilliant victory in the Japan Cup in Nakayama.

Luca Cumani has been 25 years in Newmarket and was assistant to Henry Cecil when Wollow won the Eclipse in 1976, and trained Tolomeo to be third to Solford for the same Italian owner in 1983 before going on to international triumph in Chicago’s Arlington Million. But while his native connection may have helped Falbrav’s arrival, it is his team’s top-of-the-table excellence that delivered the horse yesterday.

Since the Aga Khan removed his horses a few years back, 52-year-old Cumani has liked to claim he has been relegated to the lower leagues. His self deprecation has never been that convincing. “From the moment Falbrav arrived in January, I could see he was top-class,” said the trainer, who has Derby winners Kahyasi and High-Rise among his honours. “I have always believed we could compete with the right horses.”

The most dangerous opponent is someone who knows how to do it and has waited hungrily to strike again. Underestimate the Italian at your peril.

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