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Frankie Dettori is one of a kind – both on and off a horse

Frankie Dettori is one of a kind – both on and off a horse

Lydia Hislop pays tribute to the jockey who’s about to ride off into the sunset

The final leap was always going to be the hardest for Frankie Dettori. 

Today, as so many predicted – including his mentor Ray Cochrane in this piece below – he ended weeks of speculation and admitted he plans to move to California to pursue a freelance career in the US. He will ride on into the new year, primarily with the ambition of competing in the Kentucky Derby on 4 May. 

Second thoughts crowded into his mind, Dettori says, after York’s Ebor Festival in August when two of his successes in particular spoke of a guileful rider still operating at a rarefied level. The remarkable run of success he has crafted in this year’s best races has also exceeded his expectations. Soon after York, he applied for a US visa. 

“It’s all about being a freelance in the States,” he told the Racing Post today. “It could be three months. It could be three years. I don’t know. It depends how it goes.” 

Whilst he still plans to say goodbye to Britain at Champions Day on Saturday week, he hasn’t counted out returning to Europe in 2024 for its major events, such as Royal Ascot next June. “I can’t see any further than the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “I’ll tackle the question of riding in Britain again closer to the time. I can’t say yes, I can’t say no, because I don’t know. We’ll see.” 

Like so many sportspeople before him – former top-ranked tennis player Andy Murray springs most recently to mind – letting go has clearly proven harder than he had imagined. There may yet be further significant chapters in the Dettori story. Lydia Hislop, 12 October 2023

The arrival gates at Luton airport open to reveal a 14-year-old boy in a conspicuously new suit, heaving a bag as large as himself. He is travelling alone. In his pocket he has the equivalent of 1 million Italian lire in large £20 notes. 

He speaks no English. But the taxi driver charged with collecting him has no trouble identifying the right passenger. Like Paddington Bear, the boy has an identifying tag around his neck. 

During the hour-long journey to Newmarket, the driver switches on the radio. The driver and the boy listen as Petoski wins the Princess of Wales’s Stakes at the very place they are heading towards. 

It is 1985. 

In less than a decade, the Italian kid in the back will need no name tag across the world. When the boy steps out of the taxi he leaves the label behind him on the seat. It reads: Lanfranco Dettori. 

“I wasn’t satisfied with just being a good jockey. I wanted more. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be with the A-listers. I wanted to be at the A-parties. I kind of used my job to propel me into that world. Maybe it was a good incentive. It made me ride good because I wanted to be famous.” 

When Frankie Dettori exploded on the British racing scene, the sport had never seen anything like him. The fresh-faced teenager rapidly became a riding sensation and would forge a career of enduring excellence, winning the world’s best races many times over. Demand for his services, even at the age of 52, remains strong. 

His wish was to be granted to some extent, too – he became a television regular, joined the London party scene, opened a chain of eponymous restaurants, put his name to a food brand, and produced a series of memoirs, with another to come in 2027. Even if you knew nothing of racing, at the mention of his name you would probably picture that excitable guy forever jumping on to the backs of other celebrities. 

The tabloids pored over the soap opera of his life – his brush with death in a plane crash, two drug busts, his battle with bulimia and depression, various fall-outs with successive employers, his time in the sporting wilderness and, most recently, the final redemptive but still tempestuous years of his career. 

Then last December, barely 12 months after the release of his well-received Dettori documentary, the world’s most famous jockey announced he would retire at the end of this year. This triggered an unprecedented global testimonial tour, which should see him ride in this country for the final time at Ascot’s British Champions Day this October before saying his professional farewells in America, Australia and Japan. It brings new meaning to the flying dismount, his signature celebration. 

Nobody but Dettori could pull off this extraordinary extended goodbye, nor is it obvious how the sport might cultivate such a star again. After 37 tumultuous years together, how will either manage without the other? 

Lanfranco Dettori was born in Milan to self-made, 13-time Italian champion jockey Gianfranco Dettori and a circus performer, Iris Maria Niemen, known as Mara – a trapeze artist who could stand upright on a pair of trotting horses, one foot on each of their backs. These were vocational genes for their son’s chosen profession. His hard-man father made sure of it. 

