The Pursuits Interview: Frankie Dettori

Six years ago this weekend, Frankie Dettori, famous for jumping off horses’ backs – his so-called flying dismount – got a burden off his own. Riding the odds-on favourite, Authorized, he won the Derby, probably the greatest flat race in the world and the only one of England’s five Classics to have eluded him. He was, at Epsom that day in 2007, a jockey at the top of his game, on top of the world.

But when I met Dettori less than a fortnight before today’s Derby, he was serving the final days of a six-month riding ban imposed after a random urine test revealed traces of cocaine. And he is no longer riding for Godolphin, the formidable racing operation owned by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and with which he was once virtually synonymous.

It wouldn’t be true to say that the little Italian’s world has collapsed – he is still in demand as a jockey, not least by Godolphin’s Irish rivals, Ballydoyle – but it has certainly changed. On Thursday night Dettori learnt that he had been given the all-clear to resume racing. He was due to ride at Epsom on Friday but the lateness of the decision means that he is unlikely to have a mount for Saturday’s Derby.

Dettori was in a hotel room in Dubai in December 2012 when the news broke that he had failed the drugs test. He had known for three weeks that the racing authorities were about to punish him, but now the rest of the world knew too – and how. “‘Dettori banned’, that was number one [item] on Sky News,” he says. “News number two was ‘Obama elected to a second term’. News number three was ‘war in Syria’. News number four was ‘two million people without water or electricity in New York.’ It was absolutely mental.”

With Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum after winning at the Dubai World Cup, 2002

Dettori grins, although there is no trace of humour in his eyes. He had gone to Dubai to see Sheikh Mohammed, whose royal blue silks he had worn for 18 years. The partnership between Dettori and Godolphin had been immensely successful, yielding 943 wins in 14 countries, including nine English Classics. But when Godolphin’s trainers began to hand the best rides to younger men, Dettori grew disillusioned. Although in his early forties, he felt he was as good as ever.

Deeply hurt, he left Godolphin and blames the same emotional maelstrom for his snorting cocaine, in a “mentally weak moment”. Nonetheless, he wanted to bid farewell properly to his former employer. “I wanted to say ‘thank you for a great 18 years, and by the way, I’m in a bit of trouble, I hope it doesn’t offend you’. But Sheikh Mohammed was away somewhere. I’ve tried twice to see him so far but I can’t get near him.”

As it happens, Sheikh Mohammed has a rather bigger drugs scandal to contend with, following the revelation that his trainer Mahmood al-Zarooni had been doping horses. Irony upon irony, it was the now-banned al-Zarooni who had sidelined him, so if the jockey had stayed at Godolphin, he might have regained pole position. But he insists, not altogether convincingly, that he has taken no pleasure in al-Zarooni’s disgrace. “Well, he’s the guy who messed everything up for me. But I’ll be honest, I have no feelings about him.”

The trademark “flying dismount”, in celebration of taking the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup, 2007

He is more forthcoming on the subject of his own disgrace, and the trepidation he felt when phoning his father Gianfranco, who was a top jockey himself, to break the news. “It knocked him for six. He’s 72 and hardly ever drank, hardly smoked, so to test positive for cocaine, to him that meant I was a drug addict. He said, ‘You should go to The Priory.’ I said, ‘Dad, chill out, will you … ’”

He also had to tell his five children, the oldest of whom is 13. “They would have found out anyway, on the internet, so I couldn’t lie. I said ‘Daddy did something he shouldn’t have’, and then we took them out of school and went round the world. We went to South Africa, to Australia, white-water rafting in New Zealand, to Universal Studios in LA.”

He is, I venture, making a good job of promoting the benefits of an enforced six-month absence from work. A short laugh. Dettori, in private, has never bounced with bonhomie quite as he does in public, and the past few months have manifestly taken their toll, but he is still engaging company, and candid about his frailties.

Dettori winning the Derby on Authorized in 2007

In LA, he tells me, he confronted some old demons. “After the crash [in a light aircraft, at Newmarket racecourse 13 years ago, when the pilot died and Dettori was dragged from the burning wreckage] I developed claustrophobia. And when we last went to Universal Studios, two years ago, I freaked out on the Simpsons ride. It was just a simulator, and all they did was put the bar down, but I started screaming. My kids were, like, ‘What’s going on?’ So this time I did the same ride, to try to beat it, and I did. Slowly, slowly, you know.”

Slowly, slowly was not, of course, the mantra that helped him to win the Derby. “No, and it is the hardest race to win, because it is the first time most of the horses have run that far [a mile and a half]. In other races, you already know their characteristics. But the Derby is a blank sheet. And because it is only open to three-year-olds, it defines the best of their generation. I don’t like the Epsom track, it has lots of traps, but it divides the good horses from the bad. There is not usually a lucky winner in the Derby.”

He still hopes, he says, to add to that solitary 2007 victory. “I plan to ride until I’m 50, at least.” And if he does, will he still be treating us to the flying dismount? This time, a proper laugh. “I stole it from [the Puerto Rican jockey, Angel] Cordero [Jr]. I saw him do it in America, and I brought it back to Europe. And now I’m a slave to it. If I don’t do it, they start booing.”

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