Derby Preview 2023



June 3rd, 2023.

This is a jewel of a Derby. 300 years of selective breeding, 243 years of history distilled into two and a half minutes of intense athletic endeavour round the iconic, horse-shoe shaped helter-skelter of the Epsom track. But, above all else, it will be billed as the final Derby sighting of this century’s most treasured jockey, Frankie Dettori.

When Frankie fires the big bay colt Arrest out of stall 13 this afternoon it will be the 28th time he has set off towards the sharply uphill right-handed dog leg with which the Derby opens before continuing the climb and then sweeping left-handed down through Tattenham Corner and into the long straight to Epsom immortality. After some very public missteps last year, Dettori’s riding in this swan song season has reminded us, as it showed Californian race-fans over the winter and shone out on Emily Upjohn yesterday, quite how uniquely talented a rider he remains.

His effervescent public persona, those famous flying dismounts, not to mention a couple of drug bans, have often diverted attention from the extraordinary gifts that he has brought to the saddle. He has inherited the racing talents of his father, Italy’s most successful champion jockey and much of the balance of his circus acrobat mother, the only person to be unimpressed with the flying dismounts. “What Frankie, not even a backflip?” But, however wise in principle, however adamant the statements, will he really be able to walk away as intended?

He is now 52, has been riding since he was a toddler, racing since his early teens. However well he plays the media or develops other interests he knows that he will never do anything as well as the way he rolls a racehorse beneath him. Frankie Dettori will be Yehudi Menuhin without the violin, condemned as all great sportsmen are, to cease playing just as their understanding of their metier reaches its greatest heights.

Yet there is a difference. For so many disciplines the closure has to be accepted because the mind is making appointments the body cannot reach. With a top jockey, if he stays in good physical and mental condition, the body that really matters is that of the thoroughbred beneath. Yet Frankie is presently in better shape than any of Steve Donoghue, Gordon Richards and Lester Piggott, the only three riders of equal fame in the last century, when they decided to step down.

Donoghue, who rode the 5th of his 6 Derby winners on Papyrus, 100 years ago, was also 52 when he retired in 1937 but would have had none of the private gym, specialist attention Dettori. Gordon Richards finally won the Derby at the 28th attempt when Pinza scored at the end of 1953’s Coronation week and was 50 when a broken pelvis ended his 26 championship career on Eclipse Stakes day the following season. Lester Piggott, as ever, did things differently.

He was just 50 when he originally retired to start what began as a successful training career, but returned five years later to try and ease the emptiness of a life marred by the privations of a prison sentence. The fact that within ten days Lester then won the Breeders Cup Mile, the richest prize of his 40 year legendary journey, will not be lost on Dettori. Retirement intentions are sensible, the urge to continue may yet prove irresistible.

Yet the beauty, the fascination of this Derby is that there is so much more than Dettori to its story. The only twice raced Passenger bidding to justify the genius of Michael Stoute to follow Desert Crown’s victory last year. Auguste Rodin confirming Aidan O’Brien’s faith despite a catastrophic run last time. Military Order winning for Godolphin as his brother Adayar did two summers back. Dubai Mile repeating his defeat of Arrest last year despite now being, wrongly in my opinion at three times the odds.

Then there is the good possibility of The Foxes giving the Srivaddhanaprabha family compensation for Leicester’s relegation. Of trainer John Murphy triumphing with the grey White Birch from his small but successful stable down in County Cork, and best of all, a win with Sprewell for the Irish wonder that is Jessica Harrington, Olympic rider, Cheltenham Gold Cup winning trainer and most recently the uncomplaining survivor of a brutal battle with cancer.

But it is with Frankie and his big, handsome partner that we must return. On my mobile I have a picture sent by my friend Mariann Klay who with her husband Des Leadon runs the ultimate thoroughbred nursery at Swordlestown Little, a couple of miles from Punchestown in Ireland. The picture is timed at 10.27 pm on April 12th three years ago. It shows Arrest taking his first wobbly steps just minutes after Mariann had foaled him. A year earlier Des had driven his dam Nisriyna all the way to Newmarket for her tryst with Frankel. This beautiful, easily delivered little colt was the dream result.

Declared interest must admit to having backed the dream at 40-1, but in defence I must point to a Sunday Times piece from Cheltenham last year on the afternoon that Arrest had just been pipped by Dubai Mile in France. It ended with the cocky phrase “you heard it here first.”  Arrest was still a big outsider then. He won’t be this afternoon.

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