Frankie Dettori: 'I worry about getting old. I want to go on until I'm 50'

The Brian Viner Interview: The jockey has plenty of causes for concern – the passage of time, young rivals, Arsenal's recent implosion – but for now he's focused on tomorrow's 2,000 Guineas
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The Independent Online

In a function room at Newmarket racecourse, some of the most illustrious people in Flat racing have been invited to face the media, by way of launching the inaugural Qipco British Champions Series, the slick new name for the season's top 35 races, which commences tomorrow with the 2,000 Guineas.

Henry Cecil is here, his usual lugubrious reserve masking any excitement he might feel about the prospects of his marvellous colt Frankel, the shortest-priced favourite for the Guineas in decades. And so, fleetingly, is Frankie Dettori, looking sharp in a jacket and polo-neck shirt. Frankie, we are told, will be on hand to answer questions about the Champions Series, for which he is an official ambassador. But no sooner does the charismatic little jockey arrive than, unobtrusively, he leaves. There is an apology. Dettori has had to go. The press conference starts, and finishes, without him.

An hour and a half later, wrought-iron electric gates swing open to admit my colleague David Ashdown and me to the handsome Dettori residence on the edge of a nearby village. Catherine Dettori, a petite, pretty Englishwoman, welcomes us in. She is as extrovert and talkative as her husband, mother of five lively children aged 12 and under, and principal carer of several small dogs. In the gleaming kitchen, a builder named Bob is hammering, just to add another level of volume to an already spectacularly rumbustious household. Catherine makes coffee, chatting all the while. "He'll tell you to be quick," she says of Dettori. "It's nothing personal, but he always does."

Ten minutes later, now in his bright blue Godolphin silks, he walks briskly in. "You'll have to be quick," he says. "I have half an hour, max." He had to leave the press conference, he explains, because his boss phoned, saying he wanted him to ride work. His boss is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Press conferences can manage without Dettori but Sheikh Mohammed can't. Or can he? Is the hugely promising young Frenchman, 19-year-old Mickael Barzalona, being groomed for the succession? How much longer does Dettori, still riding at the peak of his considerable powers but 40 last birthday, have in the saddle? So much to talk about. Such little time. At least Bob the builder has found a quieter job.

We sit at an enormous kitchen table. "Mummy, can I have a knife," Dettori calls to Catherine. He wants it to peel and slice an apple – his lunch – and as he does so, with continental precision, I ask whether the start of the Flat season gives him the same buzz as it ever did? "Of course," he says. "These next six weeks, everybody is in unknown territory. After Royal Ascot, everybody knows the pecking order of the horses. But at this stage, everybody's dreaming. Everybody's got their own superstar in their stables, but until we put them all together in the Guineas, in the Derby, we're all still living on dreams and hope."

Ryan Moore is a short favourite to finish the Champions Series as top jockey, with Dettori – who rides Casamento in the 2,000 Guineas – a distant 14-1. He says he's happy with those odds. "Ryan Moore's package is better than mine. He has his pick of Stoute's horses, Ballydoyle. He's a worthy favourite. But he's still got to get out there and win."

The same applies to Tom Queally, riding Frankel tomorrow. "It's a bit like Manchester United, it's up to them to lose it," says Dettori, who loves a football analogy. "He's an exciting horse, but Tom won't sleep well the night before. I know about those nerves. It doesn't come any more nerve-racking than riding the Derby favourite at 4-5, Authorized. I didn't sleep for 10 days before. He was the best horse in the field, but I knew I had to do the job."

As it turned out, Dettori did do the job, winning the Derby, in 2007, at his 15th attempt. He understood, maybe better than anyone, the fear that nagged away at AP McCoy before the champion jump jockey eventually won the Grand National last year. "When Tony won I had a knot in my throat, a tear in my eye. His career probably surpasses mine, but I had won every other big race more than once, every Classic bar the Derby. I would have hated to retire without it, and it was exactly the same for Tony. I rang him that same day. In fact he was stopped by the police while he was talking to me, on his mobile in the car. But when they realised it was McCoy they let him go."

Dettori beams. He enjoys a good anecdote, especially if he's telling it. But I have to risk clouding his sunny mood by bringing up Barzalona, who rides Saamid in the Guineas and is widely tipped for stardom. Does he treat the youngster as a team-mate, or a rival? And does he – the man who in 1990 was himself the first teenager since Lester Piggott to ride 100 winners in a season – envy the boy his youth? The beam fades. "The one thing I haven't got is envy, to be honest with you. Listen, I had Jamie Spencer, [Kerrin] McEvoy, they came under my wings too, and I tried to look after them. He has only just arrived on the scene, he's still got plenty of water to swim across. He seems a nice, polite young fella, and he rides really well. I'm trying to teach him the English way, and he seems to listen. He has a very good career in front of him, but one step at a time. He needs experience, he needs knowledge of the racecourses, and it is part of my job to help him. He works for my stable."

