Back from the brink: how Frankie Dettori learned to love life again
Julian Muscat finds reborn jockey in engaging form after a wonderful year
It’s a story that will almost certainly morph into a movie, although not for a while yet. That cannot happen until Frankie Dettori weighs out for the final time.
The redemption chapters keep coming thick and fast, his achievements raising him to even greater heights than he scaled in his gilded youth. It is fair to say Dettori, now 47 and about to embark on his 31st season, is in the prime of his professional life. The records keep tumbling even though the man who broke his shoulder in a paddock fall in June is not as physically robust.
Dettori closed last year having ridden his 3,000th winner, in the process landing a record-breaking fifth Arc on the all-conquering Enable. It was a second Arc triumph in three runnings following Golden Horn in 2015, a year in which the jockey truly returned to the top table.
That alone was an implausible outcome, given the turmoil engulfing Dettori in 2013. He’d returned from a six-month suspension for failing a drug test without fanfare, without much support and with next to no prospect of regeneration. He’d resolved to retire at the season’s end, when he would have slipped away to whispered choruses of self-sabotage that had so enraged Sir Henry Cecil when he was in the doldrums.
Heck, he shouldn’t even be alive. Only by the grace of God did he survive a light aircraft crash at Newmarket in 2000. “I should have been killed twice,” Dettori reflects. “The first time in the crash itself, and the second time had Ray [Cochrane, the former jockey who subsequently became Dettori’s agent] not pulled me from the wreckage moments before the plane exploded.”
The consequence of Dettori eluding the Grim Reaper is that life has become precious.
He has never had a problem enjoying life, although his natural lust for it might have erased golden memories so abundant as to last two lifetimes.
Like a cat with nine of them, Dettori has been blessed. Transgressions that might have finished him have served instead as timely restraints on his exuberance. Other sportsmen to experience similar turbulence have ended up with nothing.
All the above shaped the moment when Dettori was overwhelmed by emotion at Epsom in 2015. “Winning the Derby with Golden Horn was beautiful for the reasons everyone knows about,” he recalls. “I was 44, I'd left Godolphin, I had that six-month ban – all of that rolled into one special race meant it was the biggest thrill I've ever had.
“The Golden Horn experience was amazing,” Dettori continues. “I thought it was a one-off, a stroke of good luck, but I had to wait only two years do it all again with Enable. Even now I have to pinch myself.”
It’s a theme he warms to quickly. “It definitely means more this time around,” he says. “At the end of last year I went to all the awards nights when Enable won everything.
"That had happened to me before but it was different this time. When you're younger you don’t appreciate the importance of everything, but now I do. You realise how much it means to everyone: owners and breeders, the staff who look after the horses.
“Another thing is the enjoyment I’m getting from sharing it with my family,” he continues. “My [five] children were very young when it happened to me the first time. They now know what an Arc is, what a King George is. Ten years ago they had no idea. To be sharing it with them now means a lot.”
As Dettori talks, his features tanned from a holiday in Brazil, it becomes clear his family have become an emotional anchor to him.
He has always been prone to mood swings: irrepressible in good times, profoundly despairing in bad. These extremes once translated to the saddle. More often brilliantly inspired, he could nevertheless throw in an inexplicably poor ride.
But those rough edges are no longer prevalent. He has emerged from two traumatic episodes a more rounded individual without losing his competitiveness in the saddle.
He always was a man for the big occasion; he is even more so now. His instinctive prowess is complemented by crystal-clear thinking within a package that makes him the consummate big-race rider.
While lessons from those traumas have been absorbed, the episodes themselves have been filed away in the furthest recesses of his mind.
His troubles with Godolphin sent him into a tailspin exacerbated by that failed drugs test in France, which he delivered the day after Godolphin’s Encke had won the 2012 St Leger with Mickael Barzalona in the saddle. He was already in despair as he drove back from Doncaster.
