The Italian jockey delivered a crowd-pleasing win at his final royal meeting
Thursday June 22 2023
Delay can help delight. At the ninth time of asking, after two days of frustration and defeat Frankie Dettori finally rode the winner the world craved on this the most anticipated of Royal Ascot swansongs.
It was on a beautiful bay colt called Gregory, a son of Frankie’s Derby winner Golden Horn and, like him, trained by Frankie’s major supporter and sometime saviour John Gosden. As Gregory swung into the straight at the head of the 14-strong field for this Queen’s Vase there was a yearning in the growing cheers that hasn’t been matched since Dettori headed up those same three grassy furlongs on Fujiyama Crest with the history of that famous Magnificent Seven in his sights.
As with Fujiyama Crest over a similar full circuit of the Ascot track, Britain’s favourite 52-year-old Italian had set off at the head of affairs. Fujiyama Crest had been an outsider until Frankie strung up the winners, and panicking bookmakers shrunk his odds. Gregory was an even-money favourite, having won both races of his burgeoning career; the doubts were with the jockey. Three times on Tuesday he had been second and an early barging match on another ride had earned him a nine-day suspension. Was destiny in denial?
Three more defeats had followed yesterday, including a disappointing capitulation by the front-running royal colt Reach For The Moon in a Hunt Cup, which ended with the 30-strong field split into two groups. Both were headed by horses trained by Ralph Beckett, with names that enabled Richard Hoiles to climax his commentary with: “Jimi Hendrix beats Sonny Liston. I never thought I would be saying that.” The lines were deepening in that olive-skinned face. His sons, Leo and Rocco, came on TV and said: “We need a winner or it will be disaster.”
Up the straight Gregory surely had the legs of them. He is improving so fast that he may well start favourite for the St Leger. But he had to win this, and, as with watching Fujiyama Crest in 1996, the heart feared to believe what the eyes were telling you. Back then it was Pat Eddery in full cry who was coursing down the leader, now it was Oisin Murphy on Saint George who came out from the rail and hungrily ate up the ground.
As he closed, the fear grew. This was an Ascot day when Dettori had sat out the highlights of the American filly Crimson Advocate blazing home in the Queen Mary and of Mostahdaf crushing supposedly superior colts in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes.
Mostahdaf had run 14 times and despite five wins and one dazzling display in Saudi Arabia had never looked in the same category as Luxembourg, Adayar, My Prospero and Bay Bridge, who finished close together in that not unexpected order. But Mostahdaf had played with them. Was Saint George to be a grey destroyer of this latest Dettori dream?
In pursuit Murphy was a maroon-silked dervish asking Saint George for everything. The momentum got them up level to Gregory’s tail. But this was Ascot. This was Dettori, and he had horse and history beneath him. He was clamped down close. Those elbows punched. He knew and we knew that we would all have the result we needed. It was the 78th time at Royal Ascot and maybe even the best.
Those last few yards were beautiful, all doubts departed, all happiness flowing in. Afterwards a gasping “I thought it would never come” interview from the saddle, the procession through the tunnel and out into the paddock with racegoers rushing down to pack the rails and tiered steppings to crushing point. The face now creased into the deepest of smiles before a long, serious look at the audience whose cheers he has loved for so long.
One more thing to do, of course. The trick that he had learnt from his US hero Angel Cordero. The photographers and the packed crowds all knew what was coming. Gregory’s groom Richard Wilkinson manoeuvred his colt to give space in the unsaddling enclosure. Then our little hero leapt up skywards and there was a wonder in the dizziness of it all.
In 1996 Frankie had rushed into the weighing room and jumped into the arms of his valet, Dave Currie. In a sign of his now more exalted status, the greeting before the trophy presentation was a bear hug from the rugby star bulk of Mike Tindall and a kiss from his wife, the granddaughter of our late queen.
Once again Frankie Dettori had done something confined to the very few. He had given us a day we will never forget. There will be a few more before this play is over.