Dettori sees the light over his Swain critics

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The Independent Online

Frankie Dettori rode into town for the first time this week yesterday morning. For a while it rained and then sunshine arrived. It always seems to be like that for Dettori at Churchill Downs.

Frankie Dettori rode into town for the first time this week yesterday morning. For a while it rained and then sunshine arrived. It always seems to be like that for Dettori at Churchill Downs.

The spiritual home of American racing has been a springboard for the Italian in more than one sense. It was here in 1984 that he took the Breeders' Cup Mile on Barathea, a win which provoked Dettori's first apeing of Angel Cordero's victory salute, the now familiar flying dismount.

After the rise, however, came the fall. Two years ago, Dettori beat Swain across the track in the Classic with a whipping frenzy which almost certainly denied the partnership success in the most prestigious race on the card. His reputation was subsequently lynched in the American media and it took quite some while for Frankie to distance the vile memory.

For Dettori and his Godolphin masters it was a trauma soon buried under an avalanche of further successes. But, in the United States, many still seem to have an image of the jockey firmly rooted in their minds. And it is not a particularly pleasant one. "We have forgotten it," Saeed bin Suroor, Godolphin's trainer, said yesterday, "but they still seem to remember here."

It is, however, a passage of his career about which Dettori can now easily talk. After the trauma of a plane crash, defeat, even humiliation in the fiercest of spotlights, does not seem quite so significant. He fiddled with his whip as he talked to us yesterday and also played with the notion that Swain was still a nightmare. A far bigger beast has supplanted him.

"It's unbelievable how people's brains are working, it seems to be like the memory of an elephant round here," the jockey said. "It's two years ago now, but they still seem to want to dig that up out of the bottom of the barrel. You've just got to laugh about it. I had a bad day that day but I've had plenty of good ones since then."

Bad days now have a different measure for Frankie Dettori. Not much can compare with a fall from the sky. The vision of his Piper Seneca light aircraft slamming to ground at Newmarket is still vivid. Patrick Mackey, the pilot, perished in the flaming wreck and Dettori understands that the biggest win of his career was to be spared that June morning.

"I've burned up a few lives and I don't think I've got that many left," he said outside a barn adjacent to the Churchill Downs quarantine facility. "When you have a light aircraft and it's heading towards the ground the chances of coming out alive are very slim. Before the impact I didn't scream because I didn't think there was any point. I knew that I was going to die.

"I still have good days and bad days, but I am still here and that is an achievement in itself. It was five months ago today that I was [first] lying on that bed, blessing God that I was still alive. It's great to be back at a Breeders' Cup and I'm very fortunate to be here. I'm going to enjoy every minute of it on Saturday."

Dettori can even laugh at "Indian Charlie", a satirical racing pamphlet which circulates on course here and a publication which routinely rubbishes him. Nevertheless, victory is still sweetest for him when Uncle Sam is watching.

For Breeders' Cup XVII here on Saturday he has four confederates and one standout ride. "It has to be Fantastic Light," he said. "He ran a little bit below par last time, when things didn't quite work out his way in the Turf Classic. But if he comes back to his Man O' War run then he's got a great chance."

Fantastic Light was awarded the favourable No 2 box in an elaborate post-position draw staged yesterday at the American football stadium home of the Louisville Cardinals. On his inside in the Turf will be Michael Stoute's Kalanisi and, two to his right, Montjeu, who worked during yesterday's cloudburst.

Stoute's Petrushka, supposedly the European banker, was another to receive a relatively desirable inside draw, in the Filly & Mares Turf. It could have been worse. "I don't like to be right down the inside," Stoute said, "but it's better than a wide one."

The visitors' prospects of collecting the Mile improved significantly when domestic animals drew the outside boxes from which, history tells us, it is impossible to win. Muhtathir, for Dettori, was yet another to be drawn low on the inside rail and that will aid his front-running instincts. Indian Lodge, who will be partnered by Pat Eddery following the success of the Irishman's appeal against suspension in London yesterday, is in No 5.

The sufferer in the great lottery was Giant's Causeway, who will find his attempts to get into a challenging position from the start in the Breeders' Cup Classic compromised by his location in box No 14. The Giant was in quarantine last night and may stretch his legs on course this morning in preparation for the last race of his fabulous career.