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My life: Francesca Cumani

The television presenter and amateur jockey tells Kate Whitehead about taking the reins at an early age

 

JOINING THE PONY CLUB I love being with horses - even if I see a police horse on the street I've got to go and cuddle it. I grew up in Newmarket, which is the home of horse racing in England - there are 3,000 or 4,000 racehorses in the town itself. My dad (Luca Cumani) is a trainer and my parents still live there. I went to a little primary school in Newmarket and, on special occasions, my mum would come and pick me up on my pony, which was exciting. At home there are over 100 horses and when I woke up, looked out my window, there were horses. There is a funny picture of me out hunting with my mum. She is on a big horse and is leading me on a pony - apparently I was aged three. My brother is two years older than me and we did pony club together. My mum used to ride out every morning and still does. I used to see them all going out and was desperate to join in. I pestered my dad to let me ride a racehorse. Eventually he relented when I was about 11. I started riding and would fall off most days - or there was some drama - but I was so determined to stick at it that I used to dust myself off and get going again.

When I was 18 I got my licence as an amateur jockey. I've ridden about 25 or 30 races and won four. There is a really good race at York Racecourse and the winning jockey gets their weight in champagne; they literally put you in the scales in the winner's enclosure and match your weight with champagne. And it's nice champagne, too. My mum won it one year and I won it the following two years.

LEARNING THE ROPES My father is Italian and I grew up speaking Italian and found languages easy, so when it came time to pick a degree, I did French and Spanish at Bristol University. As soon as that was finished I was right back at home working with the horses. I used to ride in the mornings and then write reports on the horses for the owners, and I did quite a lot of travelling with the horses, especially long distance. In 2006, I took two horses to the Melbourne Cup (in Australia) and then decided to take eight months and get to know the industry over there. I worked with a trainer called David Hayes, then a bloodstock agent and then on a stud farm in New Zealand. And then I went back to England and did another year or two with my dad.

LIVE AND KICKING After the 2008 Melbourne Cup, an executive at (Australia's) Channel Seven asked me if I'd join a panel for its coverage. I thought, "Let's give it a go" and I've been doing the Spring (Racing) Carnival for Channel Seven ever since. I put a lot of time and effort into studying and spend up to eight hours the day before a race day going through the form for all the horses that are running. If you're doing live TV you've got to know your stuff. In the summer of 2011 a friend from university said CNN was looking for someone to present a show about racing and was I interested? It sounded too good to be true. I enjoy the challenge of planning stories - you are talking to a wide audience that might not know a lot about racing, so you have to find stories that people can relate to. The racing world is a small community and, if I need to interview someone, it's a couple of phone calls and normally they say yes.

IN A MAN'S WORLD I feel like I'm just doing my job but some people see it as me breaking into a man's world. I do enjoy redressing the balance because, in the past, especially in Australia, it's always been the men in suits on the panel who sit there and bang on about the horses and the pretty girls talk about the fashion and the social side of things - to mix that up is quite fun. At the beginning I was quite nervous about not talking over anyone and not disagreeing with anyone, but now I have built my confidence I quite enjoy winding up the guys on the panel.

JOY RIDES In England, in the summer, I try to ride racehorses whenever I can in the morning, either at home or for a trainer nearby. It's a great way to start the day - fresh air, exercise, horses and then you can get on with what else you've got to do. And I do a little bit of polo. My fiancé is a polo player. We met through mutual friends in England one summer over lunch in a pub. Eight months later we were at the same wedding in Sydney and two months later we went on a date back in England. We got engaged in August, in Tuscany. You can't go wrong with Tuscany; it was very romantic, although it was a bit of a false start after he lost the ring on the bike ride, but then he found it and went back to the spot where he was going to propose and it was lovely. Luckily I've found someone who has a similar schedule to me, so he's in England in the summer and in Australia in the winter. With CNN we pretty much cover one big race a month. From May to September the major racing events are in Europe - England, Ireland, France, Germany - and from October it goes around the world, with the Melbourne Cup, then to Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Cape Town, Qatar and Dubai. I also buy horses in Europe for some owners in Australia, so I'm always on the lookout for good horses that are improving. We identify the horse and then I go and look at it, ride it, before we buy it - which is quite unusual; not many people do that in racing.

ASK, DON'T TELL I love going for a walk on my parents' stud farm and going into the paddock with a load of young horses. They're really curious and they'll come up and sniff you and have a chat. There's a lot made of horse whispering but really it's understanding how the horse thinks and working with it rather than against it. In the past, people thought that you should use quite a lot of force with horses, but actually you get much more out of them if you ask them rather than tell them.

 

December's edition of Winning Post - the CNN International show Francesca Cumani hosts - focuses on Sha Tin's Hong Kong International Races and will be first shown on Boxing Day, at 6.30pm.

 

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