There are few scenes more quintessentially English than Upend’s grass verge-lined lanes, dappled with daffodils in the early spring. In this quiet Suffolk enclave of thatched cottages sits Fittocks Stud, a bloodstock empire that is as reserved and unflashy as the village itself but which nevertheless has a long, solid record of understated high achievement.
The famous racing name of Cumani has been at its core since 1984 when the original stud buildings and 100 acres of land were purchased to house a small band of mares inherited from Luca’s father, Sergio Cumani. Sara is the hands-on force behind the day-to-day running of the immaculate farm, which has over time been extended to 360 acres.
Each Sunday, her husband turns his mind from the constant puzzle of training young thoroughbreds to the more bucolic theme of land and pasture management, but the inquisitive nature of the trainer’s mind, along with his penchant for forward-thinking and long-term planning, doubtless ensure that ideas and tweaks for matings plans are a regular source of mental rumination.
After three decades at the helm of Fittocks, Sara Cumani readily recalls the talented filly that put her operation on the map and helped to pay for a number of early improvements to the farm.
“Our first big winner was Shamshir, the first foal of Free Guest, who I suppose was our foundation mare,” she says of the daughter of Kris, who in 1990 became the second Group 1 winner for Cumani’s then-stable jockey Frankie Dettori in the Fillies’ Mile, 45 minutes after he won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Markofdistinction.
“Sheikh Mohammed bought her from us privately as a yearling. She was the first bit of money that came in and allowed us to go to better stallions and buy a mare or two.”
The next breakthrough came with Kalata, a half-sister to the dam of the first of Cumani’s two Derby winners, Kahyasi.
“We bought Kalata because we had Kahyasi in training at the time as a two-year-old and Luca always thought he was something special. She then produced Kithanga, who was by Darshaan and won the Park Hill. We sent Kithanga to Sadler’s Wells, with the result being Milan.”
This particular family has also played an important part in the development of Fittocks Stud, both financially and by repute. The subsequent St Leger winner and now popular National Hunt sire Milan – coincidentally named by Coolmore after the birthplace of his co-breeder – was sold for 650,000gns as a yearling, while another of Kithanga’s offspring, Go For Gold, fetched 525,000gns.
I love land and open spaces and I think paddock management is very important as, after all, 90% of what the horses eat comes from the land
“They enabled us to restock and improve the land,” adds Sara. “We spent a lot of time re-fencing and improving the grazing. We very much learned as we went along but it was an interesting learning curve and slowly we attempted to improve the quality of mares.
“In 1994 we bought another 200 acres which was all arable land so it had to be drained, fenced, grassed, trees planted – the whole thing. It was a great project to undertake but it took a lot of time to establish. We’re on quite heavy clay and it took quite a long time to understand the land. You have to work with clay, you can’t do what you want, you have to do what it tells you but it’s a lovely piece of land.”
The fruits of the Cumanis’ labour are evident from a tour of the farm, which sits in the breeding heartland just outside Newmarket, neatly enclosed by Darley, Juddmonte and Hascombe & Valiant Studs. Those who believe Suffolk to be a flat wasteland will be struck by the undulation of the pasture, while the size of the paddocks is another feature of note.
Explaining his reasoning behind such vast spaces, which emulate his admired method of Australian stud farming, Luca Cumani says: “I love land and open spaces and I think paddock management is very important as, after all, 90% of what the horses eat comes from the land. Young horses need plenty of exercise and big paddocks so they can get a decent gallop up from time to time, which helps to develop bone.”
One of the more recent graduates who has just returned to the fold to begin her breeding career is another Park Hill Stakes winner, Silk Sari. The daughter of Dalakhani is out of So Silk, purchased by Fittocks from Eydon Hall Farm, owned by the family of Cumani’s long-term patron, the late Gerald Leigh.
Unraced but hailing from a family that includes two of the stable’s Group 1 winners, Barathea and Gossamer, her acquisition is understandable but also backs up one of Luca Cumani’s firmly held principles.
Sara explains: “We can’t afford to have the looks, the pedigree and the performance so always our resolve has been to have conformation first – Luca is insistent on this – and then family. Whether or not the mare has done something herself doesn’t matter so much as long as there’s a good solid family behind her.”
In producing a Group 2 winner with her second foal, So Silk has upheld this judgement and another to confirm the principle is Blue Symphony, a modestly-performing daughter of the high-class sprinter Blue Duster, who is described by Sara as “a fortuitous buy” having been secured privately from an owner who needed to sell. The mare’s progeny, which include Nell Gwyn Stakes winner Fantasia and Derby entrant Rocky Rider, have regularly returned sums well into six figures at the yearling sales while she herself left the Fittocks fold when sold for one million guineas at Tattersalls’ December Sale of 2012.
Rocky Rider is racing for Qatar Bloodstock from Andrew Balding’s stable and Aktabantay is in the care of fellow Newmarket trainer Hugo Palmer, but hopes are high at the Cumanis’ Bedford House Stables that another Fittocks-bred three-year-old may have her say in the Classics this year. Lady Of Dubai will not race in the blue and cream Fittocks colours, having been sold as a yearling for 450,000gns.
