Sports

Second Cummings: Why James is desperate to end Sheikh’s Cup drought

Around most corners and in most rooms of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoums Australian racing empire you can usually find his book, My Vision.

His staff in this country like to quote from it often; it's taught them just as much about life as learning how to train his thoroughbreds.

There's a famous quote that his head Australian conditioner, James Cummings, loves to use: "When a gazelle wakes up in the morning it knows it has to outrun the fastest lion to survive that day and when a lion wakes up in the morning it knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle to get through the day."

To Cummings, it typifies the race of life.

Blue blood: Godolphin's head Australian conditioner, James Cummings.

Blue blood: Godolphin's head Australian conditioner, James Cummings.Credit:Simon Schluter

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The book was his most direct line to his billionaire boss before he had the chance to meet him earlier this year, a window into the life of a man who threw him the most prestigious job in Australian racing when he was just 28.

It sits tidily on his desk. He thumbs through its pages for inspiration. He recites the words to staff.

Cummings is walking around Godolphin's Flemington stables a few days out from the Melbourne Cup, bouncing on his toes, between boxes and conversation topics. He pops his head over the box of his great Cup hope Avilius, a horse that promises no better storyline on the first Tuesday in November.

The focus turns to his learnings from the man who some simply refer to as "The Boss", whose Arab millions have plundered thousands of races in Australia, but never the Melbourne Cup.

Cummings stops walking, his eyes widen and he coils so far back into that calculated mind of his so he can recite near word for word what's in the book. It's like he has studied for this test, this moment. He's a man who not only works for Godolphin, but lives and breathes every part of it.

Grandson of a gun: James Cummings is the grandson of Melbourne Cup great Bart Cummings.

Grandson of a gun: James Cummings is the grandson of Melbourne Cup great Bart Cummings.Credit:Simon Schluter

Then he puts his own twist on it.

"When we win a big race and the cameras come on and we're high-fiving, there's bear hugs and people are on board, what you don't see is the weeks where you get lemons," Cummings says. "When you get lemons, while I want to see people move on quick, I want to see people that care.

"The pride we all have in our work is great. But we need to do away with the feeling that second or fourth is good enough; we need to do away with the feeling we should be pleased with ourselves to do that. Winning is just too great a difference.

"Not winning at any cost – we play in the spirit of the sport – but complacency, particularly for big stables, could be the first thing that brings you undone."

Family ties: James and Bart Cummings together at Flemington in 2008.

Family ties: James and Bart Cummings together at Flemington in 2008.
Credit:John Donegan

This year's Melbourne Cup marks 20 years since Sheikh Mohammed first started trying to win Australian racing's holy grail. It's 10 years since James' late and famous grandfather, Bart, won the last of his 12 cups with Viewed. It's a month since Avilius won the race named in Bart's honour to get into this year's Cup. And just a few weeks since Bart's most successful owner, Dato Tan Chin Nam, died.

If the stars were any more aligned, Cummings might be ambling down the Hollywood Walk of Fame rather than under the Flemington arches.

To many, it seems the perfect Melbourne Cup marriage for Sheikh Mohammed. He runs an organisation that is unapologetically brand conscious, hiring a clean-cut rising star with a pedigree like no other when the experiment with the equally talented but combustible John O'Shea ended last year.

Overnight, Cummings made just one change: how he fed the horses. His grandfather might have given a little nod from above.

Soon after, the questions inevitably turned to the Melbourne Cup. It's almost exclusively a rich man's game and its richest has never found the perfect formula for it.

Meant to be: Glyn Schofield (left) rides Avilius to victory in the race named after his famous grandfather, Bart Cummings, at Flemington in October.

Meant to be: Glyn Schofield (left) rides Avilius to victory in the race named after his famous grandfather, Bart Cummings, at Flemington in October.Credit:AAP

This year, Cummings will be one of three trainers who work for Sheikh Mohammed with runners. Rising UK-based ace Charlie Appleby and established northern hemisphere star Saeed bin Suroor have hopes too, Cross Counter and Caulfield Cup hero Best Solution, respectively.

