In weak April sunshine at Epsom, Frankie Dettori rides Mighty Ulysses, a promising three-year-old, into fifth. It is early in the season and the young horses have yet to prove themselves. All the same, Frankie always prefers to win. He hops off – no flying dismount this time – and walks back along the rail looking only slightly frustrated. Even after 35 years of professional racing, it is a lonely walk. He skirts the winner’s enclosure and comes to have his picture taken. Voices from the crowd call out to him and he waves back. A woman stops him for a selfie. A voice from somewhere asks if his next ride will be a winner. He makes a 50-50 gesture with his hand then says, under his breath, “I wouldn’t bet on it.” It is a well rehearsed joke. At last we find a quiet spot to speak, two chairs against a wall in the weighing room beneath a picture of Lester Piggott. “The king of Epsom,” Dettori says.
At 51, he does not need to be doing any of this. After more than 3,000 winners, 20 English Classics including two Derbys, six Arc de Triomphes in Paris and tens of millions of pounds in prize money, the most famous jockey in the world has reached a stage where most would have retired. With his wife Catherine he has five children, a lovely house and an enviable media presence. Jockeys go on longer than most sportsmen. Piggott rode until he was 58, Willie Carson until he was 54. But it is an unforgiving sport. You do not fall less often as you get older.
No sooner has he sat down than he hops up again, to watch a replay of the last race on a nearby screen. “It’s always nice to see what I could have done better, see how the others have done – I’m potentially going to meet them in the Derby,” he says, returning and settling his 5’ 4”, eight-stone frame. After nearly four decades in Britain, his Italian accent is as expressive as ever. Close-up, without the distraction of a large horse standing next to him, you notice the delicacy of his features; soft brown eyes, brown skin, bright white teeth. He has two kinds of smile, one that he switches on and another that has to be provoked.
“You have an idea of how a horse will run but you never really know until you get on and push the button,” he says. “Sometimes they go, sometimes they stop.” Mostly, for Dettori, they go. He has granted an audience because he is being inducted into The QIPCO British Champions Series Hall of Fame – a roster of the most successful horses and jockeys since 1970.
“I feel old,” Dettori says. “It feels like [they’re saying] ‘that’s it, you’ve done it, get out of the sport.’ I’m quite humbled when I think about it. But it has gone like a flash. I remember when I was an apprentice, but here I am, in the hall of fame. The difference now is that when I fall, I break. But I still enjoy it. As long as I still have that fire inside me and it still makes me nervous, I see no reason not to carry on.”
For a while, a decade ago, it looked as though retirement might be forced on him. After a meeting in France in September 2012, Dettori tested positive for a banned substance, and was banned from racing for six months. A period in the wilderness followed, when he struggled with depression and bulimia.
“I couldn’t get a ride,” he says. “Because of my profile, I was ‘out there’, but I didn’t kill anyone. It’s the people around you who get hurt the most. I had to take the kids out of school. But even the lowest moments make you better. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes. We all have it inside ourselves to fight back.” His health is better now: the only things he needs are reading glasses.
“It scares me, the thought that one day I have to stop,” he adds. “It will be a shock. You live a life charged with adrenaline 110 per cent every day, so it’s difficult to give it all up. I don’t like to think about it too much, or I get myself into a depression. You die twice. Once when you stop riding, and once when you really die.”
Piggott’s also in the hall of fame, along with Vincent O’Brien (human), Frankel (horse) and Mill Reef (horse), among others. The previous inductee was the Queen, in whose purple and scarlet silks Dettori has ridden many times.
“It’s always an honour to ride for the Queen,” he says. “You get that special feeling when her colours hang on your peg. She’s a wonderful lady and she has given everything to racing. She has only missed four Derbys since 1946. We should be grateful to have had a member of the Royal family who is so passionate about racing.”
If the Queen is a figure of continuity in the sport, Dettori has been transformative. When his stern father Gianfranco, himself a famous jockey who won the 2,000 Guineas twice in the 1970s, sent his teenage son over from Milan in 1985 to be an apprentice jockey in Newmarket, British racing was a staid place. “It was very much the sport of kings, with the Jockey Club and all these stony faces,” he says. “I was enemy number one. I was flamboyant, I used to jump off horses. They didn’t like that. But then when Sky came along and raised football, I was encouraged to be flamboyant because they didn’t want the sport to be left behind.”
He was the first teenage jockey since Piggott to win 100 races in a season, but it was his Magnificent Seven at Ascot in 1996, when he won every race in a day, which lifted him from “famous-in-racing” to “global superstar”. His irrepressible personality, conveyed via appearances on TV including a stint as a captain on Question of Sport, meant he was the only jockey who would be stopped in the street by people with no interest in racing. It’s surprising, I say, that despite Dettori’s success in the media, few jockeys have come along and tried to play the flamboyant card.
“When I started, Willie [Carson] was the biggest character out there. When I stop, someone will take over from me. It’s the natural evolution of things. I’m sure Oisin [Murphy] will have plenty to say when he comes back,” he adds, in reference to the Irish champion jockey.
When Dettori does eventually retire, he says he’ll be a pundit on TV, but not have his own stable. “I might buy a couple of broodmares, but that’s it.” There will be more time for the children, for his beloved Arsenal.
“This season I thought we had it cracked, but we get easily upset,” he says of his team’s performance. “When things don’t go right everything shuts down. We have to learn to pick ourselves up.”
And move onto the next race?
“100 per cent”.
He springs up to change back into his silks. After this race there will be another, and another, as long as the fire lasts. He did not get into the hall of fame by hanging around.
The Daily Telegraph