x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Frankie Dettori is a race apart

Frankie Dettori is Godolphin's top rider and an internationally famous jockey preparing for action at Meydan tonight, but he was a star-struck fan at the Laureus Sports Awards.

Frakie Dettori is in action at Meydan Racecourse tonight.
Frakie Dettori is in action at Meydan Racecourse tonight.

Frankie Dettori is a tired man. He has been hanging out with celebrities at the Laureus Sports Awards in Abu Dhabi and did not get to bed until 3.30am - a time when many people in racing are just getting up.

Dressed in the trademark off-duty jockey uniform of skin-tight T-shirt and snug black jeans, the 40-year-old rider flops on to his sofa.

"I'm knackered," he said, closing his eyes for a second. "It was an amazing night though. I presented an award and I was very nervous. It's basically the sporting Oscars, isn't it?"

Then, seemingly recovered and with a sudden flash of energy, he sits forward and launches into a lengthy and hilarious rehash of the evening, which he attended with his wife, Catherine.

Dettori's speech is peppered with adjectives and fairly gallops along in that familiar staccato accent, a hybrid with English and Italian undertones, developed over a quarter century at his adoptive Newmarket home in England.

"It was good, great, fantastic," he said. "We had a great table. Rafa Nadal was here," he gestures just over his left shoulder. "Luis Figo there," he adds with more pointing. "Steve McManaman there, Dwight Yorke, Fabio Cannavaro who plays over here in the UAE, he was just there."

It is surprising to see Dettori, one of the world's most famous jockey's, apparently star-struck by other sportsmen. Yet, according to the Italian, invitations to glittery occasions like the Laureus Sports Awards are not the norm.

"No, no, I don't go to things like that," he said. "I do see famous people sometimes, at airports or a football game or sometimes they come racing. We cross paths you know? Usually I go up to them – I'm the pest, you know?" he said, grinning.

To prove his point, Dettori adds: "My wife made me go up and ask Nadal for an autograph. It was dark and the poor guy was getting pestered all night long. So I went over … and guess what happened? Pen didn't work." He shakes his head ruefully.

"People were saying to me, go on, go and get the autograph and I said: 'Listen – I know what it's like, sometimes I get pestered as well.' I just said we should leave the poor guy alone, you know? He was getting dragged all over the place."

The Godolphin rider, who stands 5ft 4ins tall, said he was surprised that anybody in the ballroom full of literal and figurative sporting giants knew who he was.

"Sometimes you think racing is so small that when you meet people from other sports you think: 'Well they won't know me'," he said. "They must be thinking, what's he doing here and who is he? Who is this little person here, what's his position, what's his sport? But luckily people seemed to know, including Kevin Spacey, even he knew."

Yet Dettori, he of the quick wit and flying dismount, is being modest. The very fact he was there at all indicates his renown.

He is one of foremost jockeys among a handful of multimillionaire, jet-setting riders who compete for the biggest purses all over the world.

And among current jockeys, perhaps this Latin crowd-pleaser alone can say his racing fame translates into mainstream terms.

The son of a multiple Italian champion jockey, Dettori's wins are too numerous to list, but he has claimed every British Classic at least once, three Prix de L'Arc de Triomphes and uniquely among European jockeys, a premier US contest, the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The father of five attained legendary status in 1996 when he partnered all seven winners on an Ascot card in what became known as the "Magnificent Seven".

He made headlines for tragic reasons when he and fellow jockey, Ray Cochrane, survived a plane crash at Newmarket in 2000 that killed the pilot.

He has also won the world's richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup, three times, one short of Jerry Bailey's record for a jockey.

Renowned as a great tactician and recognised in racing circles for his stylish technique, Dettori is credited by many of his peers, trainers and punters as being the best in the business.

Most of Dettori's success has come in the royal blue colours of Godolphin, the international racing operation owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed was not slow to recognise the talents of the 23-year-old Dettori when he appointed the young rider as his retained jockey in late 1993, a year after Godolphin was founded.

Now the pair, together with Saeed bin Suroor, the original Godolphin trainer, and Simon Crisford, the racing manager, form one of the most successful and longest-running partnerships in racing.

And it all started when Dettori flew to the desert to gallop a 1,000 Guineas hopeful for Sheikh Mohammed.

"Sheikh Mohammed asked me to come over and ride Balanchine in work to see what I thought about her," Dettori said. "I had absolutely no idea it could be the start of something.

"Dubai racing had just started up and I knew some of the jockeys that had come here who were saying that it was pretty basic. They had racing but, you know, a small little grandstand, not many people and very low key.

"And so I was packed on to a plane, I came to Dubai and I thought I was just coming to see how the horse worked. But then when I arrived, Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid was there, Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Ahmed, they were all there, the brothers, just to see a horse work and I thought: 'Wow, this is a lot more than I was expecting'.

"The filly worked well and I promised Sheikh Mohammed that she would be in the first three and he was delighted when I told him that. It really hit me then how important that first day was - and that was the start of me with Godolphin."

Dettori's prediction proved spot on. Balanchine travelled to Newmarket and was a close-up second in the 1,000 Guineas.

"I came back, we ran the Guineas and I just got beat by a nose. I was disappointed but they were delighted. For them it was like winning. This is a horse from the desert and it had been trained to come second in the Guineas. And then she won the Oaks and that was my first Classic and it was their first Dubai Classic and everyone was over-joyed.

"She was running in the Maktoum colours and then she ran in the Irish Derby and won that as well. Then from four horses one year we then went to 40."

Now Godolphin has operations in England, Australia, the US and Dubai. It boasts two full-time trainers in bin Suroor and Mahmoud al Zarooni and two riders in Dettori and Ahmed Ajtebi, the Emirate jockey.

Dettori says it is impossible to underestimate the impact of Sheikh Mohammed, or "the boss" as he calls him, on racing.

"He's changed racing altogether, he's ambitious, but under all that, I would say that he is the best loser I've met," Dettori said. "He's a leader, a gentleman and he gets everybody involved. But racing is not a hobby for him, it is a passion."

And Dettori must be one of only a handful of people who has a direct line to Dubai's ruler - not that he uses it much.

"Usually if he wants to speak to me, he rings me and he asks me," Dettori said. "But he's got 70 million things to do in his life, the last thing he needs is me ringing him up," he puts on a broad Italian accent and holds an imaginary phone to his ear. "I'm not like: 'Allo boss, how are ya?' every five minutes."