King Charles III will attend this week’s prestigious meeting for the first time as the reigning monarch, while the Italian jockey rides at his last after nearly 40 years at the top of his profession
Monday June 19 2023
Get close. That’s the best thing in all sport, especially this year at Royal Ascot. For it will be the last show for the king of the turf, Frankie Dettori, and the first, as reigning monarch, for King Charles III.
They come at the meeting from very different trajectories. Dettori in an astonishing, select appearance, tour de force of a swansong; the King trying to balance his mother’s racing legacy with countless other calls on his time and patronage. The next five days will be important for both of them. Dettori already has 17 booked mounts in the first four days. The King, whose ownership is shared with his Queen, has runners entered each day, including Tuesday’s Wolferton Stakes favourite, Saga, ridden by none other than Signor Dettori.
Walking round the track on Sunday before the arrival of much-wanted rain was to wonder how much has changed since Frankie first rode at Ascot as a 7½st 16-year-old. Back then, lesser racegoers had to go from the paddock to their grandstand via a tunnel under the royal enclosure and the great ocean liner of the present stand was but a figment of future imagination.
Back then, Frankie was a kid, who at Goodwood ten days earlier had ridden his first winner and had prophetically written “Frankie goes to Hollywood” on a box of tissues as he was driven home. Back then, he was still in awe of his hero, Steve Cauthen, who had won the Derby on Reference Point, and that year had five Royal Ascot winners in his great partnership with Henry Cecil. Back then, he would be known only as the little son of the Italian champion, Gianfranco Dettori, whose win on Bolkonski in the 2,000 Guineas a dozen years earlier had been Cecil’s first classic success in this country.
Dettori Jr would ride only eight winners in 1987; 22 the following year; but by 1989, he was on the way to a 75-winner champion apprentice season, and I would be writing in this paper: “The real excitement is not what he can do today but what he might do in the years ahead. If the snakes don’t bite.
This, the 52-year-old now promises, is the last of what will be 37 seasons and, as has oft been chronicled, the snakes have had their moments as Frankie put his ladder up towards the stars.
They even looked like retiring him last year when defeat in the Gold Cup on Stradivarius, followed by two subsequent reverses, led to the temporary severing of his relationship with John Gosden and plenty of talk of the final curtain. But this was Frankie Dettori, and walking up towards the turn on Sunday was to remember 1996 and Fujiyama Crest leading round there to land the last leg of his “Magnificent Seven”. This was a talent we will never see again. One last dance has proved a really good idea.
The figures are the most astonishing example of quality over quantity ever logged in a jockeys’ championship. With just 13 successes this season, Dettori lags at 31st on the winners’ list. But his £1,464,500 of prize money is topped only by the Derby-winning jockey, Ryan Moore, and has come from a mere 43 rides on the track. Mind you, he has six rides on Tuesday, none of them priced at more than 5-1, and how fitting that the first of them should be the filly, Inspiral, the favourite for the Queen Anne Stakes, and his only winner at last year’s Royal Ascot.
Everything points to a tremendous final performance and to the wisdom of leaving the stage while the cheers still ring and the flying dismounts still work. He is adamant this is the last time and claims that he and his wife, Catherine, will be moving to a flat in Mayfair. One can only trust that his love of Italian food will make a comeback physically impossible. But pizzas and punditry are a long way from the thundering capsule of the galloping card game, where, for so long, he has ruled the roost. The head says he should stop, the heart may still need convincing.
In contrast to the game’s wish for that king’s happy departure, for King Charles III, racing is almost embarrassing in its neediness. Despite early fears to the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that, beyond some very expected pruning of the royal stock, the King and Queen have embraced the challenge of the sport and, indeed, of Royal Ascot in particular.
The carriage procession will continue in all its 19th century magnificence, with their majesties in the leading landau and a covey of guests invited every day. As with their wider role, they appear to want to accept tradition and invigorate it.
After all, the King is a man with experience on the back of a racehorse. Besides a second over fences at Ludlow and one on the flat in a charity race at Plumpton, he was not a stranger to the delights of the early morning. While at John Dunlop’s stable doing a preview to the 1980 royal meeting, I discovered that their most recent winner, with the fine kingly name of Broadsword, had been ridden in his final gallop by that well-known work jockey, the Prince of Wales. Get close and see if he remembers the buzz.