The best there is
Frankie Dettori’s unmatched skill, underestimated bravery and unprecedented love for the horses
This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
“Blimey,” more than one person said when I told them that I was ghosting Frankie Dettori’s autobiography. “Is he still riding?”
He’s one of the best there’s ever been, and even though he’s now the far side of 50 he’s still one of the best there is
It’s a reasonable enough question. In 1994, the year Frankie first became champion jockey, John Major was Prime Minister, Wet Wet Wet spent 15 weeks at number one with “Love Is All Around”, and Eric Cantona was voted Player of the Year by his fellow footballers. All those are ploughing very different furrows these days, but Frankie is still doing what he did then: getting the maximum out of a highly-trained horse going 40mph while mere inches from a dozen similar beasts.
He’s one of the best there’s ever been, and even though he’s now the far side of 50 he’s still one of the best there is. His racecraft is superb, his skill at pacing and positioning unmatched, and his bravery in putting himself in the mix is underestimated. If you had to choose a jockey to ride a single race for your life, you’d probably choose him.
And all this after setbacks which would have persuaded a lesser man to pack up and head off into the sunset: a plane crash which nearly killed him, a very public split with the stable which had employed him for almost two decades, a six-month ban for taking cocaine, and a couple of seasons after his return when he could hardly buy a winner.
During that lean spell his wife Catherine, with whom he has five children, gave him some tough love. “You keep telling us how great you are,” she said. “Well, now’s the time to go out and prove it.” And prove it he did, with a 2015 Derby win of such spine-tingling emotion that at the moment of triumph he could no longer feel his body.
Outside Newmarket and Lambourn, pretty much any jockey other than him could walk down the street unrecognised. He’s not just the most famous rider in the world: he’s more famous than all the others put together. His nouns are showman, celebrity, entertainer: his adjectives voluble, passionate, extrovert. His flying dismounts and Storm Force Ten celebrations are crowd-pleasers every time he does them.
He’s presented Top Of The Pops, been a team captain on A Question of Sport and a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother. These are the currencies of the age, and he is completely at ease with them. If L. Dettori, as it says on his riding breeches (L for Lanfranco) is the jockey, then “Frankie” is the public persona, and the two sides play beautifully off each other. He has substance and style: he has character, and he is a character.
And as Heraclitus said, “character is destiny”. It’s character which makes someone’s — anyone’s — story worth telling, and when ghosting an autobiography you must at various stages be chronicler, interviewer, amanuensis and shrink in order to capture that properly. But there is also always a layer beyond that: the moment when you find the kernel of deep emotional truth, the thing that marks their story out from everyone else’s in the same field. With Frankie, I realised, it was the horses.
When Enable was retired last year, Frankie cried for days: distraught that their partnership was over, thankful to have had it at all
This may sound obvious: what is a jockey without a horse, after all? But the way he speaks about them goes far beyond mere appreciation or admiration. He speaks with love, pure and simple. Here are these magnificent animals (it’s impossible to see a racehorse in the parade ring before a big race and not catch your breath at its beauty, at the muscles rippling beneath a coat gleaming in the sun, and at its keen intelligence), and the fact that he gets to ride them every day is for him a privilege beyond compare.
But, as always with love, there’s one who stands just a little above the others. The names of his special horses trip easily off the tongue: Lochsong, Dubai Millennium, Stradivarius, Authorized, Golden Horn.
But over and beyond these stands Enable. It wasn’t simply how many races Frankie won on Enable, though God knows there were enough, and the most prestigious ones too: three King Georges, two Arc de Triomphes, a Breeders’ Cup. Nor was it the way they’d won them, usually by lengths but now and then by inches, for like her rider Enable could also grit it out on the days when everything didn’t come easy and shiny.
No: it was something simpler than that. Like any two beings who are properly in love, they understood each other perfectly and they brought out the best in each other. They took the other to emotional places, where neither had been before. When Enable was retired last year, Frankie cried for days: distraught that their partnership was over, thankful to have had it at all.
That partnership wasn’t just the races and the adulation. It was all the times he’d go over to the stables just to see her and give her Polo mints, it was the simple joy they’d take in each other’s company, and it was the dawn training gallops on Warren Hill above Newmarket: the sun coming up, plumes of breath billowing in frigid air, empty expanses of heath all around, and man and horse arrowing across the turf in perfect harmony, flying.
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