Gianfranco gave his son his first pony, a flashy palomino mare called Silvia, the day after his elder sister, Alessandra, ran away, back to their mother. His parents had divorced when Dettori was just six months old, but Mara encouraged her children to stay with their father to enjoy a more comfortable life. They used to cry each other to sleep every night, Alessandra in particular being unable to get along with their stepmother. 

“Life was very strict,” Dettori remembered in A Year in the Life of Frankie Dettori, published in 1996. “There was a lack of love. In those days I was very much into myself, and my true character did not really come out until later.” Alessandra observed: “He looked like a very quiet child, very peaceful, but he actually was a volcano inside.” 

Aged nine, he rode in the pony derby at Milan’s San Siro racecourse but fluffed the start and got catapulted over Silvia’s head into the water jump when she spooked at the finishing flag. Dettori says his father saw embarrassingly little aptitude in his riding, but that changed after four months with a family friend at a small racehorse stable in Pisa. 

“I would ride anything, I was fearless,” he recalled in the documentary of his return to Milan. “Dad could not believe his eyes how much I had improved. As soon as I got back, I was riding fast work with the top jockeys… Dad soon saw something in me; saw I could make it one day, so he started planning for my future.” 

This “planning” Dettori has since repeatedly described as “brainwashing”. Gianfranco told him: “First of all you have to do exactly what I tell you. You can never say no to anything I tell you to do. You just have to obey. And just remember I am Gianfranco Dettori, the jockey, and you are the lowest man of the stables.” 

His reluctant son was dispatched to England, to the stable of Luca Cumani in Newmarket, the headquarters of flat racing in Britain. A fellow Milanese, Cumani was the son of the multiple Italian champion trainer Sergio, and Gianfranco had ridden for both. As part of his son’s technical education, the plan was for young Dettori to spend six months there, then join another top-flight trainer in France. 

“When I first came to England, I hated it. I’m lonely, in a different country, can’t speak the language, I’ve got no friends, I’m getting bullied, the weather is terrible, the food is even worse. I was really homesick. Most people thought I was a kid with a silver spoon in my mouth because my dad was champion jockey in Italy. I was treated like a foreigner. 

“They’d make fun of me, do all sorts of tricks – throw me in the muck-heap, or punch me, all those things you do as kids. I was only allowed to ring my dad once a week. It was tears every Monday. But my dad was determined, ambitious. He’d just brainwash me: you’re going to become champion, like Lester Piggott.” 

Dettori would never move to France, his raw talent swiftly apparent to Cumani. “Horses run for him; they respond to his commands, and they do what he asks them to do,” the trainer said. 

Back then, horse racing occupied a more prominent position in the national consciousness. Jockeys even had popular sobriquets. Piggott – the “Long Fellow” – was widely recognised as the greatest in history and was a household name as much for his 1987 imprisonment for tax fraud as his decades of mastery in the saddle. Piggott was partially deaf with a speech impediment; his rarely muttered barbs were revered. 

Yet the typical dynamic between jockeys and their employers seemed a hangover from the feudal system, echoes of which linger today. Neither the Irishman, Pat Eddery, who equalled Piggott’s tally of 11 British championship titles, nor Walter “Choirboy” Swinburn appeared comfortable in front of a camera. Both grappled with alcohol problems, Swinburn also with bulimia. 

Some change was apparent, though, with the cackling Scot, Willie Carson, playing opposite the former England rugby captain Bill Beaumont on A Question of Sport and Steve “Kentucky Kid” Cauthen revolutionising British racing not only with his impeccable pace judgement but also his articulate interviews. 

Into this scene stepped the adolescent Dettori, who had “personality coming out of his ears”, according to Ray Cochrane, then Cumani’s retained jockey. “I’m not going to be here a long time,” Cochrane thought when he saw “the Italian kid” ride. Nonetheless, he became his mentor and close friend. One day he would save his life. 

Starting out as an apprentice with “learner” status, Dettori had a head start on his British contemporaries, who were not allowed to ride competitively until the age of 16. In Italy, jockeys could start earlier and Dettori had ridden his first winner, Rif, at Turin in November 1986, a month prior to that milestone birthday. 

