12 December 2004

FRANKIE DETTORI Champion jockey.

A lot happened on and off the track but this was Frankie Dettori’s year. The greatest entertainer racing has ever seen was back – and better than ever.

He was champion again nine years after his last title and four years since he was dragged from the wreckage of the plane crash that killed the pilot. He had become the ultimate international jockey, parading the blue Godolphin silks in all the big races round the globe. He was racing’s own celebrity, a captain on Question of Sport, he even had his own brand of pizza. Britain was his summer base, but the day-to-day grind that wins a championship was no longer the deal.

Then he turned up at Lingfield in March and did a flying dismount after his opening winner. In April he rode a five-timer at Folkestone and went to Musselburgh on Easter Sunday. With champion Kieren Fallon beleagured by scandal and suspension, Frankie took a lead. And vowed he would work to keep it. Not all of us believed him. We didn’t think he wanted it enough, But he did. He wasn’t just a Big Time Charlie – he could do small time too. It was tough and tiring but the satisfaction was overwhelming.

What’s more, he never let the strain cloud his sunniness. Week in, week out he remained the most approachable as well as most brilliantly of jockeys. Week in week out the winners kept coming. Fallon kept grinding but with the new Godolphin bunch of two-year-olds Dettori finally finished on 192 winners to his rivals 176.

BEN AINSLIE Olympic sailing champion – Finn class

They and we and the waves were in awe of him. Ben Ainslie’s gold medal in the Finn Class among the fickle winds of the Saronic Gulf did not just add to Olympic history; it grew the legend that at 27 he could yet be acknowledged as the greatest sailor in our history.

It was much more than the wholesale change of shape needed to bulk up from the lean 12-st Ainslie of the Sydney Olympics Tornado to the massive 14-st sailor who hustled around the much heavier Finn in Athens. It was the maturing sense of destiny about the young man from Lymington, and the regard in which he is held by even the hardest of his peers. Ian Walker was a silver medallist at Sydney and at Athens was coach to Shirley Robertson’s Yngling gold medal crew. “I just wonder how the hell he does it, he said.

It is part dedication, part intuition, part what he calls “three dimensional chess”. But at the root there is a raging compulsion to drive a sailing ship through the water; something never better demonstrated than the second Finn race on the first Sunday. The previous day Ainslie had been demoted to 19th place overall by the controversial late objection by the Frenchman Guillaume Florent. The meltemi wind was gusting strong enough for eight boats to capsize. Britain’s big hope needed a big race. The Belgian Sebastian Godefroid led on the last of leg, but was under severe pressure. Just 100 metres from the finish Sebastian, too, turned turtle. Ben was back

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