16 May 2004
After a flying start to the new season, the revitalised Italian wants another jockeys’ championship to add to his already imposing recor
The buzz is back. The most important buzz in the world of racing. The buzz that, perhaps understandably, had seemed on the wane since the terrible plane crash four years ago. It is the buzz inside Frankie Dettori’s head. You can feel it late into the evening on the racecourse. You can hear it soon after dawn at Godolphin stables. “The sheriff,” shouts Dettori, “is back in town.”
For the first time in nine seasons, 34-year-old Dettori is back at the head of the official jockeys’ championship. On Monday he had two rides at Kempton followed by six more at Windsor. Over the three days of York’s big meeting this week, he had 15 rides for nine different trainers, got a four-day ban for trying too hard (too much whip), and sitting outside the weighing room on Tuesday, acknowledged for the first time that he wants to be champion again. “I have been there before,” he said, the lean face stripped of the showman’s smile to reveal the determination beneath. “I have got some momentum now. I am getting on all sorts of horses. I think I have as good a chance as anyone.”
Some outsiders might think he has never been away. He is after all British racing’s one unchallenged superstar – the ebullient Italian with the trademark flying dismount and the stints on Question of Sport, a double-century champion jockey in 1994 and 1995, hero of that impossible `Magnificent Seven’ at Ascot in September 1996, globe-trotting pilot of Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, winner of every big race except the Derby, which Snow Ridge may yet put right next month. But by the middle of last year, the word was out that he only bothered about the big occasions. And it got to him.
“We were playing golf one evening late in the summer,” said Ray Cochrane last week about the friend he pulled from the blazing wreckage at Newmarket on June 1st, 2000, and for whom he now books rides around the country. “I said to him that even if you were the best plumber in the world it was no good unless you were doing it regularly. He had got a bit disillusioned because the Godolphin horses had not been firing. But he wanted to get back in action. He got a hundred winners up by the end of the season. And now he just wants me to put him on anything I can.”
The opening target was 150 winners for the year. On March 29 Frankie leapt from the back of the 11-year-old Absolute Utopia in the Lingfield victory circle and said, “one down, 149 to go.” But the winners kept coming. In the second week of April he rode a five-timer at Folkestone and then went all the way to Musselburgh on Easter Sunday. “The last time I was here,” he said to a record crowd who turned out to greet him, “was back in 1993. It was called Edinburgh then!” The bookmakers, who had installed him at 50-1 for the jockeys’ championship, slashed his price to sixes.
Received wisdom has it that another title is unlikely; that Dettori will get swamped by champion Kieren Fallon and leading contender Darryll Holland as they shuttle off to the evening meetings by light plane, a mode of transport that Frankie has shunned since the Newmarket disaster. “I know I will miss out on a few for a while,” admits Dettori, “but if I have a full book of good rides at one meeting, that is better than wearing yourself out going to two. I am really, really enjoying this again,” he added, eyes lighting with the thrill. “My wife was telling me I was getting miserable, sitting about the house. So I am having a go. And, hey, this is the buzz.” Win or lose, the real significance is that he is saying it at all.
“I believe,” said Simon Crisford, manager of the 200-strong Godolphin stable, “that he now realizes that none of all the other things he does holds a candle to what he can do on a horse. He has a gift. It is a God-given thing. What is wonderful for us is to see him enjoying his work so much again. It lifts all of us.”
It certainly added spice to what would have otherwise been a pretty ordinary evening at Windsor on Monday. Dettori had six rides for six trainers. He may have cruised up on a 1-8 shot in the first, but in five other unsuccessful efforts there was no doubting the resolve behind the skill. Never more so than in the last. A year ago Dettori would have been anywhere but on the back of Lady Peaches, a small nervous chesnut filly who was upset in the parade ring and represented only the season’s third runner for the not exactly internationally renowned stable of Danny Mullarkey.
But Cochrane had seen Lady Peaches run quite well for a while when a 100-1 outsider in a much better race last time. He knew that Mullarkey, albeit a small-time operator without a winner last season, believed in her ability. Even if not at Windsor, she would win a race for sure. As Frankie landed in the saddle, Lady Peaches panicked a little. Frankie’s right hand went out quietly on her neck. He hacked her down to the start with that extraordinary tip-toe balance in which genes – he is the son of a champion jockey and a circus acrobat – play as much part as practice. Before the stalls the filly flapped again. “What am I doing on this?” he said, stroking her neck. He was only joking.
When the gates opened Lady Peaches came out flying – too fast. For the first half of the 10-furlong journey, Dettori’s arms were stretched as he anchored his over-eager partner close behind the leaders. Swinging into the soggy straight she looked sure to be swallowed up by the pack. A year ago, she would have been but in the saddle was one of the greatest talents to ever hold the reins. He clamped low into her back in that mid-atlantic crouch he has adapted from his worship of Steve Cauthen and Angel Cordero. His whip flicked in encouragement. The filly hung left, her sore tooth hurting. Dettori put the whip down and criss-crossed the reins to re-balance her. The whip flicked again. Lady Peaches had no chance of victory but third place was still possible.
The sun was very low over the Thames as they came past us. Dettori has a long, long season ahead of him. But this mattered. He pumped and pushed to strain Lady Peaches forward, his whip up in the periscope position, American style. Fifty yards from the line he flicked it out to his left. Lady Peaches lengthened and made it to third.
Later, the Mullarkey team were little short of ecstatic. Dettori talked to them earnestly about her future, about how she would certainly win a race and he would like to ride her. “He was so keen and motivated,” said Mullarkey’s admiring partner, June Frankham. “People had said he wouldn’t bother with a stable like ours but he really did. He has told Danny he wants to be champion jockey. Tonight you could see why.”