In 1987, he returned to Cumani’s to ride full-time and enjoyed his first success in Britain that June at Goodwood on Lizzy Hare. Two years later, he was crowned champion apprentice with 71 winners, matching the record Eddery had set 18 years earlier. 

When Cochrane moved to another job the following season, the inexperienced Dettori became his de facto successor. Those who sagely opined that here was another boy wonder, handed too much too soon, would rapidly change their minds. His first significant success took barely a month when Markofdistinction won at Sandown. 

This was Dettori’s breakthrough horse, two months later providing the first of his 81 career victories at Royal Ascot and, in September, his first Group One win in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes – one of two he achieved at the highest level on that day alone. 

Asked on the BBC how he was going to celebrate this Group One double, the suited and impish Dettori joked: “When I get back to Newmarket, I’m going to put my jeans on, open the fridge – I’ve got a nice bottle of champagne waiting for me. I’ll have a little glass before I go out. I’m going to see my friends, have something to eat and I don’t know after that… I’ll probably be arrested!” 

Dettori’s exuberance in success was as unusual as his talent. The media fell upon him with voracity, recognising his potential for crossover appeal at a time when his sport was starting to doubt its relevance to younger generations and therefore its place on future TV schedules. They had found a willing partner. 

“I was always the one standing on the goal-line, the goal-hanger,” Dettori said of his early years when football was his preoccupation. More recently, he has described his feelings before an important race: “Everybody’ll be staring at me, cameras stuck in your face… I’m the important one, on the favourite, the one everyone wants to win… it’s the best feeling… some people are clapping, shouting my name. It’s great. I try to take it all in and enjoy it.” 

It’s characteristic that during busman’s holidays in California while apprenticed to Cumani, Dettori was inspired by the flamboyant Angel Cordero not only to fuse the contrasting riding techniques from each side of the Atlantic in his own but also to ape the Puerto Rican’s flying dismount – a celebratory leap from the saddle. “I’d practise it in my own little barn, but I didn’t actually do it in public for a long time,” he told Suffolk magazine.

The Queen and Dettori share a joke after the jockey won at Royal Ascot in 2019

Yet while ability and the showman’s desire for attention have been constants, application has not. The tension between these elements of Dettori’s nature has defined the course of his career, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, facilitated his longevity. 

He ended 1990 the first teenager since Piggott to post a century of winners in one season, finishing fourth in the jockeys’ championship. Multiple victories in Europe’s most illustrious races flowed for the next two seasons, predominantly for Cumani, and he even rode for the Queen. 

But he was also growing up in public. He bought a flash blue Mercedes with tinted windows, acquired an entourage, and started to live for Saturday night. “I got this feeling of excitement because I was getting recognised. Too much money and success came too quickly and too easily and it just all got to my head.” 

Inevitably, the trainer-jockey dynamic was also changing. Unruly Dettori was no longer the pupil but an emerging star. “Neither I nor Luca knew how to handle it… I wasn’t happy there any more, perhaps because Luca was looking at me like I was still a little boy.” 

“He was still young,” Cumani has reflected. “He hadn’t had it that easy in his life. He lived without a mother and his dad was hard on him. I probably wasn’t a very easy surrogate father because I wanted the best for him, so I kept the pressure on.” 

Dettori had briefly tasted life in Hong Kong, where jockeys are highly paid and celebrated. They play a lot of golf and enjoy the night-time scene, travel very little and race just twice a week. It befits the autumn of a great career. Dettori decided it was the life for him… aged 23. To Cumani’s further consternation, this news broke only via the grapevine. Their split was acrimonious. 

Soon afterwards, Dettori and a gang of friends went to Wembley for a cup final, his face painted in the red and white of his favourite Arsenal. Dabbling with drugs at the time, he picked up amphetamines at a service station en route and then bought cocaine in the toilets of a club just off Oxford Street. Later that night he was arrested. 

Although he escaped with a police caution, he experienced the disfavour of the British tabloids, and those headlines were enough for the Hong Kong Jockey Club to revoke its £200,000 offer of employment. Abruptly, in April 1993, Dettori was jobless. 

