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'It wasn't a natural fit - I'm not somebody who likes to be centre of attention'

The ITV presenter speaks to Jonathan Harding about her life in racing

Francesca Cumani at her farmhouse near Newmarket
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Francesca Cumani quickly leaps up from the table for a second time to stop her new puppy from chasing the chickens around the garden.

The offender, who arrived a day earlier and has not yet been named, is one of several free-range animals at her home near Newmarket, a farmhouse that would not look out of place in Country Life magazine.

"We don't chase the chickens," the ITV Racing presenter tells the tiny lurcher puppy, a picture of innocence now sat on her owner's lap. 

Cumani's experience in live television has evidently paid off as she seamlessly picks up our conversation about her childhood at Bedford House Stables, where her father Luca trained seven Classic winners. 

"Sometimes I took it a bit for granted because I was in the middle of it from a very young age but I loved the atmosphere," she says.

"My mum used to complain about having the office in our house but I enjoyed that because we had people coming and going all the time. You get caught up in the highs and lows of the yard – it sucks you in.

"I used to ride my pony out with the string and pestered Dad to let me ride racehorses. He tried to find me quiet ones but most days I would fall or get taken off with. I wasn't to be dissuaded though."

The 37-year-old was sadly not called up to ride the likes of Falbrav, who landed a number of big prizes worldwide, nor the yard's second Derby winner High-Rise, but she fondly remembers their successes.

"The first horse who really registered with me was Kahyasi," she says. "I was only little but I remember his Derby win in 1988.

"I was actually in the middle of a tennis match at school when High-Rise won ten years later and my teacher let me off to watch the race. Falbrav always stood out too, he was an absolute powerhouse."

Luca Cumani and Frankie Dettori shake hands after Falbrav wins the 2003 Hong Kong Cup

Horses are in every twist and turn of her genetic code so it was unsurprising Cumani decided to pursue a career in racing, but working out which route she wanted to take proved far more complicated.

She already spoke Italian, studied French and Spanish at Bristol University and spent her summers working with the horses. She gravitated back to the yard after her degree too and considered going into the family business, as her brother Matt did in Australia.

"I wanted to do something hands-on but wasn't able to pinpoint exactly what that was at a young age," says Cumani. "Training was always in the back of my mind but it seemed quite daunting.

"It wasn't particularly encouraged. What was probably encouraged more was a career as a trainer's wife. I wouldn't say no to going down the training route but it's a tough industry at the moment."

Perhaps inspired by the presence of Frankie Dettori in the yard, she took out her amateur licence at 18 and twice earned her weight in champagne, winning the Queen Mother's Cup in 2005 and 2006.

"I had such a burning ambition to do it," she remembers. "I really wanted the experience and had around 25 rides but often the races came just after my university exams so I was out of practice. I loved it but wouldn't claim to have been any great shakes in the saddle."

The ITV Racing presenter with her new Lurcher puppy

Cumani travelled abroad with her father's runners and she credits her presenting breakthrough to Purple Moon, about whom she was regularly interviewed before his second in the 2007 Melbourne Cup. 

"I still go every year and have always been absolutely blown away by the scale of the raceday and the parade," she says. "You go to the newsagent to buy the paper and people stop to ask after your horse.

"There's a huge interest in foreign horses at the spring carnival too. When I was there with Purple Moon I became a bit of a spokesperson for the yard and the next year I was asked to do guest presenting."

Cumani was snapped up by Channel 7 and contributed to its coverage annually until it lost the rights to the Melbourne Cup in 2019, when she moved over to its new broadcaster Channel 10. 

At this point, photographer Ed Whitaker, now in charge of the puppy, interjects and accuses Cumani of undue modesty when it comes to her time in Australia, where she was introduced as racing royalty.

Yet despite her popularity, Cumani at times questioned whether presenting suited her personality. She paints a picture of being reserved, something that does not come across in her coverage.

"I wasn't sure if it was a natural fit," she says. "I'm not somebody who likes to be the centre of attention. If I'm at a dinner party, I'm the last person who would stand up to tell a joke or a funny story.  

"I generally like to listen more than talk but I love the challenge of live television. You have to perform and I'm an adrenaline junkie."

Purple Moon: winning the 2007 Ebor under Jamie Spencer

In the distance, Purple Moon, who lives with Cumani and a white pony belonging to her four-year-old son Harry, has roamed into the back garden, something his owner is not remotely surprised about. 

He has been known to interrupt her preparation for a raceday, which Cumani prides herself on. She even offers to provide evidence, running into the house to retrieve her latest colour-coded notes. 

"I was always a bit of a nerd at school," she confesses. "I always did my homework and liked to be prepared. When I'm presenting, I'm there to inform and entertain so I need to know what I'm talking about as there are unfortunately no hiding places in live television.

