When Frankie Dettori arrived in Newmarket thirty years ago he cried himself to sleep as a fourteen-year-old apprentice far from his home in Milan. But there had been tears in Italy too. Even on his very first ride at the famous San Siro racetrack when he was a tiny nine-year-old and his mount a little chestnut pony called Silvia. She finished last, dumped him over her ears after the winning post and someone shouted, ‘You’re nothing like your daddy!’
To understand what makes Dettori tick you need to go back to his roots in the now faded grandeur of San Siro and its tattered old training track not 5km from Milan’s city centre. Once there you realise why they called his father “Il Monstro.” It is this Dettori Snr’s picture that is most spotted on the walls of the Ribot restaurant. It is Gianfranco’s hard, gleaming, victory smile that is most synonymous with the glory days of the 1970s and 19 80s when he became thirteen-times champion jockey, including a European record 229 winners in 1983. And all that despite never having got on a horse until he was eighteen, and that only because no-one else dared touch it.
Back here we revel in Frankie’s story but that of his father is in many ways even more remarkable. Set for a life mixing concrete in his native Sardinia, the teenage Gianfranco ran off to Rome to wash dishes and work market stalls before getting better money mucking out Trotters and then Thoroughbreds at the racecourse. At eighteen he begged the chance to groom and ride a savage called Prince Paddy. So well did the horse accept him that it was the unknown, untried apprentice who was allowed to try him on the racetrack. They won at the first time of asking and Gianfranco Dettori was on his way.
In Britain we remember him as the short, powerful figure in the red and white hoops of top Italian owner Carlo d’Alessio who won the 1975 and 1976 Two Thousand Guineas with Bolkonski and Wollow for Henry Cecil.
As a two-year-old Bolkonski had been with D’Alessio’s Italian trainer Sergio Cumani, whose son Luca was assistant to Cecil and who would later be so important for Dettori jnr. It was Cumani snr who had taken Gianfranco to the top, but after Sergio’s premature death, it was to the training partnership of Alduino and Guiseppe Botti that the D’Alessio horses were transferred alongside their rider. Italian racing may have declined but team Botti most certainly has not. Last year Alduino’s son Stefano, older brother of successful Newmarket trainer Marco, sent out no fewer than 260 winners from his modern base at Cenaia near Pisa, three hours south of Milan.
Near San Siro, there is not much that is modern at the Villa Bellotta, except Alduino’s office. Time was when this Trenno Park training centre just up the road from the racetrack was teeming with Thoroughbreds. Now the grass grows long, the paint is peeling, and only a handful of two-year-olds file through the ancient courtyard before going out on what remains an oasis of green in the thickening urban sprawl of outer Milan.
But it suits Alduino, because it gives him quiet time with the young horses before passing them on to the training demands in Pisa. He has little room for more trophies as he sits behind his desk, a distinguished, grey, clipped figure in elegant dark-blue sweater and slacks. On the wall is a picture of him as an emaciated young jockey with the evocative headline: ‘Il piccolo fantino prodigio’ (the little jockey prodigy). Twice he was second to Frankie’s father in the jockeys’ championship. The wall has pictures of Gianfranco too.
Guiseppe Botti joins us. He was a successful steeplechase jockey until the pasta beat him, but not for nothing is the brothers’ business partnership named Dioscuri after the mythical twins Castor and Pollux. Along with Guiseppe’s two sons Endo and Alessandro, this is an awesome family unit.
They remember a much smaller family from forty years before. ‘Gianfranco was one of the most determined, most professional men I have ever met,’ says Alduino. ‘He had never ridden until he was eighteen and he was always very, very dedicated to being the best. The crowd would shout “Bravo Monstro” when he came in on a winner. Frankie was in Gianfranco’s shade but he was always very lively, a tiny bit cocky, quite full of himself. Nothing,’ concludes Alduino with something of an indulgent Don’s smile, ‘has changed much. But his father has been very, very important to him.’
The gifts that Frankie inherited did not only come from his father. Mara, his mother, was a juggler, contortionist, knife-throwing target, stand-up rider and trapeze artist in a flying circus. Her brother Claudio was the resident clown. She must have remained one of the few people profoundly unimpressed with the inadequacy of Frankie’s flying dismount – ‘Not even a somersault, darling?’