Dettori credits three trainers with his salvation: the young and hungry David Loder for immediate winners; the established figure, Ian Balding, for booking him on the brilliant sprinter Lochsong; and the cult hero Barney Curley for making him realise “the thing I thought I was looking for I already had in my hands”. He knuckled down. 

“I never worked at any aspect of my job,” he came to realise. “I was simply lazy… that was my reputation and I deserved it.” 

He also made two enduring, life-altering connections. At Loder’s stable he met Catherine Allen, then working a summer job while studying for a classical studies degree. She is now his wife of 26 years and mother of their five children. Curley also introduced him to John Gosden, a powerful Newmarket trainer who offered Dettori a job for the following year with the explicit expectation that he would work to become champion jockey. 

Dettori spent that winter training in Morocco under the bootcamp-style supervision of his father. When he turned up at Gosden’s door on New Year’s Day 1994, ready to chase the title from day one, he was close-cropped and lighter than he’d been in five years. Gosden didn’t recognise him. 

Within three months, he’d amassed 51 winners and the rest was a procession. He then set his mind to surpassing 229 – his father’s best annual score. Gianfranco and his wife had relocated to Newmarket after Dettori’s brush with the law, but this entailed a combative nightly critique of his son’s riding – a catechism from which neither can escape even today. “It was making him happy but not me… I was doing something great and I hated it.” He asked them both to leave. 

Dettori’s final tally was 233, the highest since 26-time champion Sir Gordon Richards in 1949, bringing the first of back-to-back titles. In between, in November 1994, came the career-defining first success at the Breeders’ Cup – a globally resonant US race meeting where European victories were not then the norm. 

Sealing their rapprochement, Cumani requested that Dettori partner Sheikh Mohammed’s Barathea in the mile event. Although he hadn’t ridden the horse for more than two years, he’d already embarked on a retainer with the behemoth owner via his association with Gosden, and Cumani valued his knowledge of American racetracks. A copybook victory followed. 

In the winner’s circle, Dettori performed his first flying dismount in public. That celebration was soon routinely solicited by racecourse crowds the world over. 

Hopes of a third successive title were smashed with Dettori’s elbow in a pre-race accident in June 1996, but later that year came an unparalleled feat that catapulted him to new heights of fame. 

Only two jockeys in history had ever “gone through the card” in Britain – that is, won all six races at one race meeting – Richards at Chepstow in 1933 and Alec Russell at Bogside in 1957. On 28 September at Ascot, in far more exalted circumstances, Dettori went one better. 

Dettori, aged 46, manages his trademark flying dismount after winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Enable in 2017

The first three races he won for Godolphin, Sheikh Mohammed’s relatively new elite racing squad, on Wall Street, Diffident and – in a Group One showdown against the star filly, Bosra Sham – Mark of Esteem. As he then cantered to the start on Decorated Hero, bookmakers were already alarmed by their liabilities on accumulator bets struck that morning by Frankie backers. His opponents had the jitters, too, setting off too fast and in effect handing him the race. After Fatefully won the fifth, the BBC decided to delay the news to cover the remaining races.

“Don’t touch me – I’m red hot,” Dettori told the presenter, Julian Wilson, when Lochangel won the sixth. He received a standing ovation prior to the final race, which started in front of the packed grandstand. Drawn on the outside, Dettori manoeuvred Fujiyama Crest across to the inside rail and, after leading for two miles, clung on by a neck to record a seven-timer at cumulative odds of 25,095-1. The betting industry claimed a collective loss of around £30 million. 

The scale of reaction to this moment of unique sporting history – dubbed Frankie’s Magnificent Seven – was usually reserved for lottery winners. Next morning, Dettori found paparazzi on his doorstep and his photo plastered across almost every front page. The following day he appeared on GMTV to surprise the ecstatic punter who’d won more than £550,000 from the bookmaker, William Hill. 

Embracing the attention, he took to the chat-show circuit and even fronted Top of the Pops. His achievements also propelled him to a dizzying third in that year’s BBC Sports Personality of the Year, connoting a degree of mainstream recognition no other horse racing figure had then ever attained. 

