Luca Cumani: the End of an Era

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Luca Cumani | Racingfotos.com

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The Neapolitan nobleman Cavaliere Odorado Ginistrelli, who saddled his home-bred filly Signorinetta (GB) (Chaleureux {GB}) to land the Derby/Oaks double in 1908, will always hold a special place in Newmarket's racing history. Another Italian horseman, however, has subsequently earned himself an even more distinguished position in the town's pantheon. Having announced on Monday his decision to call time on his 43-year training career, Luca Cumani will draw stumps at the end of the current season, a retirement which really will be the end of an era.

In the early 1970s, the easy thing for the young Luca Cumani would have been to stay in his native Italy, where his father Sergio was a multiple champion trainer. Going into the family business and eventually succeeding his father would have been a very safe and very pleasant option. However, the bold option, the ambitious option, was always going to be more Luca's style.

A successful amateur rider whose 85 victories included a triumph on the Ian Balding-trained Meissen (Ire) (Quorum {GB}) in the Moet & Chandon Silver Magnum ('The Amateurs' Derby') at Epsom in 1972 at the age of 23, Cumani inevitably gravitated towards Newmarket, where he began riding out for John Winter in Highfield Stables in the Bury Road. That role led to an assistant trainer's position in Marriott (now Chestnut Tree) Stables in Hamilton Road with Henry Cecil, whose patrons included leading Italian owner Carlo d'Alessio. Cecil trained two consecutive 2000 Guineas winners for d'Alessio: Bolkonski (Ire) (Balidar {GB}) in 1975 and Wollow (Ire) (Wolver Hollow {Ire}) in 1976. By the time that Wollow won the race, though, Luca Cumani was already a trainer in his own right, having bought the then run-down Bedford House, just a furlong from Highfield along the Bury Road, from the executors of its previous owner Jack Clayton.

From the outset, Cumani signalled his intentions to dine at the top table. His first winner came in stakes company when the Italian import Three Legs (Ire) (Petingo {GB}) landed the G3 Duke Of York S. at York's May Meeting in 1976 under Italian champion jockey Gianfranco Dettori, who was already known to British racegoers as the rider of Bolkonski and Wollow. Cumani had already sent out a Classic place-getter by this time, Konafa (Damascus) (who had been trained by Cecil at two) having finished second in the 1000 Guineas two weeks previously. Further Classic near misses followed a year later when Freeze The Secret (Nearctic) finished second in both the 1000 Guineas and the Oaks, with stablemate Vaguely Deb (Vaguely Noble) one place behind her at Epsom.

Cumani landed his first British Classic when the Ivan Allan-owned Commanche Run (GB) (Run The Gantlet) took the St Leger in 1984 under Lester Piggott. (He had already sent out his first Classic winner by then, Old Country (GB) (Quiet Fling) including the 1982 Derby Italiano among his three continental Group 1 victories). The following year Commanche Run dropped back in distance by half a mile to land two major Group 1 prizes, the G1 Benson & Hedges Gold Cup (now Juddmonte International S.) at York and the G1 Irish Champion S. at Leopardstown. Cumani was now well established as one of the leading trainers in the country, helped by the exploits of the d'Alessio-owned Tolomeo (Ire) (Lypheor {Fr}) whose many excellent performances were headed by his ground-breaking victory under Pat Eddery in the GI Arlington Million S. in Chicago in 1983.

Cumani's formidable reputation for having the right horse in the right race on the right day was further cemented by his hat-trick of victories in the prestigious and ultra-competitive Extel H. at Glorious Goodwood, which he won from 1984 to '86 with Free Guest (GB) (Be My Guest) and her half-brother Fish 'N' Chips (GB) (Rio Carmelo {Fr}) and then with Ivan Allan's Chinoiserie (Fluorescent Light). Free Guest (who also landed the G2 Nassau S. and two runnings of the G2 Sun Chariot S.) and Fish 'N' Chips thus ranked as two of the early stars bred and raced by Fittocks Stud, which he and his wife Sara were developing a few miles outside Newmarket. A similarly shrewd training feat in 1986 was developing the career of Dallas (Blushing Groom {Fr}), placing the 3-year-old to land the Britannia H. at Royal Ascot and the Cambridgeshire H. at Newmarket.