Gianfranco’s courtship was as determined as his riding, and at sixteen Mara could not put up much resistance. Frankie and his older sister Sandra were permanent glories of the union but happiness was not, and by the time of Frankie’s birth on 15 December 1970 the marriage was already doomed.
For all her circus glamour, Mara was a home bird, wholly unattracted to either fame or the racing game. Soon she and the two children were living on their own but when Frankie was five it was decided that the kids would have a better start if they lived with their father and their new stepmother, Christine.
Financially it made sense, emotionally it sucked. ‘The switch to living with my dad,’ Frankie writes revealingly in his autobiography, ‘was tough for me, even tougher for my sister, but toughest of all for Christine.’
He paints a stark picture of a strict and silent home where everything revolved around the ‘grim and forbidding figure’ of Dettori snr, whose punishments once stretched to making Sandra kneel bare-legged in a tray of salt. ‘He was very wrong in the way he treated us as youngsters,’ concludes Frankie before adding generously, ‘but he didn’t know any different, that’s the way he was brought up too.’ At fourteen Sandra ran back to her mother’s, and Gianfranco, alarmed that he might also lose his son, bought Silvia, the chestnut pony on whom Frankie could fantasise that he could be a jockey like Daddy when he grew up.
The passion for Silvia did not last much longer than that abortive first experience at San Siro, and when she ran Frankie into a metal paddock rail, Dettori jnr’s ambitions were at least temporarily switched to the huge San Siro football stadium where AC Milan and Inter play on alternate Sundays and which rises like a modern monster opposite the old-fashioned racecourse across the road. But the lure of the saddle was too strong, especially when his father took Frankie along to the major meetings. One afternoon Sheikh Mohammed’s helicopter hovered down from the sky and out of it got the legend that is Lester Piggott. ‘If you work hard, that could be you,’ said Gianfranco. Within ten years it was.
The Botti brothers smile at their memories of the little mite who was allowed to leave school and work for them at the hardly senior age of thirteen and a half. But they accept that as Gianfranco’s son he was always going to be in a rather privileged position and so applauded the idea of Frankie being explained the harsher facts of racing by Gianfranco’s old sparring mate Tonino Verdicchio in Pisa. From December to March Frankie tackled the basics – and how. On the first afternoon Tonino gave him a pitchfork, walked into the L-shaped, 24-box yard and said, ‘I will start mucking out that end, you start this.’ The diminutive Dettori’s protest that at Botti’s they only ever did three horses at a time was met with the unanswerable rejoinder, ‘Well, there’s no-one else here so you had better get on with it.’
The efforts, the experience and the warm Verdicchio family welcome worked so well that by the time Frankie returned to Milan he was getting very real ideas of being a jockey. Unfortunately he had also got himself a scooter, which he crashed and broke his right arm so badly that after three months it was still bent, and in Gianfranco’s eyes extreme measures were called for. His son was loaded on to a normally quiet old horse called Fire Thatch that promptly ran away with him, and by the time it had pulled itself up the arm had straightened and the grand plan of dispatching Frankie to Luca Cumani in Newmarket could proceed on schedule.
Cumani remembers their first meeting. It had been in the paddock at Pisa when Gianfranco was riding for Cumani snr. ‘Frankie was minute back then,’ says Luca. ‘He came in with his father who said, “When he’s older I will send him to you.” He eventually arrived in July 1985 but he was only fourteen and a half, didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak a word of English. I am sure he was homesick.’
Aldo Botti recalls Frankie coming up to him at the Newmarket sales that autumn, begging to be taken back to Milan. Yet a depiction even then of Britain’s favourite Italian being all woe and tears on the pillow doesn’t last long in conversation with Colin Rate, fellow Cumani apprentice, best mate and best man at the Dettori wedding.
‘Frankie may have been a bit sad for the first few weeks when he didn’t know anyone,’ says Rate, whose strong Geordie tones are still traceable in some of Dettori’s English-speak, ‘but once he settled he was always pretty cocky. We used to have a go at him for riding too short and there was a horse called Dallas who would whip round and drop him every time. We had a hell of a lot of fun but he was always mad for the riding.’
