08/13/2012 4:18PM

Arlington Park: Cumani has Million contender in Afsare


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – The trainer Luca Cumani won the Arlington Million with the first horse he ever sent to the race, Tolomeo in 1983. But Cumani has tried six more Millions since, most recently with fourth-place Summit Surge in 2010, and none of his starters has finished better than fourth.

That trend mirrors Cumani’s general career arc. From the mid-1980s through the early 2000s, Cumani, 63, won at least a couple Group 1 races every season, but since 2005, his only two Group 1 wins – one in Dubai, the other in Hong Kong – came with the mercurial globetrotting gelding Presvis.

It’s not like Cumani, born in Italy but long based in England, has suddenly come up with a superstar, but the horse he has sent for the Million this year, Afsare, at least is capable, and in this year’s mild edition of the race, that makes him a contender.

Afsare has started but once in Group 1 competition, finishing second to fellow Million runner Crackerjack King (trained by former Cumani assistant Marco Botti) this past spring in Italy, but his two most recent performances, a listed stakes win July 6 at Sandown and a close second-place finish in the Group 2 York Stakes on July 28, are as good as anything he has shown in 18 career starts.

“I think he is better as a 5-year-old,” Cumani said, reached Monday at his Bedford House Stables in Newmarket.

A Dubawi gelding bred by Darley and owned by Sheikh Mohammed Obaid al-Maktoum – a cousin of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum – Afsare looked like he might be cut out for high-class success when he won his second start, a conditions stakes at Doncaster in June 2010, by almost five lengths over Wigmore Hall, who finished second in the Secretariat later that summer. But after a listed stakes win 12 days later at Ascot, Afsare was injured and didn’t race again until the next April, failing to win in five starts at age 4, though Cumani said his injury had “only temporarily set him back.”

Two of Afsare’s best races have come around left-handed courses, the direction of travel at Arlington, and, in watching replays of his English starts, Afsare appears to be a horse with tactical speed and a good turn of foot, something Cumani looks for in a Million shipper.

“You need a good finish, because the straight there is short,” he said, “as well as a mature horse with a good brain that takes everything in his stride.”

As to the latter qualification, Afsare had a long ship last year, finishing a close fourth in the Bosphorous Cup in Turkey. Provided he has taken his travel well this time and has good week at Arlington leading to Saturday’s race, Afsare might well end Cumani’s long Million dry spell.

Foreigners converging

The gang’s almost all here.

Eleven of the 14 overseas shippers had made it to the on the Arlington grounds as of Monday afternoon, with only the three Aidan O’Brien-trained entrants – Treasure Beach (Million), Up (Beverly D.), and Daddy Long Legs (Secretariat) left to arrive. O’Brien almost always ships his horses as late as possible, and his trio of Million Day runners won’t arrive until later Tuesday, meaning they will not train until Thursday morning at earliest.

Some of the first international arrivals, like the 3-year-old French horse Bayrir, will clear quarantine in time to train Tuesday if their connections so desire. And the Europeans, fortunately for them, are coming into hospitable surroundings.

The Chicago area was overheated and drought-stricken for much of early summer, but Arlington on Monday was cool and gray with persistent light showers. The turf course, baked hard and playing fast only a few weeks ago, was listed as “good” for racing this past weekend, and a walk around the course Monday confirmed that designation.

The innermost part of the course was good on the fresh ground nearest the inside rail and good-to-soft on the paths where racing had recently been conducted. The middle of the course, where the three Grade 1 races will be run Saturday, is in great shape, having been rested for weeks while taking several decent rains. More precipitation is forecast midweek, and course conditions, if anything, should play to the largest European contingent ever assembled for Million Day.