Thereafter and until relatively recently, success seemed just to flow. The highlights included the Derby victories of Kahyasi (Ire) (Ile De Bourbon) and High-Rise (Ire) (High Estate {GB}) in 1988 and '98, with the former completing the 'Derby double' by following up at The Curragh; victories in the G2 St. James's Palace S. at Royal Ascot with Bairn (Northern Baby) and Half A Year (Riverman) in 1985 and '87; the 1989 G1 Champion S. victory of Legal Case (Alleged); a Group 1 double at Ascot in September 1990 with Gerald Leigh's Markofdistinction (GB) (Known Fact) and Sheikh Mohammed's Fittocks-bred filly Shamshir (GB) (Kris {GB}), the latter providing Gianfranco Dettori's young son Lanfranco ('Frankie') with his first success at the highest level; wins in the Irish 1000 Guineas with Ensconse (Lyphard) and Gossamer (GB) (Sadler's Wells) in 1989 and 2002; magnificent triumphs in the 1993 Irish 2000 Guineas and 1994 Breeders' Cup Mile with Gossamer's elder brother Barathea (Ire). Arguably his best horse, though, was Scuderia Rencati's Falbrav (Ire) (Fairy King) whom he sent out to win five Group 1 races in 2003. The enterprise evident in Tolomeo's Arlington Million victory was repeatedly reprised through a swag of intercontinental triumphs in such great races as the Japan Cup, Hong Kong Cup, Canadian International, Dubai Duty Free, Singapore International Cup, Queen Elizabeth II Cup (HK) and Geelong Cup (Aus); while twice the Melbourne Cup only eluded him by millimetres.

It is not merely a host of great horses who have benefitted from Cumani's guiding hand. Three champion apprentices (Frankie Dettori, Jason Weaver and Royston Ffrench, who topped the apprentices' table in 1989, 1993 and 1997 respectively) served their apprenticeship with him, while Jimmy Fortune was already riding as one of Cumani's jockeys when heading the apprentices' list in 1990. Equally notable are the numerous trainers who learnt much of their craft in his employment, including Christophe Clement, Chris Wall, Marco Botti, David Simcock, Donald McCain, Ed Walker and Jonathan Portman, as well as Cumani's son Matt, who is now forging a good career in Australia, and Spain's champion trainer Guillermo Arizkorreta. Rae Guest spent a lengthy stint as Cumani's second jockey before switching from riding to training.

Recent years have seen Cumani's string decline in both quantity and quality, primarily because several of his major owners have moved on because of circumstances beyond his control. The Italian and American owners who were once significant patrons are no longer the presence in Britain's ownership ranks that was formerly the case; HH Aga Khan III no longer has horses in training in Great Britain; Sheikh Mohammed phased out some of his trainers when developing Godolphin; and the hugely successful owner/breeder Gerald Leigh, a great friend to the trainer as well as a great client, sadly died of cancer in 2002. The victory of Postponed (Ire) (Dubawi {Ire}) in the G1 King George & Queen Elizabeth S. at Ascot in July 2015 did little to turn the tide as the horse's owner, Sheikh Mohammed Obaid, withdrew his patronage from the stable shortly afterwards. Cumani clearly (and, one suspects, reluctantly) feels that the time is right to bow out, a decision helped by the fact that his children are forging their own very successful careers (Matt as a trainer in Australia, Francesca as a broadcaster) and thus are not likely to want to succeed him.

During his 43-year training career (a stay at the wicket, incidentally, exceeded only Sir Mark Prescott and Sir Michael Stoute among current Newmarket trainers) Luca Cumani has consistently kept his head when all around him were losing theirs. He has met with Triumph and Disaster, and treated those two impostors just the same. He has talked with crowds and kept his virtue, and walked with kings without losing the common touch. He has enjoyed huge success, as his total of 52 Group/Grade 1 wins spread over 11 countries attests. More important than his success, though, is the fact that he has earned the respect, affection and trust of the entire racing world. He and Sara will still be masterminding the careers of high-class horses but will be doing so from Fittocks Stud rather than Bedford House.

Training has been Luca Cumani's life, and his retirement really is the end of an era. Newmarket Heath and its passing parade of horses and horsemen will outlast us all, but it will be just that little bit poorer for losing his authoritative, reassuring and unfailingly courteous daily presence.

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