She remains under the tutelage of her breeder, however, and sports the yellow-and-black-spotted silks of another long-term Cumani owner, Sheikh Mohammed Obaid. It’s easy to see how she appealed to him as Lady Of Dubai is by his much sought-after stallion, Dubawi, the flagship of the Darley roster. Though Dubawi raced for Godolphin, Cumani trained his dam, Shiekh Mohammed Obaid’s homebred Oaks d’Italia winner Zomaradah, and all of her other offspring. She has one final foal yet to come into training, a colt by Frankel who is now a yearling.
Despite having planned her mating and known her since birth, Luca Cumani maintains that Lady Of Dubai receives no favourable treatment in training. He says: “The moment the homebreds are in the training yard they are the same as the others – all the horses here are my babies. Winning is the same for any horse in the yard, though of course it’s satisfying if you’ve bred them and known them all their lives.”
He is equally unequivocal about any twinges when horses he and Sara have bred succeed for other stables, adding: “In each case it has been my decision to sell so I have no regrets. It’s not a question of that horse being one that got away – any success helps our families and helps the stud. And quite often there are those that you’ve kept because they wouldn’t have made a good sales yearling but they turn out to be very good racehorses.”
The established British owner/breeders may be considered a dying breed but the Cumanis have maintained links with many of those still attempting to pursue a similar goal to theirs: the breeding of top-class middle-distance horses. While operating predominantly as a private stud, Fittocks does have some select boarders – all of whom are connected to patrons of the separately run racing stable.
“We’ve always had some boarders. We keep it as limited as we possibly can but it helps with the cashflow,” explains Sara. “It’s just really for some of our owners because we don’t want to over-horse the place and we’re comfortable with the numbers we have.”
Among those who make regular visits is the pride of Floors Stud, Attraction, who currently has a smart Frankel colt at foot, while the dams of Craig Bennett’s two Group 1 winners of last year – Cursory Glance and Charming Thought – are also in situ.
Sara adds: “There are a few permanent boarders and the Duke of Roxburghe and Meon Valley Stud send mares for the breeding season. The Meon Valley mares come foaled and they send us anything that’s going to be covered by a Newmarket stallion.
“With Floors [Stud], they send their mares to foal with us. It tends to be that the numbers they both send roughly equate to what we send away to be covered in Ireland so the number of mares on the place remains pretty constant.
“One of our biggest permanent boarding clients is Craig Bennett, so if his mares are going to an English stallion they come here. Annabelle’s Charm is here and we raised and grazed Charming Thought. [Cursory Glance’s dam] Time Control is now here and she has a War Front yearling filly who is absolutely gorgeous and will be going to the sales.”
The sales process for the Fittocks team has evolved significantly from the days Sara recalls of “standing at Tattersalls during the foal sales and selling for 1,000gns, scratching our heads and thinking we somehow needed to do better”.
Nowadays, Fittocks graduates are offered for sale though Highclere Stud, the operation which has a proven track record of flying high at the elite sales.
Sara says: “We’ve always had a feeling that being a trainer you’re better off being removed from the up-close and personal bit of the sales, but also having a top-class draft now is a real art. In the last few years we have liked to give our yearlings to Highclere, who do an excellent job.
The other big issue to be discussed is what’s sold and what’s not sold; we tend to sell our nicest but there’s no crystal ball and you never really know
“It’s all very good making money at the sales but we want them to go on and be good at the races – that’s our number one objective. We love progressive, middle-distance horses and that’s what we try to breed. We’re not really trying to breed two-year-olds.”
The Cumanis were initially aided in their mission by pedigree expert Alex Scrope, who has now passed the baton to Camilla Trotter and Nancy Sexton.
Sara continues: “We have a great team and we do the matings together. Luca is very strict about the stallions he likes to use. Occasionally I’ll put in a flyer and it doesn’t get very well received but mostly we tend to agree on things.
“I suppose our motto is to send the best to the best of what we can afford. The other big issue to be discussed is what’s sold and what’s not sold. We tend to sell our nicest but there’s no crystal ball and you never really know. We sell those by the right stallions who are perfect on x-rays and which we hope will help to pay the nomination bill at the end of the year.”
Though there may be the odd bit of wrangling over stallion choices from time to time, the one thing on which the couple agrees emphatically is the satisfaction of being involved with breeding good horses.
Luca says: “I was always interested and I thought that it would give me a bigger picture of the racehorse if I knew the breeding side as well.
“Breeding and training compliment each other – from the trainer’s perspective you get to know a bit about soundness and temperament and therefore you can use that when you get to the breeding side. On the training front, knowing the horse from the very beginning and having seen it from when it was born, all the way through, is a bonus.”
His wife adds: “We didn’t really set out to be breeders – it just evolved – but we’re very lucky to be able to do this. We love it.”