Everyone loves Frankie: the smiling, leaping winner with a thousand merry quips in his gloriously Italianate English, the jockey who won seven races in a single golden afternoon at Ascot in what is forever remembered as Frankie’s Magnificent Seven.
What? Is it really 20 years ago? He seemed a figure who stood permanently in the sun, adored by the public and respected by everyone in the enclosed world of racing.
Dettori is the son of a jockey and a circus performer – ideal breeding, perhaps. He left school at 13 to become a stable lad, and came to Britain a year later to work as an apprentice jockey. The combination of his brilliance and his flamboyant public nature made Britain take to him at once, and he loved the place in turn, Anglophile and Arsenal supporter.
He rode squadrons of the world’s best horses for Godolphin, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s extraordinary racing enterprise, landing their first Classic winner as early as 1994, and helping them smash record after record. What could possibly go wrong?
Godolphin never fired him. They didn’t stop paying him. They just stopped giving him their best horses to ride.
“I’ve no idea what went wrong,” Dettori says. “Not to this day I don’t know. I was getting paid not to ride. I was getting paid to sit on the bench watching someone else ride my ’orses. You feel depressed. You feel humiliated.” What? Frankie depressed?
Dettori off-camera is not always a laugh-a-minute extrovert. I once called at his house by appointment and the door was opened by a grim-looking character with baleful eyes and a what-now expression. He looked so forbidding I almost asked if I could speak to Mr Dettori please. He can pay for his sunny periods in pretty black off-duty moods.
That’s regulation, par for the course – the reverse of the extrovert coin.
But it’s always good to meet him. His volatile nature has been balanced by a secure family life. He lives just outside Newmarket with his wife Catherine and their five children, and he begins his interview with a mock-angry complaint about contracting a cold while taking his children round Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park.
We talk in a London hotel, the 45-year-old’s demeanour quiet, but lit up with sudden drastic surges of electricity as the memories of victory, humiliation and the sheer ludicrousness of life shake him. Yet the Godolphin imbroglio was infinitely worse than any emotional let-down or temporary setback. This was the rejection – the invalidation – not just of his skills, but of himself.
So he quit. At the end of the 2012 season he walked out on the world’s best racing set-up, and the world’s best horses.
“I had long conversations with my parents, my wife,” he recollects. “I said, ‘I’ve got a good five years left. I either sit here and take the money and accept it – or split.’ And I didn’t want to sit on my rocking-chair when I’d retired and think, ‘I should have had a go.’ ” So he walked – and things instantly got worse. A great deal worse. “I thought I’d step into another job right away. But doors close. People aren’t so sure about you.”
Here’s the eternal truth about the jockey’s trade: you can’t do it without the horse. Trainers and owners weren’t giving him horses to ride. Partly a lot of them already had the jockey they wanted. And partly Dettori was tarnished goods: must be something wrong there, after all you don’t leave a set-up like Godolphin to seek something better. No work, no horses, no hope. That’s when things got seriously bad. Dettori tested positive for cocaine and had to serve a six-month ban.
“I put my hands up. That’s life. I made a mistake. I’m not going to blame anyone. It’s my fault and that’s that. I was going through a rough time. I was watching Sky News, and the first news was Frankie Dettori fails a drugs test. Second news was Obama gets re-elected as president. Third news was a war in Syria. I didn’t kill anyone, but it was such big news.”
These are times when the most self-assured of people come to question themselves, finding their confidence being eaten away by the worm of doubt. “No.” This isn’t spoken defiantly or angrily or even emphatically. It is spoken like a plain fact, a statement of the bleeding obvious. “That’s the reason I came back, because I never doubted myself. Not for a split second. But I’d be the first to tell you that I couldn’t get any business. I thought, ‘If this carries on to the end of the season, I’ll ’ave to retire.’ Not because I couldn’t ride, but because there were no opportunities for me.”
In 1994 Dettori rode 233 winners; in 2013 he rode 16. But when you’re seen by the world as yesterday’s man, you sometimes find one or two shrewd people who are prepared to fly in the face of the world’s wisdom and back their own judgement.
The first of these was Sheikh Joaan Al Thani, who had recently set up Qatar’s Al Shaqab Racing, a new and ambitious owner who felt that Dettori’s experience and rekindled appetite were just what he needed to establish himself. “It was a lifeline, even though he only had ten ’orses in England at the time,” Dettori says. The Sheikh is now establishing himself as a major player in international horseracing, and as we speak, Dettori is preparing for his next trip to Qatar.
The second person willing to take a punt on Dettori was one of the world’s more intelligent trainers, John Gosden, who in the past had trained a lot of horses that Dettori rode. Dettori remembers, “I was in the lorry, coming back from an ’orseshow with my wife and the kids. Someone sent me a text saying that John’s stable-jockey was going to Godolphin. So I laughed and said to Catherine, ‘Should I text John and ask for my job back?’ As soon as I
said this the phone rang. It was John Gosden. He said I got a plan but don’t say nothing. Come and ride from the first of March and we’ll build it from there. So I turned up and the first ’orse I rode was Golden