RACING POST – 15-12-2010
Amidst all the celebrations of “Frankie at Forty” it’s easy to forget the almost surprising truth at the centre of it all. Dettori is actually a better jockey now than he has ever been.
If you think this is just birthday-present guff cast your mind back to that Ascot four timer in September, to the Breeders Cup Turf victory on Dangerous Midge in November, or only as far as the appropriately named Mastery in the Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin on Sunday. Frankie Dettori may be the greatest showman our game has ever seen but for major international achievement there has also never ever been anyone to touch him.
The three “B”s essential to a jockey’s make up, and indeed to that of all good sportsmen are “balance,” brains” and “balls.” He or she then has to add the “E” of experience to the middle category without it affecting the third. For a jump jockey the “I” of “injury” will always catch them by this fifth decade but for a flat rider whose mind and body are still in shape this can be the golden era. Frankie’s global Godolphin success allied to his 2,500 wins in Britain mean that his “E” is greater than any 40 year old before him. It means that he and we should relish the “F” as in “future.”
And we should give him credit for it. He may have been blessed with connections, talent and personality but the young jockey’s road is always so beset with traps and temptations that the very first interview I did with him, at Kempton in July 1989, concluded that the sky was the limit provided “the snakes don’t bite.” The first part of the prophecy was the easy bit. For at that stage the 18 year old Cumani-trained, American-tuned son of a 10 times Italian champion jockey and a super-supple circus acrobat already shone like a diamond among the dross. But the caveat wasn’t very difficult either.
For no top apprentice had gone on to be champion jockey since Pat Eddery headed the hopefuls list in 1971, and back in that summer of 1989 you could already see that the Frankie fizz would be hard to keep in the bottle. When at the beginning of 1993 he first split with Cumani and then got drug busted in London, pessimists thought that the snake had done his work and that the cork was out big time. If you want to measure the man you only have to remember how he reacted to this reverse and to the other near fatal one when his plane crashed at Newmarket ten years ago.
He began 1994 with two winners at Lingfield on New Year’s Day. A week later he was on a tail swishing filly of the Queen’s with the unlikely name of Success Story. Dettori threaded and re-threaded his reins, switched his whip from hand to hand and made it a case of mind over matter. “I am very fit,” he said afterwards, lean and tanned from walking the beach in Morocco with his father who was now also insisting on no interviews, “I am going everywhere. Mind you last Saturday I did the double stint, flew up from here to Wolverhampton for a full book and got beat on all six of them.” That year F.Dettori rode 233 winners and took his first jockeys’ title.
It was a fine achievement but what happened in 2004 was in many ways a greater one. Because the effort and re-dedication it took to ride 195 UK winners and 11 Group One winners world-wide that year was a statement to himself as much as to the rest of us that for all his celebrity status, being a jockey was at the heart of him. Three years earlier we had lunched in a luxurious London club and he had told how surviving the plane crash had made him reconsider his schedule, take Mondays and Tuesdays off for the family and concentrate on the big races. It was a worthy ambition but it didn’t work. That’s why he was at Windsor for 6 rides for 6 different trainers at the evening meeting on May 10th 2004.
Only one of them was a winner but the statement was now public. “I am really, really enjoying this again,” he said, eyes lighting with the thrill of it, “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.” The idea that he was a part time jockey and full time superstar had got to him. He would go on Parkinson, open his Pizza parlours, above all savour his ever growing family but what he most needed was to do what he was best at.
The good judgement of Godolphin’s racing manager Simon Crisford was first noted when he was a superlative Racing Post Newmarket correspondent. “I believe,” he said in that summer of 2004, “that Frankie now realises 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.”
That third championship made Frankie feel good about himself again. It didn’t mean that he gave up Marco Pierre White, and “Frankies”, and assorted sponsorships, let alone Arsenal’s endless quest for another trophy. But it put them in perspective. It has proved hugely to his benefit and to ours. And not just for what he can do in the saddle.
Because while some, at first thought, might wonder at the claim that Dettori is better than ever as a jockey, no one will for a moment dispute the fact that he is the greatest ambassador that racing has ever had. He may have copied the flying dismount from his hero Angel Cordero (and it may not impress his trapeze artist mother that much) but he has made it a symbol of the whole effervescent buzz that his victories bring to the party.
He is not perfect, who is? He can have bad days like all the rest of us. But he is someone who knows what he can do not just for himself but for others. He won’t get bogged down with false modesty – “everything fell for me and I played it right”, he said after his second exquisitely timed big handicap on Redford. But he also won’t hesitate if you ask him to come into a room to cheer up the old or the sick. “Hello it’s me,” he says and in ten swift hands-on minutes he has changed the faces of all of them.
How appropriate that it should be he that pulled off the single most unrepeatable feat in racing history, The Magnfiicent Seven on that festival day at Ascot in 1996. “I am so happy,” he said jumping from the scales afterwards and literally leaping into the arms of his valet Dave Currie, “so happy I could die.” He hasn’t yet. Long may he sparkle like a diamond, but be as hard as one too.