Having played a key role in the very start of Frankie Dettori’s love affair with Royal Ascot, Luca Cumani will be a keen observer when his compatriot bids for a fairytale ending to his association with the meeting.
It is 38 years since a then-teenage Dettori first touched down on British soil, at which stage his experience of riding thoroughbreds was almost as non-existent as his ability to speak English.
Cumani, by then an established trainer at Bedford House stables in Newmarket having previously served as assistant to the late, great Sir Henry Cecil, was tasked with showing his fellow Italian the ropes – and insists it did not take him long to realise he had a rough diamond on his hands.
“Frankie’s father was my father’s stable jockey in Italy, so that was the connection. His father decided that he wanted to send Frankie to England and that’s how it started,” said Cumani.
“When he arrived I knew I had a bit responsibility because this was a 14-year-old kid who couldn’t speak a word of English and had more or less ridden ponies and never really ridden racehorses before.
“But he was a very quick learner, he quickly learnt to speak English to a point and rode very well.
“It was not immediately obvious how much talent he had, but once he started get confidence on a horse and then he started riding work, you could see had a natural affinity with the job.”
It was four years after his arrival that Cumani gave Frankie Dettori his first taste of Royal Ascot, jocking up aboard his apparent second string Rain Burst in the 1989 Coronation Stakes.
Dettori, who at the time was still claiming 3lb, had steered the Sheikh Mohammed-owned filly to a win in lesser company at Goodwood just nine days earlier and she was a 12-1 shot stepping up in class.
Cumani also fielded Comic Talent, who lined up under stable jockey Ray Cochrane following a five-race winning streak in the Cheveley Park silks.
In the end neither were able to land a telling blow, but Rain Burst did outperform her better-fancied stablemate to finish fifth. Cumani had no doubt about giving Dettori his opportunity at the highest level, despite still being an apprentice.
He said: “He was only claiming 3lb and that was a fraud really because he was better than that.”
Dettori rounded off 1989 by being crowned champion apprentice and by the time the following year’s Royal Ascot came around, he was a fully-fledged jockey and Cumani’s main man.
The showpiece fixture got under way with the Queen Anne Stakes, in which Cumani and Dettori teamed up with Markofdistinction, who had previously finished fourth as a hot favourite for the Lockinge Stakes.
Cumani admits that while it was not entirely easy viewing, Dettori was at his brilliant best as he threaded the eye of the needle to secure the first of his 77 Royal Ascot wins to date.
“I remember it well because he took the daring route on the inside, going between runners and against the stands rail,” Cumani recalled.
“As he was poking his head in there I thought ‘good God, I hope he’s done the right thing here!’. Thankfully he burst through and won the race very well.
“We were hopeful of a good performance, never confident because with such high-class races you can’t be confident, but we were hopeful and he delivered.”
No one could have envisaged the glittering career Dettori would go on to enjoy, but Cumani added: “We had an inkling. The fact that he’d only just come out of his apprenticeship and we made him stable jockey was a big vote of confidence.
“We had a good idea that he was going to be around for a long time and was going to be very successful.”
Cumani brought the curtain down on his own illustrious racing career in 2018, retiring from the training ranks after saddling two Derby winners in Kahyasi (1988) and High-Rise (1998) and countless other big-race winners over the course of 43 years.
He will not be travelling to Ascot but would love Dettori to bag at least one winner on his final Royal meeting performance, even if he believes he was hasty in his decision to announce his impending retirement late last year.
“I won’t be going at all this year because my wife has had a foot operation and is hobbling about, so we’ll be watching from home,” Cumani said.
“I send Frankie a message every time he wins a big race and tell him he’s making a mistake in giving up and should carry on!
“He will be a big loss to racing and I’m sure he’s thought about it (changing his mind), but he seems to be determined this will be his last year, or so he tells me!”