The sun was starting its climb into a still vapour-trail free sky. There were horses to work, flights to check and a classic to win. No wonder the adrenalin still surges under Luca Cumani’s now so well seasoned brow.
This was Newmarket on Thursday – a perfect snapshot of the pressures and problems and judgement and that wondrous mixture of hope, thrill and disappointment that make a big time flat racing stable the most of exciting of places to visit when the blossom is at last upon the tree. It is 61 years since Luca was born into a training family in Milan, 34 since he started at Bedford House and 7 since last finished in the British top 10, but as he rode alongside his circling horses there was no doubting that this was a player set on making a major impact in the coming season.
Within the hour, star filly Seta would be doing her crucial 1,000 Guineas trial up the Rowley Mile, within the morning he must confirm his trip to Hong Kong to oversee Presvis’ tilt at repeating last year’s victory in the £1.2m Audemars Piquet QE II Cup at Sha Tin. But most immediately he must finalise plans for four batches of three year olds to work across the Limekilns.
Ah yes, “The Limekilns”, the most famous turf gallops in the world whose very name evokes images of phantom steeds and whispering hooves swirling out of the misty distance. But with a trainer this is an examination room where concentration is everything. Cumani is off his hack and into the car to brief the jockeys on how the tests are to be conducted.
The horses have cantered up from the town to the back of the plantation. Jean Pierre Guillambert arrives first, a tall, red-anoraked figure with a wary, early morning frown as he listens to Luca’s instructions. “Where’s Kieren?” is the next question as it usually is, but with what is apparently traditional timing the newly charged former champion comes bustling through the trees, all pale-cheeked, black-clad purpose as he too gets his orders.
Training is a team game and as we cross over the road to gaze out over the great expanse of grassland where so many champions have trod, Cumani is on to the phone to his assistants to ensure all is in order out beyond the faraway beech clumps where the gallops will begin. As he enters his seventh decade it is noticeable how empowered Luca has become by the young men beneath him. Charlie Henson is out in Hong Kong as he has been in Melbourne, Dubai and Singapore. Ed Walker was formerly with Roger Charlton and is easily versed enough to strike out on his own, whilst Luca’s 28 year old son Mattie is now a bright and smiling presence in the operation having forsaken, not perhaps unsurprisingly, earlier city skirmishes which included a spell with the Conservative Party. Where is he when they need him?
At last trio of specks loom on the horizon followed soon by three more sets of three. Binoculars come up, names are recited which the punter in one madly tries to memorize. Deductions by the unwitting about the unknown are inherently unsound but the way Fallon’s mount, an unraced Dubawi colt called Afsare, moved in his group made it not a shock to hear he has a St James Palace entry.
Such Royal Ascot reflections will have to put further back in the notebook because after the galloper’s debrief and then a hastened breakfast, the principal protagonists reconvene at the racecourse for Fallon to put Seta through her important Guineas gallop. She will be accompanied by the 4 year old, 87 rated, colt Luc Jordan who ended last season with a hat trick, and by the talented, 100 rated, five year old mare Annabelle’s Charm who after three victories last season failed by a neck to honour Luca’s late father in the Premio Sergio Cumani at San Siro in Milan.
They are to come the final seven furlongs of the Rowley Mile up which a week earlier Kieren Fallon had ridden the Jabar Abdullah owned Music Show to win the Nell Gwynn Stakes and put her jockey in the squirmingly uncomfortable position of wanting to ride both her and Seta in the same race. Up against Kieren in the gallop will be “J.P.” Guillambert on Annabelle’s Charm, and on Luc Jordan’s back will be Luca’s wife Sara who thirty one years into their marriage still cuts an impossibly youthful as well as beautifully skilful figure in the saddle.
“Where’s Kieren?” rings out again and it transpires that he is sitting in his car on the other side of the grandstand. The horses take a turn whilst he whizzes round and attention can finally be given to bth Seta’s conformation and temperament. The latter looks very secure as she shrugs away the change of riders and the unfamiliar surroundings more like an old chaser than a three year old filly ten days from her classic target. The conformation, for those who haven’t seen her close up, is rather more of a challenge.
For Seta is strikingly tall, and with her pale chestnut coat and elegant white face is almost more leggy blonde than super powered racehorse, and you instantly recall her two contrasting performances on the track. The devastating debut at Newmarket where, when she found her stride, she left her rivals an astonishing 8 long lengths adrift; and the disappointment at Doncaster when she moved up like a winner and so lost her front end rhythm that she would have hardly registered a point on Strictly Come Dancing.
Cumani’s explanation is that Seta had grown a full inch between Newmarket and Doncaster and had lost strength and coordination as a consequence. With an entirely trouble free run since she came back from her break at the beginning of January, he is now confident she will be a different proposition this summer. He is the expert, but in these circumstances it’s not that disloyal to think “he would say that wouldn’t he” and let the eyes decide.
So we go up the stand and hold our breath. Luc Jordan makes it with Annabelle’s Charm on his outside and Seta tracking them. At “The Bushes” Annabelle’s Charm sweeps through so well that for a moment you wonder if she has not put her stable companion in trouble. Fallon can be hard to read. Is he pressing or just balancing ? The moment passes and coming towards the winning post Seta and her jockey are a picture of controlled driving intent.
