He may be 52, but the thrill of victory could be too much for the Italian legend to give up
Saturday June 24 2023
It’s the question that won’t go away. After this week’s heroics at Royal Ascot, can Frankie Dettori really walk away from the stage which has been his life-spring for so long?
Of course it makes sense. He is 52 now, his five children are grown up, and another fall could be a bad one. His face, as he waited with his saddle in the weighing room before the first race of his supposed swansong, had all the lines of the years seared in it. He and his manager Peter Burrell have planned a round-the-world farewell odyssey following our season and after that will address all sorts of ideas of media stints and business and restaurant endorsements. But watching him this week has to make you wonder.
It certainly does for AP McCoy, who was a lot more battered but ten years younger than Dettori when he finally closed his unique 20-championship jump jockey career. “Nothing can replace the buzz of this, the biggest stage,” he said with the sorrow of someone who, despite younger children and a firm family and countryside set-up, ached enough for his earlier life to once admit, “As a sportsman, you have to die twice.”
“I think at the beginning of the week Frankie just wanted to make sure he had a winner and everything else would be a bonus,” McCoy added. “As we all know he’s a confidence person and since he had that first winner he’s riding out of his skin and there’ll be lots of doubts in his head about retirement this evening and the next few days, won’t there?”
The question is fairly put and one wonders if John Gosden was slightly more than tongue in cheek when, after his horse Gregory had broken Dettori’s duck on Wednesday, said, “I want to bring him back next year for the Gold Cup and for Frankie to ride him.” Most of all you remember his jockey’s unique infectious delight when he won yesterday’s first race to take his Royal Ascot victories up to 80 on the Irish filly Porta Fortuna, trained by Aidan O’Brien’s younger son Donnacha.
“Eighty winners at Royal Ascot — unbelievable. I’ve fulfilled my dream,” he said from the saddle looking up at the stands from which — and indeed from its predecessor — he has hailed applause for so long. “Ascot has always been special to me, I love it so much, and to reach 80 winners is incredible. I’m only thinking about the next race now, but I’m enjoying the moment.”
Another winner four races later on the filly Coppice, whose grandsire Observatory he won on at York in 1999 in the same pink-sashed green Juddmonte colours, and for the same trainer John Gosden, hardly pushed away the question. What will Frankie be doing and what will he look like next year?
Obviously he will be everywhere in the media and he may have a bit of Shakespeare’s “fair round belly” as he fills up on formerly forbidden foods from his restaurants. His son Leo was quite right when he said on television that it is great to go out at the top of the game but it would be good if future plans had something more physical about them.
For 40 years Frankie has lived with the structure of riding and racing. In more recent times he has become the first top jockey to keep sharp for the big occasions while missing out the daily grind, which all previous stars have needed to do despite their talent. But he has done this by harsh morning sessions in the gym at his home outside Newmarket. A week ago he announced plans to rent the house and take an apartment in Mayfair to enjoy life. Of course he has earned it, but the death McCoy talked about is likely to be a painful one.
Dettori’s headlines off the track have not always been happy ones but on it he is unique, yesterday squeezing out space to pay tribute to trainer Julie Camacho and her husband Steve Brown, a man with the distinction of being assistant to Luca Cumani and then manager of Pickering Town FC. Bringing the headstrong Shaquille to land their first Royal Ascot and first group one success in the Commonwealth Cup was a training feat of real significance to a trainer who had decided to quit within three years of taking over from her father, Maurice, in 1998 — but here she proved herself a match for anyone.
It was in 1973 that Dermot Weld had his first Royal Ascot winner and Tahiyra’s success in the Coronation Stakes was proof that the years have not dimmed his prowess. Tahiyra comes from one of the oldest of owner Aga Khan’s thoroughbred families and had to endure a correct but needlessly prolonged stewards’ inquiry after getting very tight with the second, Remarquee, as they made their challenges.
But, not for the first time, Dettori outshone them all. He is the biggest figure in the racing game. And whether he will be able to go through with leaving us remains the biggest question.