So when, three weeks later, he was offered the Arc ride aboard Camelot by the Coolmore syndicate, Dettori saw it as a way of provoking a fissure. When that duly came to pass in late October, only he knew that his cocaine transgression would soon become public.
He knew he would be banned, just as he knew that when he returned he would be shorn of Godolphin’s powerful embrace to kick-start his recovery. He was alone. So much so that when he did resume, in May 2013, he went a whole month without a winner from 50 rides.
It looked bleak until, out of the blue, along came Sheikh Joaan Al Thani, who was in the process of establishing Al Shaqab Racing and required a retained jockey. Since then Dettori has not looked back.
“I think any human being tries to leave all the bad things in the back of their head,” he says. “I went through the same problem when I had the plane crash. I was low for a year or two, had a touch of depression, but that’s normal, isn’t it? I went into an emotional spin, but I don’t just think it’s me. I think it’s the way the human brain processes things – and there was a lot to process. I was basically a few weeks away from retiring.”
What kept him sane was the essence that propelled him in his youth. “The only thing that kept me going was belief,” he says. “I felt like I deserved another chance, and I believed that another one was going to come, because I’ve not been a bad man really.
"The circumstances didn’t work out the way I wanted them to. So I had that belief to the very end. But even when it happened, I didn’t expect it to happen so good. I never thought a horse like Golden Horn would come along.”
Even though Dettori was ultimately responsible for provoking the split with Godolphin, hindsight affords us the opportunity to reassess what some felt was the stroppy countenance of a spoilt child.
Dettori was indentured to Mahmood Al Zarooni’s stable. He spent most of 2012 seeing Al Zarooni usurp his status as the main jockey: Barzalona, Silvestre de Sousa and even Ahmed Ajtebi were often preferred.
But of course, we later learned that the man who was passing severe judgement against Dettori was a fraud. The man who almost ushered Dettori into premature retirement was systematically doping his horses.
“It’s funny how everything worked out,” Dettori reflects. “I was getting frustrated. I was getting pushed to the side and that was Al Zarooni’s doing.
"If I hadn’t said I wanted to leave, if I’d bitten the bullet for six months longer, Al Zarooni would have got banned [for eight years], I would probably have stayed and everything might have come back to normal.
“But I made the first move, I left, and here we are. I left, he got done, William [Buick] left John [Gosden] for Godolphin and I went back to John. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.”
Dettori’s alliance with Gosden is what encourages him to believe he might stretch his riding days beyond his 50th birthday.
Gosden deployed the jockey for most of the 1990s after he returned from California. More than anybody else, he knows how to get the best from Dettori. He understands the way Dettori’s mind works; he probably read him the riot act before the pair came together again in 2015.
In an effort to prolong Dettori’s saddle life, Gosden excuses him the chores of most stable jockeys. Dettori is not required to travel to small meetings routinely. Gosden wants him for the big day, fresh and eager. He knows that when Dettori retires it will be the devil’s own job to find a replacement of equal calibre. Their relationship is therefore symbiotic.
It will be hard for Dettori to top his achievements last year, when he won eight Group 1s among a Pattern-race haul of 22 races. The harvest would have been greater but for his paddock spill in June, in which he broke his shoulder and was forced to miss Royal Ascot. That bitter pill was sugar-coated. It served to reinforce his professional desire.
“I watched the first day on television at home,” he reflects. “When I saw Lady Aurelia win the King’s Stand I told [his wife] Catherine I couldn’t bear to watch. I went to Spain instead.”
His recovery also highlighted how he now needs to take extra steps to regain peak fitness. He returned as soon as he could; inevitably so, with the likes of Enable and Cracksman to ride, but it was some months before he was able fully to rebuild his core strength.
Dettori’s commitment to extending his saddle days saw him forsake his annual skiing holiday to minimise the risk of injury. The process of getting back into shape commenced last week: in his immediate sights is the ride aboard Toast Of New York for Sheikh Joaan in the $16 million Pegasus Cup in Florida, after which he will spend February riding in Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
He is already straining at the leash, but with a difference. “I break bones if I fall in the same way as I did ten years ago,” he says. “I’m definitely not as elastic as I used to be and I have to face facts: I’m 47.
