Racing: Cumani lords it over Ascot

Festival of racing: Regal trainer ready to extend dominance but Dettori will not be repeating his magnificent seven
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A very English

Italian has come

back from hard

times thanks to

sheer hard work.

THERE IS with Luca Cumani, as with his fellow trainer John Dunlop, a whiff of aristocracy.

You half expect the Italian will, one day, take his place in an upper house, Lord Luca perhaps. His rivals might quite enjoy Cumani's elevation from their ranks, especially when they consider the Italian's record at the Ascot Festival, which opens today. Since this meeting became a Festival in 1987, the Newmarket-based trainer has saddled 16 winners, twice as many as his nearest challenger. In this arena, at least, he has looked regal.

Luca Matteo Cumani is, in fact, an ordinary Giuseppe who rather likes a spot of hard work. It is a tad disappointing when he tells you training is more about toil than magic. Some of us like to think there are sorcerers and horse whisperers out there, folk who blow down a colt's nostril once if they want it it to win the 2,000 Guineas, one and a half times for the Derby. Apparently that's not quite so.

"That's old-fashioned and it doesn't work like that," Cumani says crushingly. "It's a romantic view of life. It [training] is not a skill you're born with.

"I have an affinity for horses. I've loved them all my life and I think my horses like me. But when it comes to getting the best out of a horse it just doesn't happen one morning. It comes through a process of dedication, observation and work.

"Henry [Cecil] likes to give this impression that he floats around and doesn't care very much, but he works at least as hard as anyone else."

Cumani still carries vestiges of the Continent, even though he has spent more than half his 49 years within our shores. Some of him, though, is very English. He takes the Times and Telegraph, ensures guests are served with little pots of tea on arrival and stacks Shakespeare on his shelves. He would not be out of place on the fringe of a village green, putting down his warm beer to applaud a half-century from the blacksmith. "I like England, the English way of life and the civilisation of English culture," he says. "I'm very at home with it. I love the life."

Neither is Cumani free with his emotions. One of his countrymen has cornered that market after all. It has been reported that the trainer was crying after Barathea's Breeders' Cup Mile win at Churchill Downs four years ago. The very thought is preposterous. "I might have had a knot in my throat, but that would have been as far as it went," he says.

"I'm emotional, but Frankie [Dettori] does it just right and it goes better with his image. Tears and leaping around looks great on him, but it would look rather odd on me."

For all that, Continental chic keeps peeking out. Cumani could not be scruffy if he tried. When he twists that belt round his mac and draws artistically on a Merit cigarette, you can tell he's not from Dudley. And, it must be said, he is not blind to the importance of image.

Our conversation was delayed as the great man went upstairs to shower and wash his hair. It was too unkempt for the photograph, he told reporter and cameraman. It was considerably better arranged than ours, agreed the same after he left the room.

With his sweaty jodhpurs in the laundry basket and fawn slacks in their place, Cumani was happy to talk. He did, however, request that no photographic record should be taken of the many ciggies he was smoking. That has become our little secret.

Our meeting took place in a sitting room at Bedford House (don't call it Bedford Lodge, which is the hotel next door, or you'll get an old-fashioned Don Corleone look). There was an invitation to tiffin from the Countess of Halifax on the mantelpiece, the lower limb of some sorry beast bringing luck on a table top, and furniture you are careful not to touch. Money was in the air.

It is something of a surprise to learn that Cumani bought this whole shooting match for pounds 75,000. It was the mid-1970s and also the middle of a recession (a later one was not to treat Cumani so kindly).

Bedford House was formerly associated with James Machell, a gambler who ventured large sums on other people's horses as well as his own. This appeared rather appropriate lodgings then for the Cumani whose early career was characterised by thumping great wins in thumping great handicaps. Someone must have made quite a lot of money out of this. But it was not Luca. "Whether people believe it or not, I never bet," he says. "I'm not in it for the betting. I'm not a betting person. I've never had a single bet on my horses in my life." He must do doubles.

Cumani did note early on, however, that there was a tradition he could exploit. It had become accepted that the leading trainers sent their best two-year-olds to venues such as Newmarket and Ascot. The middle- rankers were dispatched to the likes of Leicester and Salisbury, and those which could not pass a hedgehog ended up at Beverley and Hamilton. Juveniles became handicapped on venue rather than ability.

This interested Cumani. "I thought that if I sent a nice one to Carlise it's going to be handicapped as if it's a bad one," he says. In the days when horses were handicapped after one win this proved a nice little ruse. Cumani much preferred it to another method of handicap management. "To do it by `cheating' is too easy," he says. "There is no pleasure in doing that. I could not derive pleasure out of something that was far too easy. I need a challenge. And stopping a horse three times is not a challenge."

By the end of the 1980s Cumani had mastered handicaps. He'd mastered just about everything and, by his own admission, felt "invincible". He will never feel that way again.

A new wave of recession knocked at Bedford House and when the door was opened many of Cumani's American owners ran out and went home. The Aga Khan also decamped with his considerable string, and then Sheikh Mohammed felt his horses should be corralled further up the Bury Road at John Gosden's Stanley House. Four apocalypses had visited the Italian horseman. Numbers almost halved to 96.

"My pride was hurt and I felt relegated," he says, "but the important thing was that we did not lose sight of what we're here for. To produce winners and good horses.

"Any Tom, Dick or Harry can be dealt a lucky hand and win ordinary races with a good horse. The skill is coming up with as many top-class horses as you can. Top trainers produce top horses. No one starts with bluebloods. You have to start with ordinary horses and make them good."

Cumani is proud that his decline was not precipitous. He never dropped out of the top 10 and there was always a beast of distinction to represent the yard. Now he is back winning Derbys again, back feeding many mouths at Bedford House.

"I'm very happy," he says. "This year I've had High-Rise and One So Wonderful and a decent enough supporting cast. But trainers are never entirely happy. A trainer who is wholly happy is a bit of a fool.

"You shouldn't have time to be happy, but just enough to consider where your next good horse might be coming from."

Crikey, you think, as you step out into the sunlight and the flint-walled splendour of the Bedford House yards. He's got all this and he's still not satisfied. It might be worth having a horse with this chap.