On the night most of British sport was paying homage to one of the country’s sporting legends, racing had its own luminary to salute.
For only a couple of hours before Sir Bradley Wiggins was crowned our most decorated Olympian when storming to another gold medal at Rio on Friday, Frankie Dettori was joining that exclusive club of jockeys to have ridden 3,000 winners in the UK.
Of course, on the sporting pages and websites of the nation, Dettori’s achievement was all but buried under the avalanche of phenomenal success-stories from Brazil, spearheaded not only by Wiggins but also by the likes of Mo Farah, Max Whitlock (by the way, how good is he?), Jason Kenny and Laura Trott.
But within racing’s celebrated bubble, the existence of which is all too hastily derided, the exploits of the 45-year-old Italian are a big deal. And while his Milanese birthplace would always preclude celebrations of Olympic-style patriotism, it was, in many ways, fitting that, for a brief moment, Frankie shared the limelight with ‘Wiggo’. The pair boast the same genes when it comes to charisma, individuality and popularity with the public. It’s not hard to imagine, for instance, Frankie sticking his tongue out on an Olympic podium with exactly the same kind of rebellious cheekiness that tempted Wiggins.
Because of that aforementioned bubble, racing’s characters rarely connect with Joe or Josephine Public. During the fag end of his riding career, they were made fully aware of the phenomenon that is Tony McCoy. But still, if you took a stroll down your local high street tomorrow morning and asked, at random, a dozen people if they could name a jockey, most would come up with Frankie Dettori.
For the best part of 30 years now, Frankie has been wowing those people and sprinkling his stardust with an infectious effervescence, a beaming smile and those trademark flying dismounts. His personality has transcended racing. At a time when terrestrial TV ruled the airwaves, he was one of its biggest go-to celebrities. He was a team captain on ‘A Question Of Sport’ at a time when the BBC’s quiz show was adored by millions.
It was also a time long before the advent of ‘talent’ and ‘reality’ shows created stars simply for being famous. Recognisability had to be earned through natural ability, and after he landed the first two of three champion-jockey crowns in the mid-1990s, Frankie propelled himself into the public’s consciousness on a day of unparalleled brilliance at Ascot in September 1996. It was a day when his talent in the saddle was never better highlighted as he went through the card for his renowned ‘Magnificent Seven’. And no ordinary card either. A big Saturday branded as the ‘Festival Of British Racing’, spearheaded by the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and supported by big races such as the Diadem, Cumberland Lodge and Rosemary Stakes. I was at Ascot that day, so no surprise that it is my most monumental regret in racing that I had to leave early before the last to get a train back home for a do that evening!
Fujiyama Crest was the name of Frankie’s crowning-glory winner that I missed, following Wall Street, Diffident, Mark Of Esteem, Decorated Hero, Fatefully and Lochangel. And it was probably appropriate that he made all on Sir Michael Stoute’s stayer, for while the Italian belongs to that surprisingly elite band of jockeys who can ride winners from all tactical angles, front-running is a speciality, whether it be at his beloved Newmarket, as he demonstrated with that 3,000th triumph aboard Predilection on Friday night, or abroad. Many a time he has ridden his rivals to sleep by dictating the fractions in Group contests in France.
Frankie becomes only the eighth jockey in Britain to break through the 3,000 barrier. And when you consider he is still more than 1,600 behind Pat Eddery, it rams home what an astonishing operator Eddery was. But he has reached the milestone without ever adopting the modus operandi of a McCoy or a Richard Johnson by trekking the length and breadth of the country to churn out the winners. As McCoy said in a tribute to him on Friday: “I told Frankie he’d have ridden 6,000 winners if he wasn’t just a weekend and big-race jockey!”
There was an element of truth to his tongue-in-cheek jibe. Frankie has always been a man for the big stage, the international stage, for the Yorks, the Longchamps and the Leopardstowns, rather than the Cattericks and the Carlisles. A locker that reveals no fewer than 16 Classics, four Arcs and 11 Breeders’ Cup victories tells you that.
He’s also a rider who surfs the mood-swings. One who can be relied upon fully when his enthusiasm is boiling over. Not so, by his own admission, when he is struggling for form. He once said: “I am a lot more sensitive than people realise, and I have a habit of withdrawing into myself like a crab under a shell when things go wrong.”
Things went very wrong four years ago when his long-standing tie-up with Godolphin collapsed, and a six-month ban for cocaine-use even led to an appearance on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ to try and resurrect his falling star.
Then along came jobs with old pal, John Gosden, and new pals, Al Shaqab Racing, a wonder horse in Golden Horn and a renaissance, defined by his ride of genius on the latter in last year’s Arc, that has served to remind racing how lucky it is to have one of its gold medals hanging from the neck of Lanfranco Oscar Dettori.
Who wins the Ebor and the Gimcrack at York?
One of racing’s most prized assets is its rich heritage and history, which is often transmitted through its long-standing races. Among punters and racegoers, these races become familiar ‘friends’ to be revisited each year. It is one of the reasons why the Cheltenham Festival is so popular. York’s Ebor Festival is held in similar affection, and two of the oldest races on the calendar bring this week’s renewal to a close on Saturday -- the Ebor Handicap, which dates back to 1843, and the Gimcrack Stakes, first run 170 years ago. Finding the winners of the two staples is never easy. For instance, in the last ten years, one Ebor victor has come in at 100/1, one at 33s, three at 25s and one at 20s! It doesn’t stop us trying, though, does it? Consider IVAN GROZNY in the Ebor and MOKARRIS in the Gimcrack.