For a while, in Australia at least, Matt Cumani was the Jose Carreras of racing’s Cumani family – ‘the other guy’ of the famous Three Tenors.
Everyone seems to be able to remember Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, just as for a while there with the Cumanis, it was the patriarch Luca and daughter Francesca who dominated the headlines (with apologies to mum, Sara).
Luca Cumani was well entrenched as a worldwide racing legend, who as a master trainer became so passionate about Australia’s great race, the Melbourne Cup, that he once declared: “I won’t rest until I win it.”
He didn’t win it, though came mightily close with Purple Moon and Bauer, but he has rested, retiring last year and selling his historic Bedford House Stables in Newmarket.
The vivacious Francesca burst on the Australian racing scene on the coattails of her father’s foray south and forged an incredible career in the media in Australia and more recently at home in Britain, as a main host on ITV Racing.
Since their first visit with horses to Australia in 2006, the Cumani family – in particular Luca, Sara and Francesca – endeared themselves to the Australian racing public, but Matt, who at the time was pursuing other business interests outside racing, was nothing more than a bit-part player, rarely mentioned and occasionally seen.
However, things have changed for Cumani, and in a big way.
“It’s a perfect spot for what I am trying to do”
Since taking out his trainer’s licence in 2016, he has forged a career from his base at Ballarat, which has an exceptional training centre and is a little more than an hour’s drive north-west of Melbourne.
Cumani started with only six horses – mostly old has-beens – when he decided to move to Australia to train. Now he has nearly 80 in work. The trainer enjoys living and training out of the old gold rush city of Ballarat, rather than in Melbourne.
“I love Ballarat, particularly this time of the year; it’s green and you still get a few rain showers that come through and keep down the dust,” Cumani said in early October.
“It’s the right sort of temperature, cool in the mornings and warm in the afternoons, to train horses. I think it’s the best place to be in Australia at this time of year.
“I don’t mind the winters, I’m perfectly used to them and they are relatively short in Australia. The summers, however, I do find challenging. For an Englishman, I find them a bit warm and dusty.”
Cumani said it was a calculated decision to move to a provincial training centre. “It’s not too dissimilar to where I grew up [in Newmarket]; it’s also a town about an hour and a half away from a capital.
“Ballarat is booming, with development going on all over the place and, importantly for me, it’s close to a lot of country tracks, which, from a training perspective, makes it easy.
“It’s a perfect spot for what I am trying to do.”
Benefits to being based at Ballarat
Cumani, 38, currently operates from stables that he leases from the Ballarat Turf Club. His house is a short stroll across a paddock (used as a car park on racedays) to the barn, but he’s planning to build a 40-box barn at his home.
Ballarat made its impact as a training hub when the now disqualified Darren Weir was the ‘mayor’, with so much influence that the club committee improved the facilities to cater for his 150 or so horses training on the track, including adding a seven-furlong uphill straight track that has been a revelation for the trainers using it.
Development continues, including the recent addition of a circular all-weather Polytrack, which Cumani says has taken 50% off the pressure on the hill track.
“The Polytrack is important because we don’t gallop the juveniles on the hill,” he said.
“There are different exits on the hill track. It’s a six-degree incline, but the majority of that incline is in the last furlong and a half, and there are exits at the four-furlong and five-furlong points before the severe incline starts for those who don’t want to go that far.
“The incline is good but, importantly for the horses, the true benefit of the track is the fact it is in a straight line.”
Though he enjoys his present surroundings, Cumani admits he wouldn’t ever have envisaged training in a provincial location like Ballarat.
“I was always going to go where the opportunity took me”
“Ten years ago I hadn’t even heard of Ballarat!” he said. “However, I have always been open to doing anything. I had careers in all sorts of industries and jobs before coming back to racing.
“My father moved from Italy and settled in England. We are not a family that has been in the one spot for a long time. For me it was part of my growing up to change and adapt.
“I was always going to go where the opportunity took me, and I saw the opportunity here. So far it is working out, but it is such a difficult industry you never know what’s going to happen next.”
After training his first winner, the OTI Racing-owned Our Covenant at Bendigo in May 2016, Cumani had a massive boost when OTI sent him Grey Lion to be trained for the 2016 Melbourne Cup.
The headstrong grey ran second in the Group 2 Geelong Cup before finishing 14th behind Almandin in the Cup.
“It couldn’t have gone better, to be honest,” he said. “Three years ago we had six horses stabled next to the old piggery. Now we have 75 or 80 horses in work.
“OTI helped us a lot in the early days, although their numbers haven’t grown with us – they started with four and have five with us now. I hope for their continued support and a better quality of horse, and we have seen that with Future Score, who won nicely for us at the end of his prep in the winter and is an exciting horse for the future.
“They have also bought a really nice Frankel yearling with me this year.”
Wanting to stand on his own feet
The romance of taking over from his father at the famed Bedford House Stables didn’t appeal to the adventurous son. He knows that he could easily have inherited a readymade stable of thoroughbreds of the highest quality.
“My parents have always been about us standing on our own two feet, and I have always wanted to do it myself,” he explained. “If I had wanted to take the easy route, I would have stayed at home and waited for the old man to retire and taken over a barn of 100 horses.
“That didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to do it for myself, and what’s more challenging than doing it halfway across the world?”
Cumani said that although racing in Australia is completely different to Britain, he has adapted and uses his British techniques in how he trains. Despite his independence, he also takes advice from his parents.
“He’s very clever my old man; he understands that racing is different in Australia,” said Cumani jnr. “My parents are quite different characters. My mother is quite vocal and will say exactly what she thinks. She comes down and she will say, ‘Why don’t you do this and that, this is what we would do in the UK.’
“Whereas dad would just calm everything down. He checks we have the right targets and the right overall understanding.
“What I miss about back home is the evening stables, in that all the staff would come back to the stables, groom their three horses, make them look spotless and then stand them up for you to inspect. You’d walk around the stables and look at all 100 horses.
“In Australia, I’m not sure if it’s the pressure on time or wages, but you just can’t do that. Most of the time my guys are off to the races and you can’t fit it in.”
He continued: “I mix the training styles. My model is based more on the UK, in the way we build up the week to our gallops on a Wednesday, have an easy Thursday and build back up again to a gallop on a Saturday.
“That’s more the traditional English model rather than the Australian way, which might be to gallop Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.”
Despite being a rising star in Australia, Cumani is grateful of the impact his parents and sister have made on his career.
“I cannot deny that I didn’t have an advantage over anyone else just starting out,” he accepted. “I have a father that has almost won a Melbourne Cup a couple of times and a sister that is on TV, so am I sure that certainly helped.
“It does bring more pressure on the business, because people expect success. I feel like our stable is looked on in the same regard as stables that have been around ten or 12 years longer than us.
“I feel like people would be surprised if we don’t have a lot of spring runners [during Melbourne’s key carnival racing] – the reality is we are only three years in and it’s too high an expectation. It seems that at every level we have to exceed expectations to keep our name up there.”
As difficult a business as training racehorses (and owners) can be, the youngest Cumani has finally found his racing voice.
In these parts, he’s no longer referred to as Luca’s son, nor, especially, Francesca’s brother.