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Luca Cumani Talks All Things Dettori, Including His Hong Kong Betrayal, Plane Crash + Retirement

Luca Cumani was tasked with moulding Frankie Dettori’s career when he first came over to the UK as a 14 year old. With Frankie’s retirement on the horizon, Luca sat down with OLBG to discuss some of the key points in their working relationship, including:

  • His initial thoughts on Frankie when he came over from Italy
  • His Hong Kong betrayal
  • Frankie’s fortunate escape from the plane crash
  • Dettori’s impact on Racing
  • How Luca feels about Frankie’s retirement
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Frankie’s Move To The UK

“I remember clearly one year, but probably late 70s or early 80s, I went racing in Milan and Gianfranco was riding one for my father and we were in the paddock. Gianfranco turned and said: “My kid, I can’t deal with him any more so I am going to send him to you” and he waved at him (Frankie), who was outside the paddock, to come in.

He was 14 at the time. His father introduced me to him and he said to Frankie: “This will be your master when you go to Newmarket.” I have no idea what Frankie would have thought about that, he had probably never even heard of Newmarket at that time, or even seen me before. He must have been terrified, not that much terrified him, and that was it.

I didn’t think much would come of it but, sure enough, probably nine months later I got the call from Gianfranco who said that Frankie was on his way over. We had to find him lodgings and gradually work him into the yard. I don’t think he had even ridden a racehorse before, only ponies, so it started from there. 

I remember it started not so well for Frankie, in a way, because he used to fall off the horse quite often, particularly a horse called Dallas, who won the Cambridgeshire. He was a sweet horse but from time to time he would take the mickey out of Frankie and drop him.

Gradually, Frankie learned very quickly from his mistakes and learned to be a very good horseman and rider.”

How Frankie Seized His Opportunity

“He was a very fast learner. To begin with, he probably fell off four times in a week, then down to twice, and then none and never fell off again. 

As he started riding more and more work, you could see he had this knack of making a horse run for him, even so much at times that I had to tell him to cool it because he was going too hard with the horses on the gallops. 

There was a famous story that at the same time I also had Jason Weaver (ITV Racing pundit) as an apprentice, who also went on to become Champion Jockey. One morning, they were riding two very good horses – Mark Of Distinction and Legal Case – who were both multiple Group 1 winners – and they were just supposed to do an easy five furlong work on the gallop. 

I was standing at my hack at the five furlong marker and they came winging past me, flat out and taking each other on. So I rode up to them and said “what the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re doing way too much.” Frankie turned round to me and said “well, I could hear the crowd!” He was cheeky. 

I think that at that time, Frankie had already been riding in competitive races, he rode Legal Case to win the Select Stakes. At the time, Ray Cochrane was my stable jockey but he was injured so Frankie stepped in and rode a few winners before becoming my stable jockey the following year.

Before Ray’s injury, Frankie was basically riding the second string horses that Ray couldn’t ride. When Ray got injured, Frankie stepped up and started riding the better horses in the big races and he was lucky that my yard was in good form at the time. He was winning group races and then became accepted as a group race rider.”

Hong Kong Betrayal

“That was a major turning point in my life, in his life and it still causes me great sadness what happened then. He had been riding for a year or two as my number one jockey and in those days, there was no all-weather in the winter and then after the November handicap, jockeys would disappear off the face of the earth. 

They would go on holiday, go and ride in America, Australia, Hong Kong, wherever. I remember about January or February I was getting calls from the press asking if it was true that Frankie had signed to race in Hong Kong. 

It took me totally by surprise, I said I couldn’t believe it and said he wouldn’t be doing something like that at all. But it carried on, the press ringing up all the time and I kept saying it wasn’t true but I couldn’t get hold of him. We didn’t have mobile phones, I didn’t know where he was. 

Come the middle of February, there is a knock on my door and Frankie walks in with a big grin, we hug, we go and sit down and he says “I am going to ride in Hong Kong.” I felt the blood just drain from my body, completely. I couldn’t believe it. 

Here was this great talent, who had everything in front of him, being a big-name jockey in Europe and throughout the world in time, was going off to go and ride in what – at the time – was a bit of a backwater racing nation, Hong Kong. 

