Popular jockey is looking forward to taking on ‘brilliant’ favourite despite his own chances of success being limited
You only have to see Frankie Dettori leap off his winners to know he is a natural showman. But then he learnt it young, from his mother who was a circus performer in his native Italy. Even so, I was not prepared when he seized my tape recorder and, holding it with both hands like a pop star, looked ready to belt out a tune.
Then, with a smile, he explains: “This is part of my Latin upbringing. People in Italy are much more open and flamboyant than the reserved English.”
His charm has so enthralled the reserved English over the years that he will be the most popular jockey at Royal Ascot next week even though he accepts the odds are against him being among the winners.
It is 27 years since Dettori came to England and, like all great sportsman, he timed his arrival just right.
“I came at a time when racing was changing on television with Sky coming in,” he says. “It wasn’t just for the elite. Racing had become more popular. And a lot of the old faces were retiring, Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery, Willie Carson. I was very lucky, I guess. A flamboyant character came along, people took to me and it made me what I am now.”
It helped that he made history, ¬winning all seven races at Ascot on that remarkable Saturday in September 1996.
“It was such an emotional rollercoaster that the one day felt like a three-day meeting,” he says. “I don’t know if I was destined to do it. All I can say is we’ve been racing over 300 years and I’m the first one to do it.”
And nobody has done it since, to the great relief of the bookies as that day cost them £40million.
Not surprisingly Ascot, where there is a statute in his honour, is the course Dettori loves.
“Ascot has always been tremendously lucky for me. I had my first Group One winner there. I’ve won many races there: four King Georges, four Gold Cups, five Queen Elizabeths. Don’t ask me why, I feel comfortable when I’m there.”
Next week’s Royal Ascot has the added attraction of being in the Jubilee year but, for Dettori, it evokes the other special event of the summer.
“Royal Ascot is like the Olympics, it is more important than the Derby. The Derby is one race,” he says. “At Royal Ascot you have 30 races in five days. Every race is a championship race and carries a tremendous amount of pressure: a beautiful setting, watched by the world and where every win is huge. You put all your work, soul and energy in those five days. You’ve got to have your wits about you.”
Dettori confesses that this year’s meeting will be even more demanding for him.
He says: “While I’ll be in most of the races, I’ll be more of an outsider. I haven’t got any bankers. We haven’t got a superstar.”
Certainly nothing to match the Australian champion filly Black Caviar, who will be running in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes. There should be a big Aussie contingent at Ascot a week on Saturday roaring on Black Caviar in the hope she extends her unbeaten run which stretches to 21 races.
Dettori, who is in line to ride Soul, says: “Black Caviar is brilliant. I will be in the race but I don’t think my horse is good enough to win. So, if I can’t win, I want to see her win because it’s good for the sport.”
Frankel, unbeaten in 10 starts, will also be there, competing in the Queen Anne Stakes a week today. Dettori says: “I’d pay to ride him. He’s one of the best horses I’ve seen, a tremendous athlete and talent.”
It is not always easy to get a talented horse, even if you have money, as Dettori discovered this year. The principal jockey for Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin stables, he did not have a runner in the Derby, a race that he only won in his 15th attempt in 2007. “Just shows you,” says Dettori with laugh, “You can have all the money in the world but you need to have a bit of luck.”
Not that Dettori confuses this sort of racing luck with luck that can make or break lives. Back in 2000 a Piper Seneca plane taking him from Newmarket to Goodwood crashed killing the pilot but Dettori escaped with a fractured right ankle and injured thumb. “I had just got married,” he says. “I had a six-month-old boy and I nearly died, so I was lucky. I’m still coming back from that crash.”
Now 41, the question facing Dettori is when will he retire. This is much discussed and indeed he left BBC’s Question of Sport, where he was team captain for two years, back in 2003 angered by questions about quitting the sport.
“I was sitting next to Thomas Castaignede, a French rugby player, and he said to me, ‘How long have you been retired?’ I said, ‘As it happens I’m still riding.’ People kept on saying similar things so that’s when I decided to give it up.”
It remains a sensitive subject. “Everybody’s worried about when I am retiring but myself. I want to carry on and try to get to 50. Listen, I’m still a young man. I do what I love. And there’s a lot of races I haven’t won in England: the July Cup, Champions Stakes. I’d love to win the Melbourne Cup.”
But much as he would like to add to his wins at Royal Ascot, the next few weeks will also see him following his other passion — football.
Dettori expects Germany to win Euro 2012 but will cheer on Italy.
Not England, I ask. “Of course not,” he says firmly, “Don’t be silly.”
He may love England but when it comes to football his flame for the Azzurri still burns brightly.
Tuesday, June 19: Queen Anne Stakes; St James’s Palace Stakes
Wednesday, June 20: Prince of Wales’s Stakes’ Royal Hunt Cup
Thursday, June 21: Gold Cup; Ribblesdale Stakes
Friday, June 22: Coronation Stakes; King Edward VII Stakes
Saturday, June 23: Diamond Jubilee Stakes; Hardwicke Stakes