In the late 1990s, when Frankie Dettori was already well-established as the biggest name in racing, he happened to be sitting at the next table to mine at the Lesters, an annual awards when, for one night only, Britain’s jockeys let their hair down and party. Dinner was served, a waiter appeared to offer him a selection of vegetables and for several seconds Dettori cast a melancholic gaze at a tray of buttered new potatoes with a look that said much about the denial in a jockey’s life. Fame, fortune and Classic winners are fine but for a moment he looked ready to give it all up for a plate of spuds.
Frankie Dettori and Enable dig deep to win epic King George at Ascot
He certainly did not look like someone who would still be riding big-race winners at 48, and an extended career seemed more implausible still when he was banned from the saddle for six months in December 2012, having tested positive for cocaine after a ride in France. By then Dettori had already lost the retainer with Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation that had guaranteed a steady supply of champions to ride for 20 years. He could look forward only to grubbing around in racing’s undergrowth when he returned to action – if he returned to action at all.
Seven years later Dettori is not only back at the pinnacle of his profession but quite possibly in the middle of the best season of his entire career. The glory years with Godolphin were good but at his current rate of progress never as good as this. In 2001 Dettori rode 16 Group One or Grade One winners. This season he has already bagged 11, with the biggest prizes of the campaign still to come.
All sports offer up examples of champions and legends who competed well into their 30s or even their 40s. Stanley Matthews and WG Grace were still playing in their 50s. And no round-up of sporting veterans would be complete without a mention for Gordie Howe, who played ice hockey in the NHL across five different decades and was the originator of the “Gordie Howe Hat-Trick”: a goal, an assist and a fight, all in the same game.
Superstars, all of them. But how many sporting greats were at their very best, or even close, in their final years? And how many had a season in the twilight of their careers that not only matched but bettered anything that had gone before? Roger Federer remains a marvel, able to reach and almost win a Wimbledon men’s final at 37, but he is never going to improve on his 2006 season, when he reached all four grand slam finals and won three.
Dettori, though, is six Group One winners away from the best season of his life, 32 years after riding his first winner in June 1987. That, admittedly, is six more than most jockeys can hope to win in their entire careers and will not be easily achieved. Legendary status does not confer immunity from injury either, as Jimmy Anderson knows only too well. As recently as Friday Dettori was thrown when his horse stumbled just after the line. He needs to stay lucky. But if he can maintain his current strike-rate, Dettori will win his 17th Group One race of 2019 some time before he arrives at Longchamp in early October to ride the almost equally astonishing Enable in her attempt to win an unprecedented third Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. That meeting marks the start of a frantic six weeks of championship racing in Europe and beyond that will offer many more opportunities to add to his career total of nearly 250 top-level wins.
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Lester Piggott is the only other jockey in the last half-century to approach Dettori’s level of success, public recognition and durability. He was the champion jockey 11 times while Dettori has claimed only three titles, in 1994, 1995 and 2004 (although one could have stopped 100 people on the street in every year since and asked them to name the champion jockey and Dettori would have topped the poll every time). Piggott also rode a Classic winner at 56 and came up with one of the greatest rides of all time on Royal Academy a few weeks after reapplying for a jockey’s licence and two years after he emerged from prison, having served 12 months for tax evasion.
But while one could argue which of Piggott’s many seasons in the saddle was the greatest, the obvious candidates are in the 60s and 70s, probably headed up by Nijinsky’s Triple Crown season in 1970. Dettori, at 48, is raising his own bar.
Some may argue that comparisons with other sports are meaningless. In racing, after all, the horse is the primary athlete. Falls are, thankfully, occasional and Dettori does not have to put up with the constant, bone-shaking batterings that, say, an NFL quarterback like Tom Brady – who won his sixth Super Bowl at 41 this year – accepts as routine. So it is worth considering what it is that a jockey actually does.
A rider cannot turn a donkey into a Derby winner or persuade any horse to run any faster than its genes and physiology allow. The job is to steer a path from the starting stalls to the finishing line as quickly and efficiently as possible while a dozen or more fellow jockeys are trying to do the same and it requires a rare blend of strength, balance and quicksilver thinking amid the bustle and bedlam of a race. A horse covers five lengths per second in the closing stages of a race. Losing 0.02sec in the course of a one-and-half-mile contest could be the difference between victory and defeat.
The passage of time should really take its toll on all of a jockey’s essential qualities, not least when many Flat riders in particular are operating on a diet that teeters on the edge of malnourishment. But Dettori’s powers seem stronger than ever. Every racing fan has a favourite Dettori moment from the past 30 years, and for many it may still be the seventh winner at Ascot on his day of all days.
My pick would be the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in 2008, when Dettori was riding Raven’s Pass against Curlin, the hot favourite and winner of the race a year earlier. The track commentator gave Curlin a huge shout on the turn for home – “and look at Curlin go … is this believable?” – but even as he charged round the turn, the eye was drawn to the horse and jockey who had followed him throughout as if attached to the favourite by a tow-rope. It remains the only win in the Classic for a horse trained in Great Britain, and Dettori – a late replacement for Jimmy Fortune – was at his brilliant best.
He is still adding fresh memories too, including a four-timer that nearly brought the betting industry to its knees at Ascot two months ago. Enable is heading for Paris, and Too Darn Hot, this week’s Sussex Stakes winner, towards the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Flat racing needs to cherish these moments because it does not get better than this.