As Cheltenham approaches and the racing media prepares to cover the first ever Festival held behind closed doors, ITV’s Francesca Cumani is ready for the challenge of conveying the magic from an empty racecourse.
Cumani is the youngest child of revered Derby-winning trainer Luca and racehorse breeder Sara – a lineage that unsurprisingly bestowed their daughter with an inherent passion for and knowledge of the Flat racing industry.
It was this knowledge that led to Cumani’s first role in front of racecourse cameras in 2008, when she was asked to join Australia’s Channel 7 and contribute to their annual coverage of the Melbourne Cup.
In 2017, ITV, who had just secured the rights for British terrestrial coverage, came calling, offering the former amateur jockey a slot as a part of the new broadcast line-up.
Though initially specialising in the Flat game, Cumani has since joined Ed Chamberlin as co-presenter of the show, expanding into the National Hunt sphere and fronting ITV’s coverage year-round.
It was a move that required Cumani, who was raised at her father’s training base in Newmarket, to familiarise herself with the complexities of jumps racing.
“I grew up in the Flat world, my father was a Flat trainer and that was really my world,” she said.
“It wasn’t until I started doing the National Hunt racing for ITV that I got properly involved, because from my mid-20s I started spending my winters in Australia.
“Through my work with ITV, it really meant that I needed to get stuck in, and that’s when it kind of really all opened up for me.
“I’d scratched the surface of it, but you fully appreciate it when you really dig deep, and that’s when I really found a passion for it.”
Cumani’s position – a Flat racing insider who had not often been present to witness many of the pivotal moments over jumps – left her uniquely disposed to assess the accessibility of racing’s mainstream coverage.
“It’s such a big subject,” she said.
“When you listen to the people who are fully involved they can just rattle it off, but when you come at it from a fresh perspective there’s so much to learn.
“In a way it gave me a different appreciation for it because I think we have a habit of being like that on the Flat, too.
“When I came at it with fresh eyes I thought I’d really like to be able to help people at home understand more about how it works, in the same way I’ve had to learn it from scratch – I think it helps having that perspective.”
Accessibility is at the forefront of Cumani’s ethos as a broadcaster, but she accepts that catering to both the unversed and the well-informed viewer poses a challenge.
“You want to make it as accessible to as many people as possible without alienating any of your hardcore viewers who know a lot about it,” she said.
“I still get people who ask me what a handicap is, or a gelding, all these things we think are quite simple, but we forget that not everyone knows these things.
“But can you do that every show, can you go back to basics every time? It’s a difficult one.
“I’m all about educating the viewer and helping them understand so that they don’t feel intimidated, so that they can enjoy the journey with us.”
Jumps racing is broadly regarded as less elitist than its Flat cousin and is thus more liable to produce cinematic underdog tales and large odds winners – something Cumani feels ITV’s viewership particularly engages with.
“We’ve done some really good features on ITV, like Norton’s Coin, who won the Gold Cup at 100-1,” she said.
“Those underdog stories are increasingly hard to find with the big powerhouse stables.
“The rags to riches stories are always the best, especially when you can tell that story and follow it through, I think they definitely resonate the most.”
The Cheltenham Festival is a yearly highlight for racing fans on both sides of the Irish sea, though this year’s event will be sorely lacking the very thing that Cumani says distinguishes the fixture from other big meetings across the world – the spectators.
“The main thing with the Cheltenham Festival, which makes this year very different, is the crowd,” she explained.
“They’re a hugely passionate crowd of people who are there appreciate the horses and appreciate the sport.
“Obviously there’s the day out, the excitement and the Guinness Village, there are lots of attractions, but nowhere else have I seen people flock en masse to the winner’s enclosure to welcome a horse back in.
“They are so appreciative of those efforts, they admire the jockeys, they want to applaud the trainer and the owner as well – I think that’s what stands Cheltenham apart.”
The famed atmosphere of the Festival will naturally be diminished by the empty grandstands, and Cumani and ITV’s broadcast team will strive to compensate for that as they are tasked with telling the story of the meeting via television.
“It’s harder for us because you haven’t got those images to show of people enjoying it and you can’t hear the Cheltenham roar, so trying to create an atmosphere when there isn’t one is very hard,” Cumani said.
“Viewing figures are great and it’s brilliant that so many people are watching and are engaging with it, so the onus is on us to try to bring it to life as much as possible and tell the stories behind the scenes.”
Though there will be no Cheltenham roar when the tapes rise on March 16, Cumani is still savouring the prospect of the meeting’s opening day more than any other – partially due to Goshen’s spectacular return to the Champion Hurdle picture after his triumphant Kingwell Hurdle comeback.
“I always like the opening day because it’s so exciting, you get that real buzz when the flag goes down on the first race” she said.
“I’m really looking forward to the Champion Hurdle because you’ve got those brilliant mares, the likes of Honeysuckle and Epatante, and now you’ve got Goshen in there as well.
“He was brilliant the other day – hats off to Gary Moore because the way he raced at Cheltenham before (last of 10 in the International Hurdle) made him look like a horse going in the wrong direction. He’s definitely back on track, so I’m looking forward to that clash.”
Alongside her role with ITV, Cumani also acts as an ambassador to Old Gold Racing, an ownership syndicate through which she has formed close ties to several jumps racing figures, all of whom she hopes to see succeed at Prestbury Park.
“Through my journey with Old Gold Racing I’ve got to know people more personally, I spent a lovely morning with Paul Nicholls and the might and the power that they’ve got there is unbelievable,” she said.
“Paul Webber had his first winner at the Festival last year with Indefatigable and he’s just such a lovely man, I’ve learned so much through him, so I’d love to see him do well.
“I’ve ridden a bit with Richie McLernon and Sam Twiston-Davies, and once you put a face to the name it makes you want them to do well even more.”
Rooting for a personal favourite is part of the culture of jumps racing, where the perennial nature of hurdlers and chasers leaves such horses with a loyal and committed following.
Cumani agrees this is one of jumping’s greatest assets, and notes how the similarly durable Flat performers of late have also gained the affection of the racing public.
“We’ve actually been quite lucky on the Flat lately, with Enable, Stradivarius and Battaash who have been doing that,” she said.
“With the jumps, you get these real warriors who get such an amazing following because they wear their heart on their sleeve in testing conditions and over long distances.
“Like Tiger Roll, this little racehorse who’s done it all and won two Grand Nationals, those kind of horses really capture the imagination.
“These horses are invaluable for the sport and its narrative.”
Francesca Cumani is an ambassador for Oldgoldracing.com – the racing syndicate that brings fans closer to the sport of kings than ever before