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'I am perhaps not quite as right-wing as some people think' The masterly Newmarket trainer who is renowned for his strong opinions shares his thoughts with Alastair Down.

Byline: Alastair Down

ON THE wall of the Cumani family sitting room is a large and striking portrait featuring the provocatively posed and naked back of a young woman. In the right-hand corner of the painting is a glass of water.

Either it is a warm autumn morning or I am getting very old, but by god the water looks good.

Luca settles himself into an armchair and reflects that when he bought Bedford Lodge from Jack Clayton in 1976 "there was no heating in the house, not even in the bathroom".

Cumani is not a trainer forever seeking publicity, but when he is centre stage the strength of his opinions and his wry quotability mean that he makes his mark.

He was at it again at the Doncaster St Leger meeting after Seta's defeat when making an observation along the lines that he never ceases to be surprised by either women or horses.

This is, of course, a harmless piece of nonsense - his genuinely outstanding achievements as a trainer suggest horses hold few mysteries for him and as a young man he whisked his wife Sara, arguably one of the great beauties of her generation, away from under British noses in the greatest result any Italian has had in this country since Julius Caesar plonked his foot on the beach in Kent in 55BC.

In fact, the very earliest meetings between the future Mr and Mrs Cumani do not seem to have been scripted by a romantic novelist. She was rude to him and the next day he appears to have tried to hospitalise her.

Cumani says: "It was at Doncaster Sales back in 1975 and I noticed there was this beautiful girl working for the BBA. Eventually, I got Robin Hastings to introduce us and about the first words she said to me were 'So you are an immigrant then'.

"I asked her if she could ride, to which she replied 'of course', so I invited her to come and ride out and she agreed. I had one horse which I knew would whip round at the end of the canter, so I put her up on that. He whipped round and she came off. I just went up and said 'I thought you said you could ride'."

In the foothills of his training career it was the winning of decent handicaps that helped Cumani make his name. He says he doesn't like handicaps as "they are a form of socialism", which is just about the ultimate insult as far as he is concerned. Mind you, this perceptive man says: "I am perhaps not quite as right-wing as some people think and, of course, there are obligations to those in society with little or nothing.

"As an employer I would love to be able to do more for my staff. We pay them well, but there again the cost of living in Newmarket is high. I know that about 50 per cent of what I pay them can go to the pub or the bookie - or, let's face it, in some yards their dealers. But the great scandal in this country is our failure to educate the young - the National Health Service hardly has a problem compared to our education system. We fail them."

Cumani remains arguably the most feared of trainers in major handicaps but those early triumphs were not the result of fiendish plotting but a staggeringly simple approach. He says: "The top yards used to send their well-regarded maidens to places like Newmarket, Sandown or Newbury, so mine went off to Carlisle, Folkestone or Beverley and that would earn them competitive marks.

"Like most good handicap trainers you will see that the big wins have come with horses who have won their previous race."

Training horses, particularly in Newmarket where everyone is using the same tools in terms of gallops, is all about getting an edge on the next man. Cumani's latest weapon in the struggle to stay ahead is Kieren Fallon, now steadily chiselling his way back after the hype-fest of his return.

Luca says: "Kieren devotes all his time to horses and racing - it is all he thinks about.

"What's more he truly loves his horses - with a new horse you see him striving to get to know this horse, to get into this particular horse's brain.

"Training horses is about the gradual process of learning more about each one. Years ago in A Question Of Sport they had a picture that was blurred and the contestants had to identify who it was as the photo gradually came into focus. That is what training is like as you find out more about horses and Kieren is an extra ally in that process. He is fascinating to listen to."

But while Cumani has been more than happy to help Fallon on the road back, he is realistic about how far he can go and says flatly: "I cannot be a nanny to a 44-year-old. He should have learned what needs to be learned by now. Hopefully, he has."

If Cumani had his way there would be a car driving round Newmarket with the number plate WOP1, but the authorities would not let him have it on grounds of political correctness.

He says he is not the most temperamental of Italians but admits to a certain degree of shyness and, though that sounds unlikely, it actually rings true. Shyness is invariably confused with being rather weedy, which is palpably not Luca. But it can also be about retaining your hinterland and not stuffing everything in the shop window - keeping some of the stock out the back for special customers.

This can sometimes make him seem a bit stand-offish but he is an essentially private man in a public role. While he could probably annoy the daylights out of you about silly and unimportant things you feel he would be reliable big time when it mattered.

Close friends of the Cumanis insist that Sara is the more outwardly competitive of the pair and can grow a pair of (designer) horns when one of the yard's horses is in a major race. Luca has been heard to claim that on these occasions she is Hyacinth to his Richard and perhaps it goes to prove the old adage that "behind every successful man is a good woman standing in front of him".

The price of newsprint precludes going into Cumani's full views on bookmakers and the role they have played over the last 50 years, but he is saying only what those who have to sit down and negotiate with them have lost the spine to say about liberties taken in the past - a tradition which shows no signs of dying out.

But Cumani is equally forceful in his opinions on how the sport is covered on television and is convinced that there is too much dross and too many presenters - indeed there may be some crossover there!

He says: "We must concentrate on making the TV product better by only having the best because only then will it appeal to the likes of Sky and ITV as well as C4 and the BBC. We should show the big race only and make a real event of it."

CUMANI is about to launch his annual raid Down Under for the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups with Basaltico and Cima De Triomphe and is clearly smitten by the race that grinds Australia to a happy halt. He says: "It is fantastic to be part of such an occasion. It is not really a two-mile race, which is good as Cima De Triomphe is not really a two-mile horse. They go quick and then definitely slow and then quicken up again. Hopefully, it will be a proper Melbourne Cup this year without any Aidan O'Brien-influenced tactics!" Cumani and his team have proved bold and adept travellers of their horses and, as he says drily: "You race in Britain for prestige and abroad for money." His admirable warrior Presvis is back cantering after a three-month break at his Fittocks Stud and Hong Kong is the next stop before Dubai.

But perhaps one of the most crucial events as far as the long-term future is concerned is the arrival at Bedford House of the Cumanis' son Mattie who seems to have as many fans among the female racing population as his sister Francesca does among the male.

Young Cumani, never browbeaten into taking the sport up for a living, has packed a load of experience into his life from banking to politics. A bit of work experience with Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, as well as a stint on Michael Howard's General Election campaign suggest that he might not have an unerring eye for a winner, but that should all change now as his father's business has the rock-steady qualities of a genuine blue-chip operation.

And it is the trainer's doing. I don't care what anyone says, but it takes a special set of qualities to succeed in a foreign land. Cumani has even survived the departures from his yard of Sheikh Mohammed and the Aga Khan, which must have been an experience akin to being gelded twice.

What is more, while you rightly think of Cumani as being at the top of his profession, he is not Lord Scattercash at the sales - you don't associate him with long shopping lists of yearlings at a quarter of a million quid and upwards.

In 1976 during a downturn in the property market, Luca shrewdly stole Bedford House for pounds 70,000 - the Great Training Robbery you might call it. He has served 33 years now, staying longer than old Julius Caesar, conquering worldwide and probably making rather more money as well.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Sep 25, 2009
Words:1627
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