The turf

Why racing needs Frankie Dettori

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

Heading for a holiday in Sardinia, I remembered that the last time we were there our engine-less, drifting boat was rescued by a Mr Dettori. Mrs Oakley’s relief was tempered only by my disappointment that our saviour wasn’t Frankie or even a relative. This time it looks as though it is Frankie, the world’s favourite sardine, who might need rescue.

Imagine Morecambe splitting with Wise or Torvill walking out on Dean. The racing world has focused on little else since John Gosden announced, after openly criticising some of his stable jockey’s rides at Royal Ascot, that he and Frankie Dettori are taking a sabbatical. John Gosden is the epitome of elder statesman urbanity, the unruffled Mr Cool of the parade ring with a lucid explanation for everything, greeting thrilling victories or unlucky setbacks with the same sagacious calm. By his standards this was an untidy affair, the racing public learning first that Frankie had not been booked for two runners at Newmarket the following Saturday trained by John and his son Thady. Only after the headlines created by that news was there a meeting between jockey and employer followed by the revelation of the ‘sabbatical’.

Frankie had an unlucky and unfortunate Royal Ascot. At the start of the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, Lord North’s blindfold caught in his bridle, delaying his exit from the stalls and wrecking his chance. On Stradivarius in the Gold Cup there was maximum pressure on his jockey: had they won, the hot favourite would have equalled Yeats’s record of four victories. Inexplicably Frankie chose at one stage to take him back a few places, letting the leader get away. He was then, legitimately, held in close to the rails by other jockeys and had to come wide in the straight too late to mount an effective challenge at the finish. In the Hampton Court Stakes, the Queen’s Reach For The Moon was an odds-on favourite but did not prove quite good enough to beat Claymore. In the Britannia Handicap, the Gosden-trained entry Saga was also owned by the Queen. Her Majesty had been unlucky with hopes trained by other trainers and the father-son duo would dearly have loved to have been the ones to give her a Jubilee winner at Royal Ascot. Frankie was in the rear early and when he came fast at the end of the race, he was beaten by a head. Said Gosden the next day: ‘He should have won.’ In the Coronation Stakes there was no criticism: the Gosden-trained, Frankie-ridden Inspiral started slowly but was coolly worked back into the field and won by a wide margin. So overall the Gosden/Dettori count at Ascot was one impeccable victory, one piece of bad luck, one commonly agreed bad ride, one hot favourite who came across a better opponent and one flying finish that just failed, the sort of thing that happens to jockeys on a regular basis. There must have been deeper tensions simmering if those were enough to cause the split.

The two best comments came from other riders. Brian Hughes, the champion jump jockey, noted in his blog: ‘Frankie Dettori hasn’t become a bad jockey overnight.’ And Kieren Fallon, a former champion on the Flat, declared that the affair should have been handled better on both sides: ‘Why would this be the end of Frankie? He’s alive and a gifted person and John Gosden will survive without him as well.’

Even top jockeys have bad rides. Frankie’s whip-flailing madness in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup on Swain was a famous shocker. Nor will it be Stradivarius’s picture that he hangs over the fireplace when he does eventually retire. But he remains a world-class jockey, especially on the big days which fuel his emotional energy. Dettori and Gosden together have had thrilling and consistent success with a series of stars such as Enable, Golden Horn and Palace Pier: Frankie’s strike rate for the yard over the past five years has been a remarkable 29 per cent. Just repayment; John Gosden has rescued Frankie’s career not once but twice – first when a headstrong Frankie shamefully threw away his initial retainer with Luca Cumani, the second when the jockey was at an all-time low after breaking up with Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin and suffering a six-month suspension for cocaine use.

An emotional jockey with a dominant father, Frankie requires sensitive management and John Gosden, like Luca Cumani and the late Barney Curley (who brought Frankie and Gosden together), has nurtured and sustained his confidence with skill and care. The problem for Frankie is that 62 per cent of his rides in recent years have been for the Gosdens. At 51 he has cut down his overall opportunities to concentrate on their quality horses, but he will need to keep riding regularly enough for others now to keep his physical and mental sharpness. Big rides in international races won’t be enough.

Hopefully a new up-and-comer in the training and owning ranks will recognise that and give him new opportunities because with racecourse attendances declining scarily we need the biggest showman in the saddle performing regularly on British courses.

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