Fifty, as Frankie Dettori so rightly says, is a big number – or at least it is when it comes to counting the number of times a jockey has won at Royal Ascot.
When he steered the Richard Hannon trained Osaila to victory in the Sandringham Handicap on the Wednesday of the 2015 event the nation’s favourite Italian joined a very select band of horsemen. Before him only Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery and Willie Carson had reached the half century mark. It is an achievement that puts the 44 year old up there with the greatest winning jockeys of all time. Piggott’s record of 116 winning mounts will surely stand for as long as anyone cares to count. Behind him, Eddery boasts 73, Carson 56. Those are all big numbers and the blunt figures are matched by the affection of millions of punters- Everyone loves a winner.
A remarkable run The win capped a remarkable celebratory fortnight for Dettori. His spartan jockey’s diet no doubt had to be rejigged to fit in a glass or two of champagne having put together a truly historical treble. On June 6th he rode Golden Horn to victory in the Epsom Derby. Eight days later he made it a classic double with victory in the French Oaks astride Star of Seville, and he then capped the hat-trick with that personal landmark at Royal Ascot on the 17th.
Dettori was quick to share the credit for his achievement, going out of his way to thank his ‘boss’ Sheikh Joaan Al Thani, brother to the Emir of Qatar and a rising force in the world of flat racing. Dettori has been the Sheikh’s retained rider since 2013 having parted company with long-term employers Godolphin in 2012. The partnership is flourishing.
There is no doubt that Dettori’s career has not all been about popping champagne corks and flying dismounts. After 18 seasons at Godolphin – a lifetime in racing terms – his world was cast into tumult. Scratching around for rides and without the security of a regular stable he slipped into a downward spiral of depression and – regrettably – drugs. From being at the top of his game, the three time champion jockey slumped in 2013 to a return of just 16 British winners. It was a long way down from the 233 he had racked up in 1994.
But all of that history was cast aside in the Ascot sunshine as he squeezed home on Osaila in the last race of the Wednesday afternoon, nudging out the favourite Always Smile in the tightest of photo finishes. ‘Number one by a nose’ was the call, at which point Frankie’s celebrations took off.
The prelude to Dettori’s landmark win could hardly have been in starker contrast to the spectacular celebrations that were to follow. On the Tuesday his five rides had all drawn a blank, including in the third race, The Duke of Cambridge Stakes, when his mount Euro Charlene refused to even enter the stalls. Not good for a man who had been priced at 3/1 with the bookies to capture a win on day one of the meeting, Ascot’s darling had started to worry that the landmark might never come, refusing to discuss the prospect with journalists lest it jinx him. Jockeys are a superstitious breed, and Dettori is no exception.
But if steady accumulation was the order of the day in 2015, it will always be for the quite incredible events of 1996 that the little Italian is best remembered. At odds of 25,091/1 Dettori’s romp through the card – taking all seven races in a single day’s racing – was a bookmaker’s worst nightmare. But it was, nonetheless the most magnificent, and magnificently theatrical achievement that many in racing have ever witnessed.
It must be a strange thing to live your life in the shadow of such an unmatchable achievement.
Facing the future
At 44 Dettori is starting to have to face up to the prospect of a life after racing. He was quick to point out that that five and nought – as he held up his fingers in celebration aboard Osaila – was a count of his winners and not his age. He is not likely to have any financial worries as he contemplates his inevitable retirement, but for someone who is so gregariously and so obviously in love with the entirely social nature of racing – and his own place in the spotlight – it is bound to be a difficult transition.
Maybe the media will offer him a lifeline. His enthusiasm, his passion and his insight are likely to be gold-dust to the TV broadcasters.They are no doubt already falling over themselves to get him on board. And he is also naturally funny. His best moments in front of a camera may not compare with his achievements in the saddle, but we have surely seen enough to know that come the day that he does, finally, hang up his boots there will be plenty of other differently memorable moments to follow.
The passing of the half century landmark feels like a form of completion for Frankie, as though it’s a loose end that needed tidying up as much as the great athletic achievement that it undoubtedly is.
Maybe we’re being too quick to predict the end of what has been – already – one of the great racing careers. Let’s hope so. He says he want to go on until he’s 50 – it is a grand ambition as well as a big number. Maybe there will be more electrifying moments to come. Let’s hope so. There is, after all, nothing in racing that is quite so in tune with all that is best in the sport as the sight of a small man leaping in delight from his mount amidst the happy throng of celebrating connections. They put his statue at the gates – but in truth they missed a trick. They should have put it in the winners’ enclosure.