Balanchine’s 1994 victory in the Oaks at Epsom had marked the beginning of Dettori’s remarkable 18-year association with Godolphin, Sheikh Mohammed’s worldwide promotional vehicle for Dubai. He wanted tourism to replace oil as his country’s primary income generator. It was also prototypical sports-washing. 

“Every day of my life, I had wanted to work for Sheikh Mohammed,” Dettori said in 1996. Godolphin then comprised the Dubaian trainer, Saeed bin Suroor, racing manager Simon Crisford and a taut squad of 60 horses. Its flag-bearers – Swain, Daylami, Dubai Millennium, Halling, Fantastic Light, Shamardal – had resonance. 

Surefooted in its campaigning, Godolphin prioritised quality over quantity. It was the ideal fit for Dettori, who would no longer have to submit to the daily grind of slogging around Britain in pursuit of the domestic jockeys’ title, confounding received wisdom that the best jockey necessarily rode the most winners. 

To be in demand at stud, and thereby generate income in the hundreds of millions for his owner, a colt must win the hardest international races. Dettori was handsomely paid to make minimal mistakes in the high-pressure, high-stakes arena of stallion-making. It’s testimony to his reliability that commentators still cite his 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic defeat on Swain – when he claimed his horse was affected by the TV broadcasting lights rather than his own whip-heavy execution – as a low point. The point is there weren’t many. 

Then suddenly, on 1 June 2000, catastrophe. 

After enjoying 81 victories at Royal Ascot during his 37-year career, Dettori cuts a thoughtful figure this year at his final appearance at the famous festival

Dettori and Cochrane were riding at Goodwood that day. As they did routinely, they boarded a twin-engine aircraft in Newmarket to be flown by their friend Patrick Mackey. The usual plane was unavailable and the pilot expressed some dislike of its replacement before warning: “It’s windy and it’s going to be hairy, so buckle up.” 

Bouncing down the runway for take-off, a gust of wind caught the aircraft and it lurched right. There was a loud bang. The two passengers exchanged looks. The plane was emitting smoke from its right-hand engine and Dettori saw the first flicker of flames. Suddenly, the plane jerked wildly right at an unsustainable angle while Mackey continued his vain fight to keep airborne. Instead, the plane cartwheeled along the ground. 

“It’s so stupid,” Dettori  wrote when reliving the moment in Leap of Faith, published in 2021. “I’m in perfect health; I’m one of the best in the world at what I do… most of all I’ve got a wife and baby boy I love. All about to be wiped out so close to home I can practically see my front door. I don’t even have the strength to scream or cry. What I feel most, even beyond fear, is disappointment.” 

When he regained consciousness, Dettori’s leg was causing him agony, and he felt warm, sticky blood on his face. Mackey was slumped, face down, on the controls. Flames billowed from the engines and the smell of kerosene was overpowering. Gradually Cochrane’s voice broke through the mental fog: “Get out! Frankie, get out! The plane’s full of fuel.” But Dettori found he couldn’t move. 

Cochrane kicked open a tiny door used to stow baggage behind Dettori’s seat, pushed him through it and then dragged him by his arms away from the burning wreckage before turning back for Mackey. A ball of fire suddenly ripped upwards, knocking Cochrane backwards with its force. Tearing off his jacket to beat back the flames, he tried again to reach the pilot but found the cockpit impenetrably ablaze. 

The army was first on the scene, finding the two men huddled together in shock. They were taken by helicopter to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, where medics operated on Dettori’s broken ankle and took skin for plastic surgery to his face. Cochrane suffered burns and bruising, and a neck injury that would ultimately cause doctors to advise against returning to the saddle. Mackey died at the scene. 

The accident caused Dettori to recalibrate once more. Although he returned to his job two months later and continued to deliver Godolphin’s critically important worldwide winners, he took even fewer external rides, and his family took greater precedence. He made up with his father after years of estrangement. “I don’t think I was myself for the next three years. My family helped me pull through it.” 

He also broadened his interests, opening a chain of restaurants called Frankie’s with Marco Pierre White, creating a short-lived food brand and replacing snooker player John Parrott as a team captain on A Question of Sport. Yet while recording one of those shows, Dettori received the jolt that would ultimately propel him to a third jockeys’ championship and elusive first Derby success. 

