Dettori the man rises from the wreckage

Former champion jockey races again at Newmarket tomorrow yards from site of the plane crash that nearly killed him
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The Independent Online

Frankie Dettori returns to racing tomorrow barely two months after the plane crash which almost claimed his life. It will be a strange experience for the Italian, not least because when he goes out to ride over Newmarket's July course he will be within a matter of yards of the crash site.

Frankie Dettori returns to racing tomorrow barely two months after the plane crash which almost claimed his life. It will be a strange experience for the Italian, not least because when he goes out to ride over Newmarket's July course he will be within a matter of yards of the crash site.

It has been a strange experience not having Dettori around, and not a very pleasant one for the sport. During his absence racing has been beset by factional warfare as it sniffs the scent of media money. It has not been a pretty face to show the outside world.

Frankie Dettori remains the shiny totem of this sport, a sport which rewards him well, but also a sport which almost took his life at the age of 29.

Dettori had just begun a journey to Goodwood racecourse on 1 June, when the Piper Seneca light aircraft in which he was a passenger plunged to earth. He and his fellow jockey, Ray Cochrane, scrambled clear. The pilot, Patrick Mackey, died in the flaming wreck.

The surgeon who put Dettori's splintered ankle back together again said it would take at least three months for his patient to heal. But here he is, back after two, a return made all the more astonishing when we remember how Dettori appeared in the aftermath of his near-death experience. He looked a shattered figure as he appeared before the flashbulbs at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, four days after the crash. His face was battered, his emotions crumpled, as he talked of retirement, of the futility of his job.

Cochrane had eased away quietly to repair his body and mind. But Dettori could not do that. His performance at a media briefing was at once emotional and compelling. Something inside him made him come before us and lay himself bare. "That press conference was very hard on him and perhaps something he should not have done," John Gosden, the trainer and Dettori's great friend, says. "He still had that sense about him of feeling very lucky to be alive, and to be put in front of those cameras and microphones was a cruel ordeal.

"He'd been through one ordeal already when he was down in the crouch position in that plane. That only means one thing, that you think you're about to die. It was all rather like Steve Redgrave being interviewed after winning the gold medal, while he was still in pain. Frankie hadn't had time to collect himself physically and mentally from the crash. He was still in shock really."

Yet, 16 days later, the whole package had changed. Not only did Dettori look healed, but he was back to his old theatrical self. The venue was Royal Ascot, the dress the traditional morning suit, but this time made notable by a huge ski-boot of a contraption on his right foot. Frankie managed to hug just about everyone who had bothered to turn up. He was like a hostage of fate released back into his community.

Frankie likes to make friends. It may be because he felt lonely as a child. He says his father was cold then and a strict relationship with him and his stepmother ensured he was introverted for the early period of his life. He used to cry himself to sleep with his sister, Sandra.

It may then be that he is still enjoying a late childhood. There remains much of the juvenile about him, easy mood swings and a tendency to get hurt easily. He was almost inconsolable after the stinging criticism of a ride in the Breeders' Cup series in the United States two years ago. We saw at Ascot that not all the boyishness has been shaken out of him.

It has not been ladles of medicine or brainstorming sessions on the Chesterfield that have got Dettori back this quickly. Rather it has been the prospect of a different once-in-a-lifetime experience. Frankie has got a horse, a superhorse. "He said some time ago that he wanted to be back to ride Dubai Millennium in the Prix Jacques le Marois [on Sunday week]," Gosden says. "That's quietly been his aim since Royal Ascot.

"At first he didn't miss this all too much. But then he went to Royal Ascot, which is his favourite meeting as he's always done terribly well there. He didn't have the normal sensations of wishing he was on all the winners there. He thought that was all far too trivial and he was just happy to be alive. But he was back."

And back at the side of Sheikh Mohammed, the world's most powerful owner. As Dubai Millennium swung into the straight during the Prince of Wales's Stakes there was an unusual silence in the stands caused by a quite awesome performance. Silence that was until Frankie got going. "Come on the champion!" he bellowed over and over as he jumped up and down next to the Sheikh. "Come on the champion!"

As in the past, Dettori retreated for recuperation to Sardinia, his father's birthplace and an island he remembers for long summer holidays in his childhood. He was going back to the womb. He splashed around in the Mediterranean with his wife Catherine and 10-month old son, Leo.

Frankie likes to return to Britain a different figure. In the late winter of 1993 he came back slim and tanned, with a cropped haircut, to show he meant business before his first championship-winning year. When he reappeared for work on Newmarket Heath almost two weeks ago, an unfamiliar beard darkened his features. Perhaps he was telling us he was now a man.

If he gets his jockey skills from his father, the Italian champion jockey Gianfranco Dettori, then Frankie probably inherits his performing art from his mother, who is from a circus family. He can sense an occasion. "Frankie might not be the brightest of us in the weighing room," a colleague says, "but when anything happens he is the first one jumping up and shouting."

We can expect much of the same at Newmarket tomorrow, a bravura display for those who come to record his return. But, as ever, Frankie Dettori will save something for himself. "He's back to full health now and, more importantly, he is in a positive state of mind," Gosden says. "He's in good order and ready to get on with life, and he's come back a more philosophical person.

"A few years ago I told him that he should be riding in just the good maidens, the good handicaps and the Listed and Group races and not chasing madly round the country trying to ride every little winner. He's done all that and it's basically a recipe for a shorter racing career. I think now he's going to go back to being more selective.

"Frankie is a very intelligent person, very intuitive. He's a thinker. He's always given off this happy-go-lucky front, but behind that there's his mind ticking over. But this has made him far more philosophical and much more appreciative of what he has, which is mainly his lovely family and life itself.

"At the same time it's made him a lot stronger. He's had his dice with death and now he's a bit like someone who's recovered from being desperately ill with a cancer. He now appreciates every moment of his life."