THE Frankie Dettori of today is very different to the brash teenager who rode his first winner in Milan exactly 35 years ago this month.
He’s the world’s pre-eminent big race jockey and dedicates himself to the prestige meetings; long gone are the days when he traipsed, uninspired, to Catterick on a wet Wednesday.
His flying dismounts also mask a new-found maturity. Now 50, he makes headlines for his race-riding and longevity in the saddle rather than those youthful indiscretions that did become front-page news.
And now, as his memoir Leap of Faith is published, he shows a profound appreciation that he was blessed to be given a second chance after another jockey dragged him away from the burning wreckage of a plane crash in 2000 that killed the pilot.
Yet, while Dettori remains a Flat racing idol like no other, two other heroes – his wife Catherine and father Gianfranco – emerge as he bares his soul in an autobiography as gripping as any Dick Francis thriller.
It’s Doncaster in November 2004. Dettori has just become champion jockey for a third time after a year-long tussle with his great rival Kieren Fallon.
His first title since his breakthrough wins of 1994 and 1995, he’d silenced those who feared that he had lost the motivation in a sport where the personal sacrifices are never-ending.
“When Kieren hands me the trophy, I feel like Frankie the jockey rather than Frankie the star. It’s a feeling I like,” he writes with more candour now than on the day when he stuck his tongue out at photographers. “Catherine and the kids are here to see it. I make a little speech once the champagne has stopped spraying. ‘I’d really like to dedicate this championship to my wife, who gave me the push to go out and do it’.”
Dettori adds: “Before the crash, I was a slave to my job, doing everything to please everybody else. Then I went through recuperation, trying to find happiness again. Then I got a bit lazy. And finally I got back to where I am.”
The word ‘lazy’ is revealing because Dettori had been taken aback by a question from the French rugby player Thomas Castaignède who was a guest when the rider was a captain on TV’s A Question of Sport. “We’re between takes, just chatting. ‘How long have you been retired?’ he asks. It stops me in my tracks. He’s not saying it as a joke or to be a jerk or anything – he’s a lovely guy. He’s asking the question because that’s what he genuinely believes, and who can blame him?
“That’s the assumption he’s made: I’m here giving lots of time to a TV programme. I’m doing lots of other stuff in the public eye, so how could I possibly still be a jockey.”
He goes on: “I think about the question for days afterwards: it’s like picking a scab. I’ve got a lot more to offer my life and the racing public. I don’t want to be recognised just from television. I’m a jockey and I’m damn good at it.”
Later, Dettori is sat down by his wife who he’d met when she was leading up a horse that he was riding at Haydock. She’s blunt: “Well, it’s your choice. You can let the crash dictate your life and spend the next 20 or 30 years being a full-time celebrity.”
That seminal conversation was a turning point that would, ultimately, lead to celebrated Epsom Derby wins on Authorized and Golden Horn as well as a renewed association with John Gosden that has seen the jockey’s career reach new heights thanks to crowd-pleasing horses like Enable and Stradivarius – two multiple champions who always saved their best for York.
Yet the flying dismounts on the Knavesmire, or Town Moor, could not be further removed from the young Dettori’s often fractious childhood in Italy. He was certainly non-plussed when taken to the stables where his father rode: “I don’t want to be a jockey. I want to be a petrol pump attendant. Get a uniform, see all those flash cars – and in any case, the price of petrol is very high, so I’ll get rich, right?”
Prescient words as fuel prices reach record levels, Dettori is riding his pony Silvia in races at Milan when she spooks and hurls him into the water jump. Soaked through, he is undeterred: “I want to be a jockey.”
In 1985, the summer of Live Aid, Dettori’s father arranges for his son to leave home and join Luca Cumani’s stables in Newmarket. He doesn’t speak a word of English. He’s living in a broom cupboard – “the orange squash comes out of a plastic bottle and ravioli comes from a tin. They’re both disgusting”.
He goes on: “Some of Luca’s other lads are living in the same place. ‘What’s your name?’ they ask. ‘Lanfranco’. ‘Yer what?’ ‘Lanfranco’. ‘We can’t pronounce that. Too much of a mouthful. We’ll call you Frankie’. I cry myself to sleep that night, and for quite a few nights after that too.”
What is instructive is how ‘Frankie’ Dettori was nearly lost to racing because of his homesickness. His father would call every Monday night and the message would be the same: “Stick at it. It will get better.” When Dettori returns to Italy, there’s even a comical moment when father and son race against each other: “Halfway into the straight Dad started whipping my horse to make it run faster... that’s dad. He just wants me to win so badly.”
Looking back, he’s grateful that his father – the ultimate pushy parent and toughest of taskmasters – insisted that he travelled to England: “Staying in my own country would not have been a great idea. Because of Dad, life would have been too easy for me, and that’s the last thing you need if you want to fight your way to the top. Perhaps my Dad sensed this. Yes, I’d have ridden plenty of winners because doors would have been opened for me, but how much further would I have gone?”
This was the resolve that led to Dettori sealing the first of his championships at his beloved York in September 1994 with a treble.
He’d made it. He also performed his first flying dismount after Barathea’s win at America’s Breeders’ Cup meeting rewarded Cumani’s faith. “What if you break your leg?” asks the trainer. “Who cares? It’ll heal before next season.”
Dettori despairs when he flies home to see the racing papers are full of letters from people complaining about his antics. “The hell with them...I know when I’ve ridden badly and I don’t need a journalist to tell me.”
He’s now sufficiently confident and sure-footed to ignore Royal Ascot flunkies not to perform the dismount in the Queen’s presence.
Yet little did they realise that the Royal course – and Her Majesty – would witness his ‘magnificent seven’ when he rode all seven races and soared into the air after Fujiyama Crest sensed the occasion’s significance and galloped into the history books.
The last word goes to Dettori. “I find a moment to ring Catherine and tell her, and then I phone my Dad in Gran Canaria. ‘The Teletext’s on the blink’, he says. ‘Why?’ ‘It says you won all seven’. ‘I did’. For once he’s speechless.”
* Frankie Dettori: Leap of Faith is published today by Harper Collins, price £20.
How Queen silenced top jockey
FRANKIE Dettori is not often lost for words.
He was, however, put in his place by the Queen – racing’s greatest ambassador and form expert – after Doyen won the 2004 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.
Not only was this another big-race win at Dettori’s favourite course but Doyen’s success was also a landmark 2,000th career victory for Dettori.
Fittingly, Her Majesty was on hand to present the trophies. Eager to please, Dettori tells the Queen, with justifiable pride, that this was his fourth success to date in the celebrated midsummer race.
He takes up the story in his new memoir: “She looks at me and raises an eyebrow. ‘Lester (Piggott) won seven’.
“That’s me told.”
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