27 May 2007

Ignore all that Italian showbiz sparkle: at Dettori’s heart there’s a real diamond shining

He’s the first truly international superstar jockey, winning all that racing has to offer. Except the Derby. Which is why next Saturday’s race is so important

The best thing about winning a horse race is the sudden, punch-the-air happiness it brings to those involved. If Frankie Dettori wins the Derby on the hot favourite Authorized next Saturday, that happiness will go country-wide. It will be no small measure of the man.

For Frankie Dettori is much more than a jockey. For all his Italian background and Latin ebullience he has become one of Britain’s few fully-fledged national treasures. He is the beaming pilot who has done his “flying dismount” after big races the world over and on one impossible day at Ascot in 1996 he did it in all seven races.

He is the father of five who seven years ago had a miracle escape when his light plane crashed and killed the pilot. He is the little showman who has fronted Top of The Pops, been on Parkinson, captained Question of Sport and now owns the eponymous “Frankies” pizza chain with Marco Pierre White. But at 37 years old, 21 years on from riding his first winner in Turin in November 1986, he still hasn’t won the Derby in 14 tries. And it hurts.

It shouldn’t, but it does. Winning the Derby is not a straightforward competitive test of skill like the golf Open or Wimbledon. The jockey cannot do it without the horse, and in all Dettori’s Derbies, it has been equine rather than human talent that has failed on the day. But then the Derby itself is not so much the best race as the one that retains the greatest prestige. To triumph at Epsom is still to write your name on the high altar of the sport. Frankie wants to do that more than anything else in the game and he knows that in Authorized he has the chance of a lifetime. It is getting to him.

So much so that he has called his own press conference in Newmarket this morning to deal with the deluge of media enquiries and to try and leave his head clear for those two and a half minutes next Saturday without which his career will be incomplete. It says much for the continuing vitality of British sporting tradition that a race run round an eccentric horse-shoe-shaped helter-skelter on Epsom Downs and named after an aristocrat who won a toss of the coin still holds us in thrall two complete centuries on.

The Dettori origins are anything but blue-blooded but you can see how the genes could be Epsom-bound. His grandfather Mario was a mine worker in Sardinia who did six months in the Monte Cassino trenches. Frankie’s father, Gianfranco, fled to Rome to wash dishes and it was only his superhuman grit and determination that made him into the self-taught rider who won a record 13 Italian championships and two English classic triumphs, albeit tempered by his own bit of Derby drama, finishing only fifth on the 11-10 Two Thousand Guineas winner Wollow in 1976.

Mix this with the circus talents of Frankie’s mother Mara on the high wire (the son’s trademark dismount must seem pretty wimpish compared to the flying trapeze) and you can imagine that Dettori minor was set on a path to stardom from the very beginning. It certainly seemed like that when I first watched him closely one evening at Kempton in the summer of 1989. He was neat, quick and poised in the saddle. His work under Newmarket-based Italian Luca Cumani had given him a fine grounding in the English racing scene and his winters in California had developed the flat-backed American crouch, not to mention the dream of one day emulating the airborne celebrations of his hero Angel Cordero.

He seemed a nice little kid all set for the top. What we did not know was the legacy of unhappiness forced on him by his broken home and his perfectionist father, and we could not see the self-indulgent delusions building inside his head. He duly became champion apprentice and next year topped 100 winners at 19, even younger than Lester Piggott. But his winters in the sun were breeding disdain for the home grind. In the spring of 1993 he turned his back on Cumani to accept a contract in Hong Kong. A month later the police picked him up with cocaine. The Hong Kong contract was cancelled. He had flown too close to the sun.

If there had been any rottenness at the centre it would have showed. But when Frankie picked himself up you could spot the diamond at the core. He buckled down, brought his Dad back as taskmaster, refused interviews, finished the season with such a flourish that he won a contract with Sheikh Mohammed, and after starting the next year with a double on January 1 ended up champion jockey with a record 233 winners. He may be able to play the “stage” Italian and enjoy good food and company, but you should never forget that at heart he still stars in a very dangerous game.

You should look close at the very basics. The almost double-jointed positions of the toe and ankle and knee and hip and back and elbow and wrist as he crouches over half a ton of galloping thoroughbred produce a piece of balanced perfection that this observer has not seen matched in a lifetime of study in all the great racecourses of the world. With the support of Sheikh Mohammed’s Dubai-centred Godolphin operation he has become the first truly international jockey logging up major prizes in Europe, America and Japan. That should be enough. But he also loves life. And in the summer of 2000 he nearly lost it.

The trauma of the plane crash from which he was pulled clear by his friend Ray Cochrane cannot be overestimated. Broken and burned, Frankie thought of quitting, and even when he resumed there were shadows in the eyes. Human com-passion might forgive a more discreet approach over the next two seasons but the unsentimental world of sporting competition does not. The word was out that Frankie had gone “soft”. In 2003 it got under his nose. In almost a re-run of 1994, he rode for every stable short of Bethlehem and became champion again.

Four years on, the doubts about incentive are bound to re-emerge. Except for the Derby he has won every big race in the book. Unlike the more tunnel-visioned Lester Piggott, he is gregarious, loves his food and wine, and while he may only be 5ft 4 he is every day on the treadmill to keep his weight to 8st 7. He and Catherine now have five lovely children on whom he lavishes all the love his own childhood lacked. This season he has ridden just 14 winners, and the leaders are already over the 50 mark. Sure, the big Godolphin surge has had its usual slow beginning and riding as first jockey for Sheikh Mohammed’s team remains the biggest job in racing. But what, now, really makes the difference?

The answer has to be the Derby and Frankie’s very human hang-up about it is typically engaging. There is no superstar cool here, rather the young kid desperate to have his moment on the rostrum. The likelihood is that Authorized is better than the other colts he faces on Saturday and that Dettori will win as long as he keeps one leg on either side of the saddle. But to him, like us, the Derby matters, and people love him for caring about it.

The truth is he is pretty good at caring about them. One day last September we had a bunch of racing pensioners in a room up the stand at York. Frankie didn’t need to but he came out to see them. It was only for 10 minutes but in that time he left not one person in that room untouched. He wasn’t running for any office. Even those of us who have known him since he was a kid shook our heads in wonderment.

Which is why we as well as he so await next Saturday. Why the rest of the nation will sense it too. If he finally leaps in Derby victory, only a sour heart won’t soar in joy.

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