Rather too mad for Cumani when it was discovered that Dettori and Rate’s idea of riding away the newly broken yearlings was to race them round the field pretending to be Steve Cauthen and Pat Eddery, then duelling for the jockeys’ championship. ‘Yes, he was quite a handful,’ Cumani admits wryly, ‘and back then he really wasn’t that good a rider. He fell off a lot and you couldn’t say he was any better than any other keen apprentice. But once he started race-riding you could see that he might become something special.’
In Britain apprentices cannot ride before their sixteenth birthday, but in Italy it is permitted from fifteen and a half, which in Frankie’s case was 15 June 1986. Accordingly a three-ride trip to Italy was organised at the end of the month, which proved as hilarious as it was unsuccessful. The very first mount, on a filly called My Charlotte at San Siro on Wednesday 25 June finished as stone last as Silvia in that pony derby. The third ride saw Frankie get into a frantic, fifty-hit tangle with his whip, whacking himself as much as the luckless horse beneath him. The middle ride almost caused a riot.
Having Frankie’s father, uncle and cousin in the eight-runner field was always asking for trouble and, with Frankie making the running while his father shouted instructions and wopped his son’s horse over the tail, trouble is what they got. Mercifully Frankie’s ride weakened in the closing stages and Gianfranco finally loosed the brake and won cosily. When Frankie returned that winter it was thought advisable to steer clear of Milan and too much family involvement.
So the first recorded winner of the Frankie Dettori riding career came in Turin on 16 November 1986 when a lop-eared old plodder called Rif slogged through the mud to notch his mark in history. From there the now winning jockey was dispatched to Naples, where the sauna was a dark cave heated by fires from the volcano and where Frankie’s off-the-track education included a rather public loss of virginity in the back of a hooker’s camper van.
But the racetrack was where it mattered, and he rode fifteen winners that winter. Among the jockeys was the experienced and skilful Bruce Raymond. ‘You could see it straight away,’ says Raymond. ‘He had such balance and style. Everything you would want from someone of his age. When I got back to Newmarket I rang up my agent Mattie Cowing and said, “You want to sign up that Dettori kid at Cumani’s. He’ll be champion for sure.”’
Cowing would become Frankie’s riding agent until his retirement in 1999. The appointment of Peter Burrell as business manager came not by outside recommendation but at Peter’s own suggestion in the then smoky portals of Cuthie Suttle’s betting shop. The young Dettori had been a ferocious punter to the extent of landing a massive coup when Richard Dunwoody and West Tip won the 1986 Grand National. He had backed the horse all winter down from 33-1 on the recommendation of Richard’s father George, who rode out at Cumani’s and on National afternoon Frankie left the betting shop with £1,900 in his tight little back pocket.
With great verve he bought himself a new scooter and his landlady a new washing machine before embarking on the inevitable process of giving the rest back to where it came from. ‘Frankie was chalking the board when I came in,’ says Burrell, then an assistant with Julie Cecil. ‘I knew him because he was always shouting things when we passed each other in the strings. Back in the shop he told me he had punted all his money and as neither his father nor Luca would bail him out, he was having to work his debts off as a board man. He also said he would ride a winner next day. For some reason I said, “You are going to be champion and I will be your manager.” We have been together ever since.’
You will see that by the time Il Monstro’s son finally came to have his first ride in England at the end of April 1987 he was a long way from the midget who burst into tears after going over Silvia’s head at San Siro. After unsaddling his well-beaten 33-1 shot at Kempton, Frankie turned to the trainer, no less a figure than Derby-winning Peter Walwyn, pointed to the horse’s heaving flanks and said, ‘not fit, too fat.’
Confidence was not going to be a problem, and if the first winner did not arrive until Goodwood on 9 June, it certainly came with suitable aplomb. The filly Lizzy Hare was named after Cumani’s secretary who drove Frankie to the races. Lizzy Hare was led up by Colin Rate, who had a flash new black suit with pink seams and matching shirt and socks in anticipation of the money he had had on at 12-1. In the race Lizzy Hare was squeezed through a gap on the far rail to beat Dettori’s idol Steve Cauthen by a stylish length and a half.
On the way home the winning jockey wrote ‘Frankie goes to Hollywood’ on a box of tissues. The road to the stars, and one or two trips to the depths, was under way. His Daddy would be proud of him.