Frankie Dettori has done for racing what Usain Bolt has for athletics by giving the sport a higher profile than it usually receives and it can ill afford to see him depart the scene.
The Italian-born England-based jockey will turn 42 on December 15 and while his six-month suspension for a failed dope test will see him miss the highly prestigious Guineas meeting he will be back in time for the Epsom Derby.
It would be an appropriate setting for him to make his return as it was at the track that in 1996 he went through the card recording a remarkable seven winners accompanied by his trademark and risky celebratory leap from the saddle.
It is this – admittedly first performed by American legend Angel Cordero – his exuberant and mischievous sense of humour and stylish riding style that has set him apart from his contemporaries, striking a chord with the public that only Lester Piggott has done before.
However, whereas Piggott was more revered than loved – his cleft palate inhibiting him from too much public speaking aside from some memorable acerbic one liners – Dettori has earned both.
But just as in his on track career so in his private life Dettori – son of Lanfranco himself a top jockey in the 1970’s – has enjoyed some wonderful highs and some notable lows, making him all the more human to the general public.
On the track aside from the Ascot seven-timer he has surprisingly ridden just the one Epsom Derby winner, although that is counter-balanced by three wins in Europe’s most prestigious race the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
He has been associated with some great horses thanks to his 18 year partnership wiith the Godolphin Operation – the brainchild of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin al-Maktoum – such as Dubai Millennium, the Sheikh’s favourite horse.
Other highs have included a stunning performance on Rewilding in last year’s Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot when he produced a beautifully judged ride to overcome hot favourite the former Australian champion So You Think.
The brilliance of that ride was in stark contrast to the one he gave Swain in the then richest race in the world the Breeders Cup Classic in 1998 at Churchill Downs in Kentucky when in with a great chance of winning he was unable, despite frantic efforts with the whip, to stop his mount veering all the way across the track.
Pilloried by the press, the Americans especially refused to let it slide, Dettori only really allowed himself to speak about it after he cheated death not as so many of his colleagues have done on the track but in a private plane crash in 2000 when taking off from English racing headquarters Newmarket.
The pilot was killed but Dettori’s life was saved by fellow jockey and close friend Ray Cochrane, who courageously pulled him from the wreckage leaving him with just a broken right ankle.
“I’ve burned up a few lives and I don’t think I’ve got that many left,” he said a few months later.
“When you have a light aircraft and it’s heading towards the ground the chances of coming out alive are very slim. Before the impact I didn’t scream because I didn’t think there was any point. I knew that I was going to die.”
It is somewhat ironic that his 18 year partnership with Godolphin should end as he became embroiled in a failed dope test for it was on the back of being given a police caution for possession of cocaine in 1993 that he lost a lucrative contract in Hong Kong but the Dubai powerhouses stepped in and signed him up.
On that occasion he bounced back in style but then he was in his early 20’s now at the onset of middle age and bereft of a rewarding stable contract and saddled with the suspension he will have to battle for the piecemeal offerings fought over by all freelance riders.
However, with five children to feed and educate and an expensive lifestyle those claiming Dettori will simply turn his back on the sport he has so enriched and brought him too the rewards will more than likely be eating humble pie come the Derby next year.
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