A panellist innocently asked how long he’d been retired. It clarified what he’d been thinking. “I don’t want to be recognised just from television. I’m a jockey and I’m damn good at it… I want to be recognised because I’m one of the greats, not because I’m doing quiz shows on TV… I’m going to try for champion jockey again.” 

Dettori engaged in battle with Kieren Fallon, who had been champion jockey for six of the preceding seven years. He took on more domestic rides in 2004 than he had in the previous two seasons combined and eventually triumphed by a margin of 15 winners. Three years later, at the 15th attempt, he finally won the Derby – a race he’d told his father as a kid he wanted above all others. 

“Italian TV showed only four races from abroad. It was the Derby that got me: the crowds, the horses, the colours.” In response, Gianfranco had characteristically dangled a 1960 white-gold Piaget watch, a present from a rich racehorse owner. “If you win the Epsom Derby, I’ll give you this,” he said. 

Dettori screamed as he crossed the line on Authorized. “Not a simple scream of triumph, but one which contains… the anguish of hopes extinguished year after year after year.” When his father greeted him with a gift box, no explanation of its contents was required. The watch was engraved with his son’s name and the race details. “It’s a symbol of so much. It reminded me where I came from and what I have.” 

“I always wondered whether working for Sheikh Mohammed would eat you alive,” Dettori said in 1996. 

A large increase in Godolphin’s horse numbers had helped him win the 2004 jockeys’ title but also required an expansion in personnel. Mahmood Al Zarooni, with whom Dettori did not get on, had already been employed as a second trainer – he was later disgraced for doping horses – and in 2012 Frenchman Mickaël Barzalona and Brazilian Silvestre de Sousa were both also retained as riders. 

At a film premiere party in 2000 with footballers Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise, and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones

“The three jockeys will get equal opportunities,” it was announced. “Frankie has to share the cake and he understands that.” Despite having won 11 Group One races the preceding year, Dettori found his younger colleagues were preferred. “It’s like being Ronaldo and always sitting  on the bench,” he said. “I can feel people looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and pity.” It plunged him into despair. 

Controlling his weight had always been a battle. He’d turned to laxatives and diuretics in his youth. During his annual downtime each January, he would regularly put on 10lb, keeping his natural weight in check via a high-protein diet, hours on the treadmill and sweating in racecourse saunas. Now, as his confidence ebbed away, he adopted bulimic behaviour. 

Then in August, after winning a top Irish race for another trainer, he had some friends around to celebrate. “The booze is flowing… and I want to blot out all the shit that’s going on in my head. Someone’s chopping up a few lines of coke. I shouldn’t be tempted.  We get randomly drug tested… It’s late, I’m drunk, I’m pissed off, my career’s on the skids and fundamentally I don’t care. I take a rolled-up £20 note, bend my head to the table and snort a line. And then another, and another, and another.” 

Eight days later Dettori rode in Paris – four horses, no wins and one drug test. While hoping not to hear from the French racing authorities, Dettori negotiated an end to his association with Godolphin. A few days after that announcement, a letter arrived from France. The test had found metabolites of cocaine, resulting in a six-month worldwide ban. 

With neither a job nor a career, on 3 January 2013 Dettori entered the Celebrity Big Brother house. Many in his sport viewed it as a major gamble for such a volatile character – it’s for good reason that a room in his house is known as “Frankie’s Sulking Room”. Dettori has since said he needed the money. He lasted 21 days and hated the friction. “It’s been very challenging emotionally,” he said. 

It would have nothing on the real world. When his ban ended, he found it hard to get rides. “Nobody phones. I can hardly beg a ride. People that I thought were my friends fob me off with lame excuses.” In a whole year, he rode just 16 British winners – fewer than in his first season as an apprentice. 

“If he’s not doing well, he does worse,” Cumani has remarked. “I’m trying too hard to make things happen,” Dettori recalled. “The more mistakes I make the more I lose confidence, which makes me ride even worse.” Eventually, Catherine stepped in. Though husband and wife differ in their recollections of this heated exchange, the message he received was: “Show me how good you are.” 