"You can't ever know too much and it's good to always have it at your fingertips. I like to give people a backstory for horses, so people who may not be racing enthusiasts can engage with them. 

"It's quite obvious that betting isn't really my thing. My passion for horses got me into racing and I love conveying that to others."

That has shaped her approach on ITV Racing and she is constantly trying to improve the way she conveys her knowledge to viewers.

"I was lucky to grow up where I did and I picked up so much through osmosis, things you'd struggle to learn second-hand," she adds. "I'm gaining knowledge all the time, particularly from my colleagues.

"It's about translating what I know into a digestible form for the people at home. You can have all the expertise in the world but if you're unable to get it across well, then there's no point in having it."

ITV presenters Ed Chamberlin and Francesca Cumani at Royal Ascot

Accessibility has been ITV Racing's mantra since it took over from Channel 4 as the sport's terrestrial broadcaster in 2017, when it brought in Cumani and Ed Chamberlin to co-host its coverage. 

"I'm surrounded by people who know a lot about racing and they were sceptical when ITV first started," she says. "But if you want more in-depth industry chat then there are other options available. 

"Our ambition is to get as many people watching as possible and appeal to different groups without alienating anybody. You can't explain things all the time but you can't assume knowledge either."

Cumani was living in Australia when ITV approached her and, while it came as a surprise, it was not an opportunity she was going to turn down.

It was a major achievement, but she pauses when asked whether she ever takes the time to reflect on it, before saying: "Everybody has that element of self-doubt and they wonder when people are going to realise they're not very good and that they're just bluffing.

"But then you stand back and appreciate why you're there. I've always struggled with confidence but you have to believe in yourself. I do think TV is a confidence game. If you look unsure, it does show."

Are the expectations higher for the daughter of a famous trainer, or, equally, for a female presenter on a largely male presenting team?

"When I'm on air I often envisage Dad watching at home and I think, 'I shouldn't have said that' - I can picture him rolling his eyes," she says, before pointing out her parents' Fittocks Stud in the distance.

"I'm not naive enough to think the name hasn't helped in a lot of ways and it possibly brings a sense of expectation, but I'm in a different profession so there aren't too many direct comparisons.

Luca Cumani: trainer of seven Classic winners at Bedford House Stables

"As for being a female presenter, it's a tough one. I think a lot of women in what would appear to be a male-dominated world will tell you that they have to work harder and prove themselves more. 

"I can sympathise with that. I do remember a few times early on in Australia when people would say, 'It's amazing because you actually know what you're talking about too'. The inference is that I'm just there for what I look like, and that grates on me sometimes."

There is no doubting her professionalism and she was recognised for her work when she was crowned joint-winner of the SJA's Sports Broadcaster of the Year award alongside Chamberlin in 2019.

Fast forward 16 months and Cumani was covering the first behind-closed-doors meetings from her home following the resumption of racing, overcoming an obvious lack of trust in her internet speed.

Thankfully, she was allowed back on track for Royal Ascot and says: "The weirdest thing was the silence when the winners came in. We clapped them in and I think Frankie was grateful for an audience.

"Our coverage during those first weeks had to be a bit tempered. Racing had a massive opportunity but the show couldn't be all-singing, all-dancing while people were still struggling at home.

"People kept asking what I would wear at Ascot. Half the viewers probably wanted to see a bit of glamour and fashion, but others may have viewed that as being out of touch with the situation. 

Ed Chamberlin and Francesca Cumani keeping their distance on Derby day at Epsom

"I think after the Cheltenham Festival racing had to tread its way carefully and I believe it did that. Things have gone really well."

Cumani will return to Ascot for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Qipco Stakes on Saturday but is a little disappointed by the field, which consists of Enable and three Aidan O'Brien runners.

"You always hope it's going to be the race of the season," she says. "I think a concentration of power is happening on the Flat and over jumps. The very best horses are in the hands of only a few people.

"The runners are undoubtedly talented but it lacks a bit of interest when fewer trainers are represented. That in turn affects betting revenue, which racing is ultimately incredibly reliant on."

Cumani is involved in racing as an owner and a breeder, with three mares in Britain and Australia, and she understands why there appears to be a lack of depth in the middle-distance department. 

"People are unlikely to try to breed a Derby horse as they're unlikely to win it," she adds. "Those who cannot afford Galileo are still having to go up against several O'Brien runners. You can't really compete.

"Financially it makes far more sense to be involved in Australia and I'm one of many people who think that way. The industry here is propped up by wealthy people who do not need to make it break even, but others do. Something has to be done about prize-money."

The farrier arrives before we are able to get to the bottom of that issue but we are not allowed to depart without meeting Purple Moon, also known as George, nor without a handful of freshly laid eggs.

We leave Cumani to continue her preparations for Ascot and she waves goodbye as we navigate our way past her many animals. 

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