Combined with Avilius, the Godolphin blue accounts for three of the top six in betting. Good judges will tell you Sheikh Mohammed has never had a better chance to win the one race that has always managed to escape him, but one his trainers don't obsess over.

"To have them here is great from that perspective," Cummings says of Appleby and bin Suroor. "[But] it's a bit like playing tennis against my brother: I love him dearly, but I love nothing more than to pulverise him when he's on the court.

"I promise you if we clear out in a two-horse duel in the last couple of hundred metres, I'll be hoping I win, but I'll be so pleased for His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, if we're not in the hunt, for the organisation to come together and get the result. If it's not us, then so be it. That's the feeling.

"But you have to empty your mind as much as possible. Don't just think about the Melbourne Cup."

*************

On the back of his stopwatch in the lead-up to the first Melbourne Cup after Bart a few years ago, James Cummings had a few words engraved. The etching simply read: Bart Cummings, Grandfather, Partner, Mentor.

James laughed and said at the time that he only used to clock the good horses with the special stopwatch, casting an eye over the inscription every now and again.

The crowds had milled outside the doors of St Mary's Cathedral a couple of months earlier, like they would the Flemington gates on the first Tuesday in November, just to pay respects to Bart.

The grand old horse Bart and James used to train, Precedence, would finish sixth a year earlier, the last time the Melbourne Cup had been run with the Cups king in attendance.

"It was like no other sixth I've had in a race before," James buzzes. "The magnitude of the race had us all swept up in the drama of it; the history, the prestige and the sheer coverage you don't get for any other race. Cup day is like nothing else."

If a week is a long time in racing, then how long is 20 years?

"When he was 10 and it was Melbourne Cup day he came running home from school to make sure he could watch the Melbourne Cup in time," James' father, Anthony, says. "He wanted to do that. He thought he was a big part of it, at least sitting in the lounge room.

"I reckon the first Melbourne Cup he went to was Viewed 10 years later and now it's 10 years again.

"He's always had a very clear view about where he wanted to go, how he wanted to get there. That's about all things. We had a few chats about [him joining Godolphin], but I think at the end of the day it was what he had do.

"I certainly gave him a shove in that direction and it's a fantastic job for any trainer in Australia."

To some, the day last year Cummings chucked away his own burgeoning stable to train exclusively for the world's most recognisable racehorse owner was one he would regret.

The father of two imagined his grandfather sitting on the verandah of his family farm on the banks of the Hawkesbury River in Sydney's north-west, listening to the bellbirds and sipping a cup of tea.

James often jokes Tracy Grimshaw coaxed Bart into a rare pre-spring carnival interview almost a decade ago and innocently asked how James, then in his early 20s, was going. Typically quick-witted, Bart told her he would make a great foreman in 10 years time.

"If I had told him I had knocked [the Godolphin job] back he would have turned to me and said, 'what are you afraid of, the hard work or something?' I reckon thats what he would have said," Cummings once said.

He is surrounded by familiar faces and some of his family's past.

One of his trusted lieutenants is Darren Beadman, the man who rode Bart's "horse from heaven" Saintly to Melbourne Cup victory in 1996. Bart's old foreman, Reg Fleming, also joined Godolphin and rung James almost the second after grand old horse Hartnell won the Epsom a month ago.

"That's what I love to see in my team," Cummings enthuses. "People that care. That's the sort of team I have around me and that's why you see names like Beadman and Fleming in the squad."

On Cummings, Godolphin Australia boss Vin Cox says: "He is a deep thinker, he is highly articulate and hes a person of the highest order. And hes great to work with. Hes got a great team behind him with a lot of horses in training at three different sites. We all wear a blue shirt and were all here to support him."

And celebrate with him.

On the day Cummings signed on the little blue dotted line, some teetotallers from the Australian arm of Godolphin made a promise: If you help us win the Melbourne Cup, we'll have a drink with you.

"I haven't forgotten that," Cummings says with a laugh. "And I will be watching like a hawk if we happen to have some luck."

Maybe then Sheikh Mohammed can write the most enjoyable chapter of that book.

Adam Pengilly is a Sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.