There was a sense of inevitability when James Cummings got involved in horse training. He is, after all, following his great-grandfather Jim, his grandfather, the legendary Bart Cummings, and his father Anthony into the industry.
At just 29, James is undoubtedly at the forefront of a new guard of young guns making their mark on Australian racing. In May he beat some highly credentialled rivals to be appointed head trainer for the Australian arm of the global horse-racing powerhouse Godolphin, one of the most prestigious jobs in world racing.
“His Highness has horses in training all around the world,” James says of Godolphin’s owner, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, who is also vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. “His Australian arm, on a typical morning, has about 200 in work.”
James spent much of his childhood around horses, and learned a lot from grandfather Bart, who won the Melbourne Cup a record 12 times before he died in 2015. “It grew on me,” he says of horse training and racing.“I learned a lot by osmosis, without even realising it. When I turned 18, I gave more and more consideration to this as a vocation.”
If James ever had considered an alternative career, he says he might have become a spy. “I thought about espionage but I decided to be a horse trainer,” he says. “My grandfather used to say to me, ‘It takes a good detective to find a good horse. You need to know that things were lost before anyone had lost them; you need to solve a lot of problems, answer a few riddles, get to the bottom of things without them being handed to you on a platter. And ask the right questions’.”
James says his grandfather’s greatest gift to him was probably his famous name. “But he forced me to use it and believe. I suppose he believed in the Shakespearian notion that a rose by any other name [would smell as sweet].”
James was born in 1988 which, he notes, is the same year the Bart Cummings-trained Beau Zam was crowned racehorse of the year. He began working as a stablehand for his father at 13, and in 2009 became foreman at Leilani Lodge in Sydney under his grandfather’s tutelage.
After gaining his NSW trainer’s licence in 2013, James entered into a training partnership with Bart, which yielded its first group 1 race the following year with Hallowed Crown. When Bart died two years later, James took over as sole head trainer at Leilani, continuing his grandfather’s great legacy.
If there was some inevitability to James following this career, it is also unsurprising that he married into the industry. In 2014 he married Monica Barrera, granddaughter of a Filipino food and drink billionaire and racing enthusiast. Monica was a trackwork rider for Gai Waterhouse and Joe Pride when they met at a race meeting in 2009. The couple have two children under the age of three.
As a horse man, dawn has been part of James’ life for years. “The early bird catches the worm,” he says. “[But] I never seemed to quite get out the door quite so speedily as when I had a screaming baby.”
The job of Godolphin head trainer is regarded as one of the most high-pressure roles in Australian racing. Godolphin opened an Australian stable in 2008 when it bought Bob Ingham’s Woodlands Stud racing operation and all its bloodstock, about 1000 thoroughbreds.
“We’re now a two-state stable,” James says. “We have a 50-horse barn at Flemington called Carbine Lodge and a private training facility at the foot of the Blue Mountains at Agnes Banks called Osborne Park.”
James is looking forward to bringing his top chances to Melbourne for the Spring Racing Carnival. He rates Hartnell, who won the 1400-metre P. B. Lawrence Stakes at Caulfield in August, as their best chance. “He’s a good chance in all the weight-for-age and set race and penalty races he runs in,” he says. “He’s a top horse. He’s won two group 1s and was third in the Melbourne Cup last year.”
But while Hartnell is the superstar – he ran second to the great Winx in last year’s Cox Plate and is described as the next best horse in the country to the champion mare – James says his team has other excellent prospects. “We have a lot of lovely young horses coming through: [a colt] Kementari, Jorda, Alizee, Beau Geste, Trekking. I’ve got older mares, like Ghisoni, who are coming back from long lay-offs and still have something to offer. Listen, I’ve got a bunch of talented horses.”
For a young man, he takes a surprisingly philosophical approach to winning and losing. “A carnival is always measured by wins, and that’s dependent on the opposition,” James says. “I’m happy with our team. Some days we’ll go better than others. We will learn to handle our successes and our losses and treat those two imposters just the same, but I think we are in with as good a chance as any.”
Is the carnival his favourite time of year? “I’ve won some nice races in the past, even in the early stages of my three-year-old training career. I’ve had a win in the autumn and a win in the spring – it remains to be seen what my best time of year is, but it is certainly an exciting time of year to be involved.”