By Nicholas Godfrey (for the Hong Kong Jockey Club)
Hong Kong: From Doncaster to Dubai or Australia to Arlington, Tokyo to Toronto or Singapore to San Siro and Sha Tin, there have been few more internationally minded trainers than dual Derby winner Luca Cumani.
It was ever thus. After all, the son of a prominent Milan-based racing family signalled his wanderlust right from the off when he headed for Newmarket in his early 20s to work for Henry Cecil. He never left – not on a permanent basis, anyway.
But overseas raids became a recurring feature of Cumani’s 45-year training career, during which he landed Group or Grade 1 success in no fewer than 11 different nations. And that’s not including Australia, where his Melbourne Cup frustrations became the stuff of racing folklore.
“I’ve always loved international racing,” explains Cumani. “It has great prize money and great atmosphere – and international racing is the best way of showcasing racing around the world.”
Hong Kong, of course, was a regular destination for this most cosmopolitan of trainers – not least with renowned globetrotter Presvis, who landed a stunning last-to-first victory over local superstar Viva Pataca in a thrilling edition of the 2009 QEII Cup.
As quirky as he was talented, Presvis was retired in 2012 as Britain’s highest prize-money earner – no mean feat for a gelding so difficult to train that he did not appear until he was four during a season in which he was beaten off the lowly handicap mark of 78 at Sandown Park.
What is more, Presvis barely raced at home once he reached his prime, his annual campaign revolving more around Sha Tin, Dubai and Singapore than Ascot and York.
Moore and Presvis power through the mist
The G1 QEII Cup of 2009 was not Presvis’s first foreign mission – he’d been a major player at that year’s Dubai Carnival, winning two handicaps before coming second to hometown star Gladiatorus in the G1 Duty Free on World Cup night.
However, the memory of how he weaved his way through under an ice-cool Ryan Moore in the Sha Tin straight – hidden so well on a murky afternoon in owner Leonidas Marinopoulos’s navy blue and grey silks that even the race caller didn’t notice him until he’d burst into the lead – was destined to linger long in the memory.
“That was a really great day,” recalls Cumani, now 71 and enjoying his second career running Fittocks Stud near Newmarket with wife Sara. “Don’t call me ‘retired’!” he warns, claiming not to miss training at all. “I’m very happy with my changed jobs. I enjoy life at a more sedate pace.”
Reflecting on Presvis’s Sha Tin success, he adds: “We weren’t favourite with Viva Pataca in the field because at that time he was a superstar in Hong Kong and in retrospect it was a great achievement to travel that far and beat him.”
“Ryan gave him a superb ride and the two of them built up a fantastic rapport. In fact, Ryan won seven times on him, whereas he won just once for other jockeys.
“Presvis had to be ridden that way because he liked to get back in the field but he had a tremendous turn-of-foot. Ryan picked the right gaps in the straight and he won well – he always grabbed them late and it was a most amazing win.”
Indeed it was, all the more so given Presvis’s eccentricities. “He was never straightforward – he was a quirky animal,” laughs Cumani. “Like my other Hong Kong winner Falbrav he had that turn of foot but he always had to have things his way, including in his work in the mornings.
“He was also very unsound as a two and three-year-old, although the few times he did work, he looked to have above-normal ability. But because he was difficult to train and difficult to keep sound, I couldn’t push him at all. He had to start at a really low level and then build up and that’s what happened.”
‘He was very difficult to train in the open spaces of Newmarket’
Presvis’s status as formidable global campaigner would only be embellished in subsequent years, when his breathtaking finishing burst endeared him to racing fans the world over.
Even if it could be a tad frustrating on occasion: witness the G1 Singapore International Airlines Cup, three weeks after his QEII Cup win, when he was blocked in the straight before getting touched off by subsequent G1 Dubai World Cup winner Gloria De Campeao.
He hardly ever ran at home in England. “There were a lot of reasons for that,” recalls Cumani. “He was very difficult to train in the open spaces of Newmarket because he would take advantage of you a bit and wouldn’t do a lot of things that horses are supposed to do.
“He wasn’t the obedient athlete a trainer would have liked him to be. But when you went to places where you had to train on a track between two rails he was more likely to do what you wanted him to do.”
Another lucrative day followed a couple of years later on the third of four visits to Dubai, when Presvis won the Dubai Duty Free at Meydan – from off the pace, naturally.
He never won again in three more runs in Hong Kong, though he did finish third in the G1 Hong Kong Cup in the same year as his QEII Cup triumph; he sadly died in 2012 from a bout of colic.
Cumani looks back on his many visits to Hong Kong with fondness, marvelling at the way racing is organised in the region. “We always enjoyed it there – I think Hong Kong racing is incredibly well run,” he explains.
“They have a system for betting and money flowing into racing better than anybody else and that’s why they have such an attractive prize money structure.
“When you go there everything works like clockwork,” he adds. “You get very well looked after and big days at Sha Tin are very exciting because the people are really knowledgeable and very passionate about their racing.” And Cumani should know what he’s talking about. After all, he’s been virtually everywhere that matters.
• Reproduced by permission of the Hong Kong Jockey Club