Dettori driven by his double Derby dream

Italian jockey has scores to settle on Epsom and Churchill Downs
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The Independent Online

Frankie Dettori, like all good jockeys, has a clock in his head. Unlike others, though, the Italian's timepiece is set for 10 years' time, when he intends to bring his already dazzling career to a close. By then Dettori hopes to have participated in two particular dream scenes.

The Derby and America's equivalent in Kentucky have already appeared in Dettori's reverie, but they have been surrounded by dark skies, lightning and a sweaty awakening.

Dettori has yet to register after eight rides in the premier Classic at Epsom, though that is no particular fault of his own. No such disclaimer, however, can be appended to the jockey's last big-race appearance at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, in the Breeders' Cup Classic of 1998, when Frankie did not perform anywhere near as well as Swain, his mount. Now the twin beasts appear before him in the space of five weeks and Dettori can behead them both with one sweep.

He can prove to an American audience that he is the real thing in the Kentucky Derby, back at Churchill Downs, a week on Saturday. Then, on 10 June, he can win the original on the Surrey Downs. He might even do it on the same horse, Godolphin's China Visit.

The Breeders' Cup of two years ago had a profound effect on Frankie Dettori. After he had beaten Swain across the course in the early evening darkness at Churchill Downs he had to beat away a bee swarm of criticism. Word was that he had swiftly forgotten but, 12 months on, Dettori showed suffering still dwelt within him after Daylami's success in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Gulfstream Park. In sweaty Florida there were the post-race celebrations of a feral creature as Frankie thumped his breast and confronted the crowd. "Come on me," he screamed. "Come on me."

Dettori may have beaten all the bitterness out of himself that day, yet there is no doubt he sees the ironic beauty of winning a Kentucky Derby. The great "Durby", the mother of all yankee races, the greatest single equine contest in the American calendar. If Frankie collected that, it would be like setting fire to the Stars and Stripes, like pinching the hot apple pie cooling on the kitchen windowsill. It would be the most monumental of symbolic victories.

"It's a great challenge for me," he said yesterday. "China Visit has got it all to prove because they say it is going to be a vintage Derby this year. But I'm looking forward to going back to Kentucky where I messed up with Swain. That will put my hair up a bit. It's going to be rough and exciting, but this has been Sheikh Mohammed's dream for the last couple of years. And when he puts something in his mind, he always tries to achieve it."

Dettori will leave for the Bluegrass state on Wednesday and ride in the Kentucky Oaks on the Friday. Before they start singing My Ol' Kentucky Home he will have researched all the recent Derbys on video. By Sunday, the jockey will be back in Newmarket and ready for the 1,000 Guineas. It is a routine now normal and one which he will maintain for another decade at the most.

"The schedule of racing and the amount of travelling and riding we do now has no comparison with 10 years ago," he says. "Then you had five months off in the winter. Now it's 11 months of the year, 24 hours a day, travelling around the world. I would like to get to 40, sit back, enjoy it and start something else. My dad stopped at 50 and found he didn't know what to do. He was too old to start something else."

But, before the veranda and rocking chair, there is another omission to be corrected. Frankie Dettori first competed in the Derby in 1992, when he was 16th on Pollen Count. Since then there has been a spray of defeated Epsom horses. Dettori was second on Tamure in 1995 and third the following year on Shantou, and the former remains his most significant recollection of Epsom.

"My best memory of the Derby is also my worst," he says. "When I went past the fourth horse [on Tamure] I thought to myself 'this is it'. But then Lammtarra came flying past on my outside with 20 yards to go.

"The Derby means a lot to me. More than a lot. I've won a lot of the big races in the world, Classics in England, the Japan Cup, the [Dubai] World Cup and Breeders' Cup, as well as seven races in a day [at Ascot in September 1996], but this is probably the most important race in the world and it's one I haven't got my name on. Time is running out and I'd better get on and do it quickly. It's becoming frustrating. To look at it realistically, I'm 29 and I've probably got 10 another years left, so every year there is a little bit more pressure."

When he describes the Derby, Dettori makes it sound like migration on the Serengeti. "It's not easy to ride and it's very tough on horses. It becomes very rough," he says.

"Some horses die in front of you and you're looking for a way out and, when the tempo quickens between the five and the three around Tattenham Corner, that is the worst of it. There are horses going back, horses going forward, everyone getting squeezed and you really need a great champion to get out of the way."

But if Lanfranco Dettori needs help, then he is with the right team. The longboats of his Godolphin masters will arrive on these shores soon with plenty of stamina in the ranks. "It looks like we're going to have a lot of middle-distance horses," the jockey says. "Horses like Dubai Two Thousand, River's Curtain, Inchlonaig and obviously China Visit, but don't forget he's out of a sprint mare so it would be a bonus if he stayed a mile and a half.

"I'm a bit like Michael Schumacher climbing into a Formula One car. I know I've got the best and I know I've got the best team, and it's just up to me to be as professional as I can and go out there and win.

"There is a lot of pressure, but I wouldn't like anything different. I do enjoy it and it gets the best out of me and it makes me concentrate. It makes me feel the race and makes me want it as well. I'm very honoured to have such pressure. I'm beginning to itch now."