THERE is no one in racing who knows Frankie Dettori better than Ray Cochrane as horse racing’s eternal superstar bids to win a third Investec Derby today.
Cochrane was there at trainer Luca Cumani’s stables when this little-known Italian arrived from Milan on July 10, 1985, with just “a bucketful of dreams”.
Cochrane was there, on that tragically fateful June day in 2000, to pull his great friend out of their burning light aircraft after it crashed and burst into flames moments after take-off, killing the pilot Patrick Mackey.
Cochrane was also there, as Dettori’s agent and booking rides, for the best part of two decades before deciding to opt for a quieter life earlier this year.
And when he declares that the three-time champion jockey is riding better than ever at the veteran age of 49 and can overcome an unfavourable inner draw on Ed Walker’s English King, it’s an ominous warning.
No horse has won the race from stall one since the late Sir Henry Cecil’s Oath in 1999 – but Cochrane’s confidence is mirrored by Dettori who was Royal Ascot’s leading rider only last month.
“He will have the race worked out. Now,” says Cochrane with emphasis in a rare interview after confirmation of the final declarations on Thursday.
“He will have it in his head what this horse is doing, what that rider is doing, and he will know. He will have gone through it for half an hour. No matter what anyone says it won’t make a difference. He will do his own thing.”
It comes, says Cochrane, from experience. It also comes from an inherent gift – Dettori’s father Lanfranco was a top jockey – that was self-evident on the day 35 years ago that he first set sights on an Italian waif.
The young Dettori was overwhelmed. He had an ‘identification tag’ around his neck when he arrived at the airport to be collected; ravioli, to his horror, was from a Heinz tin and he was taken aback by the size of the Cumani team.
But the 14-year-old teenager, who wanted to be a petrol pump attendant, could ride. “From the first time I saw him on his first day, you could tell he was special,” said Cochrane. “Often you have talented riders coming through – and you never hear of them again. They’re young guys who can’t handle the distractions. Unfortunately the one lad who could had turned up in my yard.”
What makes Dettori special? “Balance. Always in the right spot,” says Cochrane, 63, who, at this time, was completing the English and Irish Derby double on Cumani’s Kahyasi in 1988. “He’s not lost his panache.”
Another factor, he adds, is Dettori’s enduring rapport with champion trainer John Gosden and star horses like dual Arc heroine Enable who reappears in tomorrow’s Coral-Eclipse at Sandown.
“He’s like a son to John. John’s a lovely fella and John keeps Frankie where he wants to be – in the spotlight – but he also knows how to keep him in order.”
It is sobering to think that Dettori may have been lost to the world, long before his Derby wins on Authorized (2007) and Golden Horn (2015), if Cochrane’s quick-thinking had not saved his life 20 years ago when disaster struck as they were taking off for a race meeting.
“It’s one of them things,” says Cochrane who subsequently received Queen’s Commendation for Bravery. “I was the only one there and had climbed back into the wreck.
“I was very lucky I wasn’t knocked out for long. Frankie says he remembers everything. I remember thinking ‘this is going to hurt’ and that was it.”
Cochrane does not dwell on this chapter.
Yet, when he returned to the saddle, he suffered two falls, hurting his back, and retired while luck was still on his side. And Dettori’s. Ever since, it was the Northern Irishman who booked the jockey’s rides and provided counsel at times of mishap or controversy.
A friend and a confidante, he instinctively knew that it was foolhardy to book Dettori rides on a wet Wednesday at Catterick when the jockey craved the big occasion. “At Frankie’s age, he hasn’t lost any of his talent – and that’s remarkable for a 49-year-old in any sport, never mind one as tough as racing,” said Cochrane. “He just loves the big days and he saves himself for the big days. Ascot, The Derby. York. The Eclipse and Enable this weekend. The big races. And he really wants to win them all.
“There’s nothing blasé about him. He still works incredibly hard but he gets a real kick out of winning those races. He runs on the treadmill every day. He goes jogging every day. He rides out at John’s (Gosden).”
Cochrane also senses that three months of lockdown have rejuvenated Dettori and sparked a greater appreciation of racing – particulary at the time of the crash anniversary as racing resumed last month.
“He couldn’t go off everywhere doing this and that. He’s had to stay at home for the first time in a long while. And I think it’s done him the world of good,” he ventured. “I think he’s riding better than ever because he’s refreshed and relaxed. He loves fine food and he’s been eating well, but he’s happy and he’s riding good horses.”
None more so than English King who – just like Kahyasi – heads to Epsom on the back of a win in Lingfield’s Derby Trial.
The horse was rising star Tom Marquand’s ride before owner Bjorn Nielsen, whose black and yellow colours have been carried to so much success by Dettori on champion stayer Stradivarius, pulled rank. Not only did he want the best rider, said Cochrane, but he didn’t want Dettori riding against him – a prerogative that also applied to nine-time winner Lester Piggott in the Derby’s glory years.
“You want the best rider and the one with the most experience,” added Cochrane. “If a horse goes round Lingfield well, they have every chance of handling Epsom. The hill at Lingfield is quite steep – but the turn into the home straight is much sharper than at Epsom.
“Kahyasi was a little horse who was bomb-proof. He never broke sweat, not even going across the Downs on Derby day to the start. And I think English King is the same. He has a great chance.”
And an even greater one with Frankie Dettori in the saddle.
Racing will take place as scheduled at Leicester next week, despite the lockdown in the city, the British Horseracing Authority has announced.
Racing at Leicester on Tuesday evening went ahead and the BHA said: “It remains the case the local lockdown has effectively reinstated restrictions as they were on June 14. Racing was permitted in accordance with government guidelines, and therefore racing is permitted to go ahead in the region”.
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