We scramble down to where the blowing horses and bubbling jockeys are gathering in what on racedays is the Members Car Park. “J.P. came past so well that I was worried if Kieren would catch him,” says Sara, “but Seta looked to do it really well.” Guillambert is equally convinced “if it had been a race, you could think I came a touch too soon,” he says, “because I moved up like a winner. But then the other filly really fixed me.”
Fallon’s already off to another appointment but Luca relates not only his jockey’s pleasure but his acceptance that Seta should be his classic mount next Sunday – albeit with the mournful mutter “I suppose I will get the sack from Jabar (Abdullah, Music Show’s owner)”. Clocks are checked, tales are re-swopped, hopes are confirmed but for a stable of the scope and ambition of Cumani’s the hour will not wait as there are another batch of horses to watch on Warren Hill.
Luca Cumani has never considered himself a two year old trainer (15% of juvenile victories to older horses in the last five years compared to some 30% for Michael Stoute and over 50% for Mark Johnston). He once famously said “two year old racing does not really count, it is like Junior Wimbledon” and many of the tyros cantering up what must be the world’s most used conditioning slope have pedigrees that suggest not too much action in their first season. But that did not stop Seta’s “aunt” Gossamer winning all three races as a two year old before messing up the English and then winning the Irish Guineas in 2002 – nor did it prevent Seta herself running on August 1st last year – and her 11-8 starting price showed that she was anything but unexpected.
“When we first saw the size of her,” recalls the trainer, “we thought she would need plenty of time but she just kept doing everything so easily that it became natural progression. What she did this morning makes her a real contender but the great thing for us is that everything about her suggests that she will be better later and especially as a four year old.”
Long term and long distance are what Cumani is about and the sight of a grey horse called Manighar coming past us visibly excites him. “This is our Melbourne Cup hope,” he says, “he is a gelding who won 6 out of 8 in France for the Aga Khan last year and I think he has got just the right mix of speed and stamina to give him a proper chance in Australia.” With Bauer and Purple Moon, Luca has twice gone close to winning “The Race that Stops a Nation” and victory this November would complete an international roster which includes The Japan Cup, the Breeders Cup, the Hong Kong Cup and of course the QE II Cup out there which Presvis will have tried to defend early this morning.
Presvis himself is a perfect example of both the traditional and the innovative side of the Cumani operation. Traditional, because his trainer’s patience endured until the horse was a four year old and then had three “educational” runs before sluicing up first time in a handicap – innovative because his ownership is shared partly by greek magnate Leonidas Marinopoulos, partly by Cumani himself, and partly by three builders from Hertfordshire who first met in a betting shop in Enfield thirty years ago.
“Some people might think Luca a bit aloof and forbidding,” said Phil Booth from Hong Kong on Friday morning, the London tones still strong in his voice, “but when you get to know him he is not like that at all. He is a really caring professional and I cannot speak highly enough of what he has done for Kevin (Bailey) and Danny (Boorer) and me. We need more people like him in this country – if I was a builder I would employ him – it’s just a pity he is Italian.”
Joking aside the Presvis story is a master class in patient and perceptive training. A whole series of minor fractures and other ailments kept him off the track as a two and three year old and his headstrong waywardness, so evident when Kieren Fallon had an unhappy experience on him in a three horse Meydan race in February, meant that he needed his quiet, apprentice-ridden first three runs as much for mental and physical maintenance as for a lenient handicap mark.
But it’s one thing to develop a talent, another to exploit it and the 7 race, four country, three victory, £2million odyssey on which he embarked last year would have been the envy of any owner (the Aga Khan famously became an ex-Cumani owner some time ago) let alone our three graduates from that betting shop in Enfield. Kevin and Danny were at Sandown on Friday and so too was Presvis rider Ryan Moore and Seta’s pilot Kieren Fallon to whom Cumani paid tribute for suggesting Moore retake the mount after the discomfort at Meydan. “In all my experience I have never known a jockey do that before,” says Luca admiringly. “I would not have done it myself because it could have affected Kieren’s confidence and confidence in a rider is everything. Last year I felt he was apt to get ahead of himself and he was still not at his best in Dubai, but it’s all coming back this season.”
Fallon does not so much resent this analysis as endorse it, actually blaming himself for Seta’s defeat at Doncaster. “I rushed her so I did,” he said with disarming Irish candour, “she moved up to win the race and then she lost her balance.” Jockeys rarely talk so openly and it continued. “I rode her 6 weeks ago and I was not happy with her,” said Kieren, “and even the last time on the Limekilns I felt she was still weak and leggy.” It seemed as if the reservations of Wednesday morning were being confirmed, ante post vouchers might as well be destroyed and we had to assume that Fallon’s presence on Seta’s back was only because of Cumani’s insistence.”
Not a bit of it, in a seamless switch worthy of a top novelist, KIeren continued “I don’t have a contract with Luca, I am riding Seta because I think she will win. I may be proved wrong but on Wednesday, even cantering down she felt different. That other filly is a good filly and she is a five year old, but I did not get into mine at all, just asked her to lengthen, lengthen, lengthen. What really impressed me was the way she came down the hill. When I first rode her I told Luca she would win the Guineas but then she got weak. Russian Rhythm was like that. A fortnight before the Guineas she was working poorly then we got some sun and her last work was awesome. This filly really travels and I guarantee I will be the last one off the bridle.”
These things are always there to deceive us but standing there with Kieren Fallon at Sandown on Friday was to have that most dangerous of feelings – that we were getting it direct from the horse’s mouth.