What, though, if at some point the young pretender is handed a ride Dettori covets? "That's not down to me. I've got other things to worry about right now. They're called Ryan Moore, Kieren Fallon and Richard Hughes." A big laugh, then a small frown. If only all interviewees were this expressive. "And running out of years. I do worry about that. But hopefully I'll carry on until I'm 50. [Philip] Robinson is still riding at 51, [Mick] Kinane stopped at 50. Beyond 50, who knows? I don't have the patience to be a trainer. Catherine says I have the concentration span of a flea. But I don't want to think about afterwards. I still enjoy it, and you've got to enjoy it. Look at Ryan Giggs, he goes out there and plays like a 20-year-old. And not just him, Kevin Phillips is the same. Anyway, it's easier now to carry on. Our generation has better medication, food, training facilities, than ever. I train every day in my own gym. You become addicted to it."

Dettori's supreme fitness is not matched, alas, by some of the better horses in the Godolphin stables. "Dubai Prince and White Moonstone are big losses, especially the filly. But we still have decent horses. And it's funny in this game. It was the Aga Khan's time, then Coolmore's. Now, who knows, maybe it's our time."

Sheikh Mohammed, who would doubtless smile at being made to sound like a racing arriviste, is, adds Dettori, the best possible boss. "He's very philosophical. I've ridden some shocking races, or been beaten on the favourite in big races, and he always says 'what's past is past, let's look forward'. And don't forget, he's also Ruler of Dubai and Vice-President of the Emirates. Racing is his hobby, his passion, but it's only 10 per cent of his life. He only got here last night for the Guineas, and called me at quarter to ten this morning. We have a great relationship, very open. I'm not frightened to say what I think, and he encourages that. That's the secret of our success. I've been with Godolphin 17 years, won over 100 Group Ones. You'd have to go a long way back to find a jockey lasting in a job that long."

It is 26 years now since he was sent, without a word of English, to work for trainer Luca Cumani in Newmarket. It was the very definition of tough love from his fierce father, Gianfranco, 10 times a champion jockey in Italy, and so enduringly demanding of his son that his response to the famous magnificent seven at Ascot in 1996, was "why not eight?" That there were only seven races on the card cut no ice with the old man, who has only mellowed towards him since the plane crash in 2000 that killed pilot Patrick Mackey, and from which he was dragged clear by fellow jockey Ray Cochrane. But Gianfranco still looms formidably large in Dettori's life. "Yeah, he was 70 yesterday. He's not as tough now, but he still doesn't understand the way I do things. What he did to me I could never do to my own kids. I still let them sleep in my bed at times. I never slept in my dad's bed. And as a jockey he was much more aggressive. I'm more natural. He didn't come from a racing family, but I was born on a horse."

It shows. Yet he insists that, if anything, he is getting better. "Before, I just rode my own horse. I watched and learnt from some great jockeys, like Angel Cordero in America. I stole the flying dismount from him. But I just rode my horse. Now I ride my own horse but I capitalise on other people's mistakes, and that's called experience. I couldn't do that when I started, but now there are examples every day. I see and think races much better than before."

And what does he see and think of the sport beyond the rails? Of the current brouhaha over the use of the whip, for example? "The whip? The whip has come a long way in 20 years. It is made of foam now, and it would be very hard to even kill a fly with it. We're all animal lovers. I'll be honest with you, we treat our horses better than we treat our partners. But since Cheltenham and the Grand National everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. Flat racing and jump racing are chalk and cheese. After three and a half miles over jumps, with tired horses, I can see it doesn't look great. But none of us are here to hurt horses. I don't know why people don't see that."

He stands. My short time is up. Trying to eke it out further, I ask whether he watched United, the TV drama about the Munich air crash? "No, I went through something like that. It scarred me for two or three years. And it has made me claustrophobic. I never used to be, but now, with a lot of people in an elevator, or in a cable car when I'm skiing, I have to walk out. We went on a silly ride at Universal Studios, a Bart Simpson ride, and when they strapped me in, I freaked out."

He laughs, and apologises but he really must go. Can I just ask him about Arsenal, I say, and he half-sits down again. He can always find time for the team he adopted as English counterparts to his beloved Juventus, even if it's to grumble. "Five years in a row we've blown it in the last month. We were in four competitions four weeks ago, now we're out of the lot. When I think of that back four, and Seaman, fucking unbeatable."

So would he rather Arsenal win the league next season, or him win the Guineas tomorrow? "Win the Guineas. Those Arsenal players have time on their hands."