CHAMPION’S DAY

SUNDAY TIMES

21.10.2023

This was way out beyond the sporting scale. Frankie Dettori has just driven a massive colt called King Of Steel from last to first to land Ascot’s biggest race in the very last mount of his 37 season, 3,000 winner European career.

What’s more he has done it with as fine a ride as any he has given through all the Derbies, Arc De Triomphes and 280 Group One races in which he has triumphed around the world. There was some unforgiving drizzle in the air but the whole packed grandstand was ablaze with congratulations. A huge, worshipful chant of “Oh FrankIE Dettori” swirled down and the little mauve liveried figure on the huge grey horse reached up to receive their blessing. No one ever has, ever will complete a sign off like this.

27 years ago this place rocked with the unmatched, unmatchable achievement of Frankie’s Magnificent Seven, winning every race on the equivalent card. This was even better. For Frankie was digging into his inspiration for the final time. The day had started with the Queen unveiling a life-style sculpture of him in the saddle and you could see the hard man beneath the smile. This was an athlete with peaks still to climb. The final triumphs began with the very first.

The ground was soft. The pace was almost folly fast, but Dettori opted to stay in touch with the leader so his horse Trawlerman could have a breather when he took over before the turn. Two furlongs out hot favourite Kyprios and Ryan Moore powered past them only for the legs to weaken and Dettori and Trawlerman fight back to take it by a neck.

This farewell could not get better but it did. Not, as expected , in the next race when Frankie put Kinross ahead of trail blazer Art Power only find himself inched out of it at the finish. Free Wind struggled through to be an honourable fifth behind front running Poptronic in the Champion Fillies And Mares before Frankie’s 2,000 Guineas winner Chaldean dropped right away behind the runaway French winner Big Rock in the QE II.

So it was all down to King Of Steel and as Big Rock had also raced at the head at the head of the field it seemed as conditions made a close up position essential from the start. Not with Frankie Dettori, not in this last ride since that first victory at Goodwood back in 1987 when on the drive home he found a bit of paper and wrote “Frankie goes to Hollywood.”

As the gates opened he took King Of Steel back, and after an arm tugging furlong had the big colt with the little stunted tail locked at the back. Running to the turn  blinkered My Prospero and Royal Rhyme led an easy moving Bay Bridge looking as if he might repeat his victory of last year with King Of Steel still last and maybe even floundering as they hit the straight.

Royal Rhyme then led before Via Sistina took her, King Of Steel had been pulled wide with the Dettori’s whip flourished. Frankie surely couldn’t pass them all and catch her. But oh yes he could.

Those last yards were as complete a racing fulfilment as these eyes will ever see. The familiar little figure clamped in and compulsive behind the mane. The whip like a conductor’s baton as the great stride bit the turf. It was going to be close but there was a whole force field in the saddle. Endings were never better than this.

Frankie has been unique both in and out of the saddle. He has been the first truly modern jockey, jetting into any territory to compete with the best. And he has been the ultimate showman, sometimes to a fault.

I was lucky enough to see Gordon Richards ride, and watched up close to Piggott, Carson, Eddery, Cauthen, Fallon, and Ryan Moore. Great riders all but no one I have ever seen ever rode a horse at the gallop with such perfect poise and balance as Dettori in his pomp.

No one was his match when the mercury was fizzing at the top and no one has ridden with such fitness and finesse as Frankie has done in this his 53rd year, and no rider has ever, will ever have a relationship with the crowd whose songs and cheers rang round the grandstand yesterday.

For all that, way out beyond all yesterday’s whoops and flying dismount cheers, we have a debt which will only grow down the ages. Shakespeare, as ever, has the verdict. “Nothing,” he wrote about the rather less fortunate Thane of Cawdor, “so became him in his life like the leaving it.”

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