Arc and ride for Frankie Dettori

SUNDAY TIMES SPORT, 6 October

It could be racing’s greatest ever day. If Enable and Frankie Dettori land a third Arc de Triomphe for trainer John Gosden and for Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte breeding empire it will be the completest single achievement since Charles II started the whole merry go round by racing his courtiers across Newmarket Heath.

No horse has ever taken Europe’s most prestigious and most difficult-to-win event three times, let alone set up a three-year, thirteen race sequence across four different countries culminating last November in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Kentucky’s hallowed Churchill Downs.

No one individual’s international breeding operation has ever risen to such a state of consistent excellence as that established over the last 42 years by Khalid Abdullah, centred near Newmarket at Winston Churchill’s boyhood paradise of Banstead Manor where both Enable and super star Frankel were born and where Frankel now holds court as one of the world’s most sought after stallions.

No trainer has ever compiled an international trophy list to match that which John Gosden began in California in the early 80s and which has now made his Clarehaven Stables in Newmarket the most powerful in the land.

Finally, no jockey has ever equalled the charismatic global recognition of Frankie Dettori who at 48 is, in prize money and win percentage terms, now enjoying the most successful season since he first came to Britain from his native Italy as a homesick but naughty faced 14 year old in 1985.

Clarehaven was built in 1901 and – as with so much in the Enable story – was as result of the acutest of judgement calls, in this case trainer Peter Gilpin’s backing of his filly Clarehaven to win the previous year’s Cesarewitch, one of the very few big races John Gosden has yet to win. In the downstairs loo hangs an article on the Clarehaven trained Pretty Polly who from 1903-5 won 22 of her 24 races from five furlongs to two-and-a-quarter miles including nine races as a two-year-old and the fillies’ Triple Crown a season later. Enable’s thirteen victories from a mile to a mile and a half and just one as a juvenile almost pale by comparison, albeit Pretty Polly’s only foreign trip saw defeat at Longchamp and Gosden seizes on that to stress that today’s race is anything but an easy victory lap.

“There will be no hiding place,” he says looking across at the equine stars pictured on his office walls. “The Godolphin horse Ghayyath has an incredibly high cruising speed and will be taking them along in front. The French horse Waldgeist is in the form of his life, and Sottsass and Japan are the best three-year olds in Europe and Ireland. It will not be easy. She will have to bring her A game.”

Getting his athlete to both physical and mental concert pitch is at the very heart of Gosden’s training expertise. “She will tell us what to do,” he said at Epsom after the Oaks, “horses always do if you watch and listen.” Now he stresses how this season he had to wait until July before Enable told him she was ready. How 37 years of training have taught him the importance of “Patience with a capital ‘P’.” Of how his work is a team endeavour, how the staff and riders he has built up over a decade “are my hands and feel”. Of the need to keep “one move ahead of the game.”

“A bit of OCD doesn’t go amiss at this time of year,” he says lightly dismissing the pressures of handling a 180 strong stable and leading across to where Enable’s stands in her box looking out into the paddock. At six foot five he is a towering presence and at 68 is at the absolute peak of a profession. The son of the brilliant but not long-lived trainer Towser Gosden, he has a Cambridge economics degree, athletics blues in discus and javelin and the distinction of playing second row in the college rugby team with Gerald Davies in the centre. He is someone you would love to hate but then you hear what the staff say about their “fantastic boss” and see him walk up to Enable, you rejoice to be in his company.

The filly is in great shape. At 16.2 hands and 504 kilos she is big but not heavy, powerful but  lithe. Her big ears and broad forehead suggest a generous disposition but Hannah Thompson who supervises the 20-filly barn confirms that Enable can be what Gosden diplomatically calls “quite assertive.” “I like horses to express themselves,” he adds. “She may have lost some of her youthful exuberance but she has a terrific mind. The only problem is that the jockey loves her so much, he is almost too kind – it’s not often you win the Eclipse, the King George and the Yorkshire Oaks with just one flick of the whip.”

A couple of days later the jockey involved is sitting in the kitchen of his magnificent but still unfinished mansion outside Newmarket readying himself for racing that afternoon. “I love her,” he says of Enable. “She has the best CV of any horse I have ever ridden and she has taken me further emotionally than anything else. She is easy to ride in a race and I have never got to the bottom of her.” 

At 48, 32 seasons, two self-inflicted disasters, and a near fatal plane crash on, Dettori has to be nearing the end but yet can rightly claim that he is riding better than ever. That morning he had lost 3lbs in the gym housed in a former stallion box. “I never trained like that before,” he says, “and what I have lost physically I have gained in experience. I think less about a race beforehand. I do my homework but use my natural ability and spontaneity. In 32 years I have seen every scenario so I first ride the track for my horse and then adjust to the tactics. I think I am better now because although I get nervous and excited, I can handle it all better. I ride less, take the first part of the week off and concentrate on the big races.”

There has always been a serious Dettori side behind the clowning he inherited from his uncle in the family circus where his mother was a trapeze artist and surely the only person unimpressed by his flying dismount. “I know myself better,” he says sagely showing me the ‘sulk room’ he retreats to before a big race and then summons a heartfelt tribute to John Gosden who has twice rescued his career. “He is the completest trainer,” says Frankie, “and a great human being who listens to everyone’s opinion, treats everyone equal, trains people to their job and wins their respect 100%.”

Not least of those people is 34-year-old Imran Shahwani whom Gosden himself mentored every afternoon to get Imran’s riding up to scratch when he first came over from Karachi to join his brother at Clarehaven. It is Imran who rides Enable every morning and who will again be leading her round this afternoon. “Anyone else would be sacking me when I fell off every day,” says Imran smiling wide eyed in wonder, “but the boss is a gentleman and looked after me. I am so proud to be riding Enable. She is so beautiful and I am so proud to be on the best horse in the world.”

Everyone gets up early at Newmarket and it is at 4am that Imran Shahwani rises in “the house that Enable bought me”. The next 40 minutes he spends in prayer before going to join his filly at Clarehaven. May those prayers be answered.

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