Racing Mystery: Echoes of Dick Francis as arsonist stalks Newmarket

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The Independent Online
An arsonist is believed to be stalking the stables of some of Britain's most expensive racehorses.

It is the latest drama to grip the racing community in Newmarket where, Ian Burrell reports, police have recently been called to investigate armed robbery, drugs smuggling and murder.

As the siren from the first fire engine cut through the Suffolk night air, Luca Cumani was already in the stable yard leading his horses away from the flames of the burning building. One of Britain's leading trainers, he has been entrusted with the care of horses owned by some of the world's richest men; Sheikh Mohammed, the Aga Khan, Michael Tabor.

It was nearly 2.30am when he received a telephone call from a neighbour, telling him that the stable buildings at his Kremlin Stud Yard were ablaze. But Mr Cumani might have been forgiven for sleeping with one eye open. Only 17 hours earlier another fire had mysteriously broken out at his neighbouring stables at Bedford House, causing severe damage.

Not only was Mr Cumani the victim in both instances, but also each blaze began in similar circumstances, in the second-storey lofts of the stables.

Police were last night questioning a 28-year-old man in connection with the fires.

Meanwhile fire officers warned the Newmarket racing community to step up security amid fears of further attacks.

Divisional fire officer Michael Jackson said: "They should make sure they know who is coming in and out of their yards and make sure they establish a routine. It is very difficult to protect properties like stables because of the way they are laid out, but owners must be on their guard."

Much-loved in the racing fraternity, Italian-born Mr Cumani, 48, is known for being a mentor to Frankie Dettori, the country's outstanding flat racing jockey. The trainer has been based in Newmarket for more than 20 years and the pinnacle of his career so far was his Derby win with Kahyasi in 1988.

The first fire was started when the racehorses were on the gallops and the remaining four horses were quickly led to safety.

But yesterday's attack was on a stable housing a dozen racehorses, which narrowly escaped as flames ripped through the roof of the building.

After yesterday's fire, Mr Cumani said: "We led the horses into the other yards, by which time the firemen had got the fire under control. Thank God no staff or horses were injured in either blaze."

He praised other leading trainers, Sean Woods, William Haggas and William Jarvis, who rushed to the scene to give help. Their reactions were unsurprising given that the Newmarket racing community has drawn closer together in recent months in the face of a succession of unwanted, though probably unrelated, incursions from the worlds of drugs and violence.

Earlier this summer, Kamil Mahdi, 48, a new trainer on the Newmarket scene, was the victim of a violent armed robbery at his yard.

Mr Mahdi, along with his fiancee and a business associate, were tied up and threatened with a hand gun by two smartly-dressed men posing as racehorse owners. The men escaped with jewellery and cash worth pounds 2,000.

In July, Roger Harris, another Newmarket-based trainer, and two other men, were arrested after customs officials seized cannabis resin worth pounds 3.5m in a horsebox. And the town has still not recovered from the murder of trainer Alex Scott, 34, who was shot in the back during an argument with an employee at his stable yard.

The murder trial at Norwich Crown Court in 1995, at which stud groom William "Clem" O'Brien, 58, was jailed for life, gave an insight into the simmering tensions which sometimes exist behind the serene public image of the sport of kings. The jury heard that he opened fire on the millionaire trainer, shouting: "This is for you, you bastard."

Yesterday as Mr Cumani prepared his horses for a meeting at Ascot, detectives were seeking to establish whether anyone might have a grudge against him.