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For James Cummings, the past 18 months have been a blurred whirlwind of firsts. There’s his first season as a trainer in partnership with his legendary grandfather, Bart. His first group-1 winner. And, on Tuesday, he will have his first Melbourne Cup runner in nine-year-old Precedence. Now there is the impending birth of his first child with wife Monica, who he married in July.
“We’re expecting our first child midway through next year,” Cummings, 26, says, smiling. “It’s been a very busy 18 months. It’s the best. That’s why you get married. There’s no point in being married if you’re not open to it. Interestingly, we travelled to East Africa on our honeymoon. What I learnt there was the beauty of youthful virility. Every tribe we spoke to, or every new location we went to, it was such an important facet of their lifestyle. It isn’t to be underestimated.”
No, it isn’t. The beauty of youthful virility for the Cummings family is that it has maintained a racing dynasty the stretches back to 1911, when Bart’s father, Jim, took out his trainer’s licence with the South Australian Jockey Club before claiming the 1950 Melbourne Cup with Comic Court.
It leads us to Tuesday’s race. Precedence will be Bart’s 79th runner in the Cup. It will be James’ first. “Welcome to the big league,” says Cummings jnr. “It’s like being welcomed to Test match footy.”
James became the family’s fourth-generation trainer at Leilani Lodge at Royal Randwick on August 1 last year.
Stepping up from the staffer saddling and clocking horses for Bart is one thing, but taking on the full responsibility of a trainer is an entirely different proposition. This young horseman, though, carries the added burden of expectation that comes with racing’s most famed and adored surname.
Is it ever too much to carry?
“I would say no, but I would say it without being dismissive of the threat or the concept of that being the case,” James says. “I say it because I’ve identified that I am my own biggest critic. I would usually be the last person in the room to blame the jockey because I feel that if I’d done a better job, if I’d thought about it a little harder, if I’d been more explicit in my instructions, things could’ve gone better.
“I’m blessed. It’s not only in my blood but I’ve grown up with it. I’ve learnt as much as I can through osmosis and experience, but my family has been passionate about training horses since 1911. We’re about treating horses well. If we look after our horses well, they’ll look after us. We live by that mantra.”
Time stands still for no man. Not even Bart. He is rising 87 and the chatter has already started – as it has in recent years – about whether he will or won’t be at Flemington on Tuesday. “He’s as well as he can be for a man who’s lived a good life,” James says. “If he comes out [to Flemington] people might not have seen him in a long while. He has aged. The body might be weak but the mind is willing. He’s sharp and on to you if you slip up.”
The lessons his grandfather have taught him, however, aren’t difficult for James to recall. Like the time when an expensive yearling came back to the from a spell.
Bart was sitting in his office, peering out through the venetian blinds. “That horse that’s been here a few days,” he told his grandson. “How are its sesamoids?”
A sesamoid is a bony formation at the back of a horse’s front fetlocks. “They seem OK,” James replied, puzzled. “There’s been no complaints.”
He checked the horse’s sesamoids and, sure enough, was astounded to discover the horse had proud sesamoids.
“How the hell did he know that?” James thought. “He’s in there behind his venetian blinds. How does he know that?”
Later that afternoon, Bart was having a cup of tea and going over the gallop sheets for the next morning’s trackwork. On his desk sat a spelling sheet, which details which horses have been in the paddock and for what reason. He noticed the expensive yearling’s name. Underlined in red pen was the word “sesamoids”.
Recalls James: “I burst out laughing. He saw me look at it and just chuckled. He tested me, and he was trying to train me. To be meticulous.”
A moment that captures the near-mythical reverence for Bart came nine years ago when he walked into the Crystal Club Lounge at Crown Casino. The room was buzzing with masters of the universe, captains of industry and enough celebrities to fill the Sunday social pages for a year.
Then the most successful trainer in Melbourne Cup history walked into the room, dressed in immaculate pinstripe suit and wearing aviator sunglasses. High society fell silent.
Ask James if he ever feels similarly awed and he shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “The question is an interesting one because how could I look at him any different? My other grandfather on my mother’s side died when I was young. People ask me if he’s like a normal grandfather. The answer is he’s my only grandfather. He’s a shy man. For a shy man, he has a lot of exposure. He’s not a fan of the long interview, it’s fair to say.”
Can James and Bart win with Precedence? It’s unlikely but they’re confident of a top-10 finish. The horse was trampled on in his last start in the Moonee Valley Cup. In the start before that, he had beaten home Signoff, which is now equal favourite to win on Tuesday.
Regardless of the result, it will be another brick laid down in the Cummings dynasty that shows no sign of fading, with another on the way.
“It was a watershed moment for Bart and Leilani Lodge [when I received my training licence],” James says. “Bart wasn’t coming to the track, and owners were starting to pull out. Reputation is so important, but it isn’t everything. They want authenticity in what they’re receiving, whether the horse is good or bad. I’m like that young Bart trying to listen to as many people who I can.”
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