"But Mike Smith is 52, Gary Stevens is 51, so is Gerald Mosse. I think I can get five more years out of it, but that’s just talk. The reality could be different, but I’ll try my best to achieve it.”
And of course, the threat of enforced retirement that hung so heavily over him five years ago made him confront a prospect every jockey, storied or otherwise, finds daunting. The head start was unwelcome yet, in keeping with so many aspects of his life, it served to prepare him for the inevitable.
“For a long time I was worried about the day I retired but I’m more relaxed about it now,” he says. "I know it's coming and have come to accept it. I’ll have to reset my frame of mind, like AP [McCoy] has done. I just hope it happens on my own terms, in a natural way, rather than through injury. That's all I wish for.”
In the meantime Dettori’s sole focus is to enjoy what’s left. He will continue to be the public face of racing. He will continue with what he sees as his obligation to promote the sport he adores. It’s a fair bet he will continue to enthral and entertain in the act of riding big-race winners. And he will bank happy memories along the way.
“You know, I’ve had my share-full out of life,” he says. “I did a few theatre shows towards the end of last year and it was mind-boggling to hear myself being introduced to the audience – 3,000-plus winners, five Arcs, five King Georges, 17 Classics – but the thing about it all is that I've loved it.”
Those shows completed, those awards collected, Dettori then set off for Mauritius having completely forgotten what he achieved in 2017. “As soon as it was over I never thought about it once,” he maintains. “It’s history."
He then breaks into a big grin. “Tick tock, tick tock,” he says. “I’m counting down the time to the start of the season. Before we know it we'll be at Royal Ascot, the July Meeting and the Arc and it'll be over, just like that. The year will go by in the blink of an eye.”
It always does when you're having fun
'Hardest choice I'll ever have to make'
They say no trainer ever retires when he has promising two-year-olds in his care. The same holds true for jockeys, although in Frankie Dettori’s case, 2017 closed with him having ridden the two best three-year-olds in Europe. Enable and Cracksman stay in training. So does Dettori.
Having returned from a winter’s break, Dettori went into John Gosden’s Clarehaven Stables last week with the intention of sharing out a packet of polo mints among the equine inhabitants. Enable got the lot.
That is hardly surprising, given Dettori’s fondness for the daughter of Nathaniel. “I was able to really enjoy the experience of winning the King George, Yorkshire Oaks and Arc on her because I knew how good she was after we won the Irish Oaks,” he says.
“I could have ridden her with one hand that day. She travels like no other horse I've ridden in my career.”
He describes Enable’s Arc triumph as “nerve-racking but beautiful", adding: "We had no doubt she was a worthy favourite and should win, but the manner in which she did it was breathtaking. That's what people who go racing want to see.”
Nobody was more relieved when John Gosden, who trains Enable and Cracksman, chose to keep the pair apart in the autumn. Had Cracksman run in the Arc Dettori would have been obliged to choose between them. He could not have deserted Enable, although Cracksman’s processional triumph in the Champion Stakes two weeks later cast him in a fresh light.
“Perhaps the testing ground was responsible for his wide margin of victory,” Dettori says of the colt’s seven-length verdict at Ascot. “Sometimes you have to take these results with a pinch of salt, but he beat some good horses. He strengthened up a lot throughout the year.”
The dream scenario for 2018 is for the two horses to lock horns. “Reading between the lines it seems that John plans to take them to the Arc along different routes,” Dettori says.
“We’ll talk about which one I'd ride only if they get there, but if they are both on their game it will be the hardest choice I've ever had to make.
"Let’s wait and see; it’s a long season before that. But it could be a special one.”
Don't miss the second instalment in our Tales of Redemption series: Joe Colliver rebuilding his career after a spell in prison