I tried to dissuade him, we spoke for hours and hours and he was determined and said he was going, and then I lost my cool. I said to him: “If you don’t change your mind then I will never speak to you again.” I was so angry. So we left on very bad terms. 

But then, Frankie has always been a very lucky person. He was lucky to come to England and then he went to an Arsenal game, because he was an Arsenal fan, with some friends and luck – or bad luck would have it – his car got stopped by the Police and they found a minute amount of cocaine in the car.

It hit the news and that got to Hong Kong, and they cancelled his contract straight away. That was the biggest stroke of luck for Frankie. If he had gone to Hong Kong then we would never have known Frankie as we do now. 

Unfortunately, by then we had burned our bridges and so he had to start from scratch again. He got lucky that John Gosden hadn’t been in the country long and didn’t have a jockey at the time, they started linking up and it took off from there and then on to Godolphin and the rest of the story.” 

Plane Crash Aftermath

“After his plane crash (in 2000) I went to see him and Ray (Cochrane) in hospital and, again, that’s part of Frankie’s luck. How many people survive a plane crash? And then, have their flying companion, in this case Ray, not injured sufficiently to pull him out of the wreckage? Lucky. 

When he came back and things weren’t going well after finishing with Godolphin, he rode maybe 20 winners or something. Then Sheik Al-Thani of Qatar picked him up and gave him a contract, he started riding again and then ended up with Gosden again and has been with him now for 15 years or so for their second coming. 

Again, he was lucky that John didn’t have a jockey at the time, I think it was William Buick but he then went to Godolphin and John picked Frankie up – away they went for a glorious 10 or 15 years. 

It gave me pleasure to see him doing so well, it would have given me even more pleasure if he was riding my horses instead. 

I’ve always been fond of Frankie, I knew his father very well and so he has always given me pleasure when he wins a race. He was great on Enable but we all know that, he was great on Golden Horn, that ride in the Arc was fantastic and some of his rides in America at the Breeders Cup are very much of note. 

When he is in form, there is no better jockey on earth and there never has been, he is on par with a top-class Lester Piggott and a top-class Ryan Moore, there aren’t any better that I can think of. When he is on song, if I was a jockey against him, I would tear my hair out thinking how the hell do I beat him?”

Trying To Persuade Frankie To Delay Retirement

“He had already changed his approach when he was with Godolphin. Basically, they changed him to the Frankie he is now, selective on what rides he had as opposed to the Frankie who was chasing titles. 

He then became accustomed to the fact that he was only riding four or five days a week, he carried that on with John Gosden. John wouldn’t ask him to go to a minor meeting on a Monday for one or two rides and that is what gave Frankie longevity as he wasn’t over-stressed and fatigued by riding every day driving every day, that’s what made him last this long.

However, I was very disappointed when he announced that he was retiring this year because he has been riding so well. In the Spring whenever he was winning a big race I would always text him saying “What the hell are you doing retiring? You’re better than ever” and he would come back and say it was decided. It just made me wonder why? He could have two or three more years. Look at Mike Smith in America, he is 56 and is still riding and is at the top of his game. 

I have tried to persuade him not to retire but I can see why, it comes to all of us and we move on to greener pastures. His last year has been fantastic, I am so glad for him and now I am resigned to the fact he is retiring, so he tells me, so all that is left is to applaud his career. 

Everybody can change their mind, Frankie could, but I think there isn’t a cut off point where he stops riding altogether. I think when he goes to the States for the Breeders Cup, he could stay there for the winter and see how far he goes.”

Frankie Is The Best Thing To Happen To Racing

“We have been very lucky, who knows where we would be in racing if it hadn’t had him. He has been a boost to racing, an ambassador to racing, he has attracted people to racing because he is riding on that day. He has been the best thing that has ever happened to racing.

Who will take over from him? Somebody will. I don’t think it will be somebody like Frankie because it is very difficult for two people to be exactly the same, but there will be somebody to fill the gap. 

Frankie likes to feel like part of a team, which he was with John Gosden until Royal Ascot last year when they had their major fall out. Who knows, maybe that might have been a contributing factor to his decision to retire because John might have said to him that you’re getting to the end, next year would be your last with me but I am not privy to that discussion.

Frankie might have thought if I can’t ride for John for another year then I don’t want to go begging for rides again, that might have made his mind up but it is a question for them.”

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