Dettori remembers 2014 as “not much better” but such things are relative. He’d steadied the ship by the end of the previous year, acquiring a retainer for Qatari Sheikh Joaan Al Thani, riding in some better races, albeit mostly in France, and winning a handful of them. Yet this fell short of his own high expectations. He says he contemplated quitting. 

Then in late autumn, the phone rang. Godolphin had decided to employ William Buick, leaving Gosden without a stable jockey. “What are you doing next year?” he asked Dettori. “Come to me on March the 1st and don’t discuss it with anybody.” 

“There’s too much talent, too much ability, too much desire and love of race-riding… the greatest jockey I’ve ever put on a horse,” the trainer has since said. “For someone of that class, to see them wander off to a twilight zone… it was just not palatable.” 

While he typically drowns in disappointment, Dettori thrives on success. That April alone, he rode 13 winners. One was Golden Horn, deliberately the first horse Gosden asked him to exercise on 1 March and on whom he would win a second Derby that June. “Of all the thousands of races, it was the most emotional I’ve won in my life,” Dettori has said. “Mentally, it was so important. The ups and downs in my head. And those words: show me how good you are.” 

It was the start of a spectacular revival in which the veteran rider has taken centre stage as regularly as before. Of particular significance were Stradivarius, who dominated the long-distance scene for three seasons, and 11-time Group One winner Enable, whose feats induced such an emotional response from her rider that he was repeatedly asked what set her apart. “The sands are running through my hourglass the same way they’ve run through hers,” he finally conceded, after she retired. 

But it also wouldn’t be a Dettori story if even this autumnal revival didn’t have its blips. After a series of high-profile reverses at Royal Ascot in 2022, Gosden lost his cool in public and the following weekend pointedly allocated key rides elsewhere. While the partnership initially agreed on “a sabbatical”, they were back together within two weeks, the recurring issue remedied one last time. 

“I need a jockey that focuses. It can’t be a part-time job… He is a great jockey but he can be easily distracted and that’s what was beginning to frustrate me,” Gosden explained to the Nick Luck Daily podcast. “He knows when to give me a kick up the arse and when to put his arm round my shoulder,” Dettori has admitted. “Sometimes I feel he knows me better than I know myself.” 

Five months later, two days after his 52nd birthday, Dettori told ITV Racing: “My heart wants to carry on riding, but I have had to use my brain. Look at Ronaldo, one day he was playing and he’s on the bench the next. I don’t want to end up like that. At the moment I still have good horses to ride and I want to finish like that.” 

Although he’d planned a Hollywood ending – November’s Breeders’ Cup is just 40 minutes down the road in California – even Dettori must think his script to date has stretched credulity. In 2023, he wowed in America over the winter, bagged valuable winners in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, claimed his first Italian 2000 Guineas in Rome and has repeatedly starred at Britain’s best fixtures. 

‘I wasn’t satisfied with just being a good jockey. I wanted more. I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be with the A-listers’

If he hasn’t had second thoughts about quitting, others have voiced them often enough. Many suspect he won’t be able to let go, or will perform a bashful U-turn soon afterwards. Cochrane has predicted retirement will be “the hardest bit of his life”. Catherine knows it’s “lethal” for her husband to have “too much time on his hands”. But Dettori is adamant. 

The menagerie of pets who lived in the family home just outside Newmarket have new owners. By the time you read this, he plans to be living with Catherine in a central London apartment. There will be travel and perhaps some TV work. “The most important thing I’ll need to do is find myself,” he told the Racing Post. “I’ll have to start by turning off my phone and cutting myself off from racing for a bit, just so I can clear my head.” 

Success as a jockey is primarily a function of the quality of horse you’re riding. To be booked for that calibre of athlete regularly, you must all but eradicate error. Occasionally, very occasionally, your decision-making will change the result. The more often you do that, the more exceptional you are. Dettori is that jockey. 

Moody and amenable, vain and perceptive, infuriating and sympathetic, vulnerable and resilient, impulsive and thoughtful, constructed and real, straightforward and complex. Dettori is all of this, by turns and all at once. He’s so much more interesting than the caricature ascribed to him – that he sometimes hides behind. 

No individual is bigger than their sport but Dettori has had a damn fine attempt at it.