BOOK OF THE WEEK FRANKIE DETTORI; Far from fun with an absent Frankie

Frankie Dettori, The Illustrated Biography by John Karter (Headline, pounds 17.99)
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A few weeks ago, a bright chap in marketing at the British Horseracing Board had a good idea. Why not organise a campaign to have Lanfranco 'Frankie' Dettori voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year? Auntie's response was both sniffy - "we would strongly disapprove" - and instructive. Clearly, they were worried that it might actually work.

Dettori is, after all, not just the champion jockey, but the first man to hold that title with whom the great mass of punters can identify. He is richly gifted, and rewarded, but most importantly, Frankie is fun. When he wins, he shouts, he punches the air, he comes back laughing and dismounts like Olga Korbut off a rather different kind of horse. He gives bruising backslaps to some of the world's richest men. And, at the slightest invitation, he indulges in carefree banter.

But not, unfortunately, in John Karter's otherwise diligent account of Dettori's career to date, with which, for whatever reason, the man himself chose not to collaborate. The author stops only a stride short of Newmarket's cab drivers in the search for witnesses, but without any immediate input from such a famously garrulous subject, it gives ghosted biographies a whole new meaning.

Nor can Karter opt for a juicy, 'unauthorised' biography since, at just 25 years of age, there is precious little juice. True, there was the caution for possessing cocaine back in 1993, but the racing public has long since forgiven both that, and Dettori's irritating devotion to the Arsenal.

In the face of such a thankless task we are offered a shrewd, perhaps inevitable, tilt at the Christmas coffee-table market. Gritty modern realism be damned, this is a sports biog of the old school, heavy on praise and pictures, unnervingly up to date, but steering clear of the deeper issues. Does racing, for instance, realise just what a hot property it has on its hands? For the first time in living memory, the sport has produced a genuine sex symbol, and a figure too who, Gazza-like, can charm his way into the general public consciousness.

The slobbery kiss Dettori planted on Sue Barker's cheek after his success in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe surely impressed casual viewers far more than Lammtarra's victory in the race itself. The sport, of course, is still more important than the man, but when does the gap between the two become too narrow for comfort?

It is not a problem which Karter has any chance to explore, though his considerable research provides several glimpses of the dedication which must lie behind the cheeky-chappie act. His fellow jockey and early mentor, Ray Cochrane, was once driven to "kick him hard up the arse - he went about four feet in the air", but it is all the more frustrating that we cannot hear the story from Dettori's end of the boot.