Even though he has won a phenomenal 500 top-class Group races in a celebrated career that saw him become the face of racing and the housewives’ favourite, Frankie Dettori is accustomed to beating the odds.
This is the jockey who could not speak a word of English when he arrived in Britain as a shy teenager; who suffered the embarrassment of a police caution for cocaine possession and who escaped with his life in 2000 when he was pulled clear of a light plane that burst into flames after crashing on take-off, killing the pilot.
Now the humiliated 41-year-old faces the most difficult race of his illustrious career; the one that will determine whether he can rebuild his shattered reputation after France’s racing authorities imposed a six-month ban after the charismatic Italian tested positive for a banned substance – believed to be cocaine.
It is a contest that can be won; Dettori’s great rival, Kieren Fallon, overcame two lay-offs for cocaine – the second one being 18-months – and re-established himself as one of Flat racing’s most consistent riders.
But there is a crucial difference. Fallon is a far more resolute individual who continues to be driven by the desire to be champion. He thrives in adversity. Dettori, however, has no such motivation – he has made clear, on repeated occasions, that his priority is the big races, and Classics, rather than the mundane midweek meetings that lack prestige, or financial reward.
If his remarkable career is to continue, and Middleham’s Mark Johnston was, significantly, one of several top trainers to offer their support yesterday, the father-of-five needs to regain the habit of winning after a season that can only be described as mediocre by his own high standards.
Dettori’s downfall is sad and unfortunate, but it is not the greatest crisis to afflict horse racing in recent years. It is not cheating through the use of performance-enhancing drugs on the scale of cyclist Lance Armstrong; this is one individual’s misjudgment rather than a scandal that imperils the credibility of an entire sport that has made enormous strides in its attempts to root out corruption.
It is also to racing’s credit that its jockeys are randomly tested for alcohol and drugs on a regular basis – and that there is co-operation between the likes of France Galop, which conducted this inquiry, and the British Horseracing Authority.
As Paul Struthers, chief executive of the Professional Jockeys Association, explained: “Jockeys in Britain are subjected to regular testing and, from 2,607 in-competition urine tests and 3,697 breath tests since 2005, there is no evidence to suggest that there is a fundamental drug problem with jockeys. Of urine tests 0.3 per cent were positive for drugs and 0.2 per cent of both urine and breath tests were positive for alcohol.”
The more complex issue to explain to outside observers is why Dettori, a multi-millionaire described by Lester Piggott as “the best jockey” in racing, erred in this way.
To spectators, Dettori is the rider renowned for his celebrated “flying dismounts” after every high-profile successes – and who won all seven races at Ascot in September 1996 which secured his place in the public’s consciousness.
However he is a far more complex and intense character. When Willing Foe won York’s Ebor in August, Dettori was ecstatic – his celebration included performing the winning poses of Mo Farah and Usain Bolt in the saddle before jumping into the air.
A month later, and 24 hours before he would produce a positive test result, he cut a disconsolate figure at Doncaster. His face was etched in angst and self-pity. He ignored racegoers after Godolphin’s Encke galloped to victory in the St Leger with rising star Mickael Barzalona in the saddle.
It was to begin a chain of events that saw Dettori cut his ties with Sheikh Mohammed’s ‘boys in blue’ after an 18-year association that included nine wins in English Classics. It is still unclear whether the St Leger outcome prompted the rider to risk his reputation; he can easily be enveloped by despondency on and off the racetrack.
Equally, his mind – and spirit – could have become fatigued by travel, or a constant battle with the scales that has seen him use diuretic drugs in the past. As he admitted: “I am 5ft 4ins and weigh 9st 9lb but I have to sometimes go down to 8st 6lb.”
Even top Flat jockeys fortunate to have a metabolism that enables them to eat healthily become drained by the relentlessness of the daily travel, and the proliferation of race meetings.
For all his public charisma and exuberance, Dettori’s body has been subject to exceptional pressures for 25 years that would have broken the spirit of lesser sportsmen.
His challenge now is to come to terms with his demons – Dettori’s acceptance that he has let down his family and racing is a helpful start – while rebuilding his career after the termination of his Godolphin contract.
Even though he is scheduled to return to the saddle a fortnight before the Epsom Derby, Dettori has no guarantee of a ride in one of the world’s most iconic races.
He has to earn that right and he can only do so if he finds a way to retain his race-sharpness, and appetite for success, during this lay-off.
In some respects, this ban could be the making of Frankie Dettori – an enforced absence may enable him to enjoy a glorious autumn to a career that does not deserve to end in scandal.
Equally, it could end in failure. Only the jockey can decide whether he is prepared to put his body on the line after this indiscretion. Neither outcome is an odds-on certainty.
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