Dettori strikes right balance as York boosts flagging spirits

FRANKIE Dettori is in a phlegmatic mood. He has just drawn a blank at a high-profile meeting and is stuck in traffic while dashing to a tiring evening fixture.

This draining schedule would normally be enough for the charismatic Italian, the public face of Flat racing, to curse his luck. Dettori's Latin temperament would certainly have got the better of him in the past.

"Perhaps I've grown up," says Dettori, the disappointment palpable in his voice that is normally bubbling with so much enthusiasm.

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"I'm getting a bit long in the tooth, you know. I know how to accept defeat. Yeah, it would have hurt in the past. Still does. But there are more important things – my lovely wife and our lovely five children in Newmarket."

It does not take long to lift Dettori's flagging spirits, in between the spasmodic mobile phone reception intermittently cutting off the former champion jockey in mid-sentence.

"A pain," he curses before his mood immediately brightens as the conversation turns to next week's Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival, and four days of top quality racing on Knavesmire.

This is one of his favourite meetings of the year. It also helps that York comes just a short head behind Ascot – scene of his unsurpassed 'Magnificent Seven' triumph in 1996 – in his racing affections.

Punters will be able to watch a more mature Dettori in action, one where the jockey is prepared to put the quality of rides first, and his longstanding loyalty to Sheikh Mohammed Godolphin's racing team, rather than attempt to ride in every race in order to try to contest the Flat championship that he last won in 2004.

"You always want to win, don't you, but it's the big races – they're the ones, the Juddmonte, which I've won five times. Perhaps I can finally win the Ebor and celebrate with a flying dismount," says Dettori, who is enjoying a fruitful association this year with Middleham trainer Mark Johnston.

"What will you be remembered for? Winning the Derby or being champion jockey? Definitely the Derby. Same with Tony McCoy. Champion 15 times, it was the Grand National that he wanted to win, and he's now done so.

"But York is a special course, William Derby and his team have done a fantastic job with the facilities and I always bring my wife Catherine and we stay in a nice hotel."

A cruel gallops injury has denied racegoers a chance to see Harbinger, the best racehorse in the world on current form, line up in Tuesday's Juddmonte International and seek to emulate last year's record-breaking hero Sea The Stars.

Yet, while those present a year ago will never forget witnessing a racing immortal in Sea The Stars, York's more seasoned punters are also fortunate that Authorized, Dettori's Derby hero, punctuated Epsom success with two brilliant wins on Knavesmire three summers ago.

The first was in the Dante when the three-year-old colt, trained by Peter Chapple-Hyman, confirmed that he had the potential to end Dettori's Derby jinx – by now a national obsession – at the 15th attempt.

The second was when Authorized, fresh from his history-making exploits on Epsom Downs, returned to York and underlined his class by winning a high-class renewal of the Juddmonte that included Notnowcato, the Eclipse winner, and Dylan Thomas, who went on to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe for Kieren Fallon less than 24 hours before the jockey's Old Bailey race-fixing trial.

"The Juddmonte showed that he was a great Derby winner," says Dettori with pride. "I've never seen a horse in a big race travel so well.

"The further he was going, the further he was pulling.

"Yet it was in the Dante that I knew that he would win the Derby. I was certain. he was that good. Yet it's not just Authorized who deserves the credit. So, too, does my boss – Sheikh Mohammed.

"He knew how much the race meant to me and agreed to release me from a Godolphin horse. His Highness knew how much the Derby meant to me, and how it would be good for the sport. I was really confident, as confident as you can be, and I think it helped me relax on the day. I'll never forget it."

Dettori is in full flow. He can not believe that he will be 40 later this year.

"I used to know all the lads in the weighing room. Now I don't," he says. "I'm old enough to be the father of some of the younger riders.

"Some aren't earning much more than the 12 a week that I got when I first joined Luca Cumani 25 years ago. It can't be that long, can it? Oh my, it is. It's why prize money is the one thing that needs changing in racing – there's not enough of it. Only the big races."

As one of racing's elder statesmen, Dettori is content to focus on the major meetings; the plane crash that he amazingly survived, together with Ray Cochrane, at Newmarket in 2000 means that he is a reluctant flyer and only uses scheduled flights.

This invariably means foregoing fixtures. It is also why he often travels to York by East Coast train rather than jumping on a plane. That is how much flying still hurts, 10 years from the tragedy that claimed the life of the Piper Seneca plane's pilot Patrick Mackey, while Dettori escaped with a fractured right ankle and an injured thumb.

"I thought 'that was it'. I was thinking 'my wife, six-month baby – that's it'," says Dettori, who says the near-death experience changed him and gave him a perspective that has enabled him to savour successes and put his family first.

Yet, while the Epsom Derby provided Dettori with the "happiest day" of his racing career, he readily admits that the greater achievement – in terms of horsemanship – was when he won all seven races at Ascot in 1996.

It was not just a routine meeting; it was one of the most valuable meetings of the year and Dettori rode into the record books when Fujiyama Crest won the finale and BBC Five Live ripped up its Sports Report schedule.

"Someone will emulate it, but I was the first – that's why it stands out," says the jockey, an ardent football fan. "It was like Eric Cantona scoring seven goals in a FA Cup final."

His regret, however, is that he did not celebrate the achievement with his wife – hence their decision to be together at the major meetings wherever possible.

"I think the cleaners had finished by the time I left Ascot," recalls Dettori.

"We weren't prepared for how it would change our lives, but Catherine said we had to go to a party with an old boyfriend of hers.

"I needed it like a hole in the head. I was tired, irritable, the phone was going non-stop and I knew I had another long day the next day at Ascot.

"The greatest day of my life ended with the pair of us sulking in bed, lying back-to-back, not speaking. It won't happen again. it's why I have changed. I've got the balance about right, a great job, but I don't have to kill myself to be champion."