Racing: Dettori desperate to fill a void in his life

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The Independent Online

The dread sporting epithet "the best man never to..." is not one that Frankie Dettori relishes, and on Saturday he hopes to remove that particular monkey from his back by riding Snow Ridge to victory in the Derby.

His 11 previous assaults on the race that jockeys want on their CVs more than any other have yielded one second and two third places. In six goes Kieren Fallon has won twice. Now how unfair is that?

Dettori acknowledges he is in élite company, for Sir Gordon Richards won his first and only Derby at his 28th attempt. But the great 26-times champion was by then 49 years old and the Italian does not want to, indeed will not, wait that long.

Now 33, he gives himself 10 more years, at the maximum, in the saddle. "It slightly worries me that a man like that took so long, as when I am his age I will not be riding," he said. "Every year that goes by the mountain gets bigger to climb - everyone jumps on the bandwagon of my not having won it - and it's way past Everest now.

"I know it is only one horse race, one piece in the jigsaw puzzle of a career, and not even the most valuable race any more. But it so happens that it is the most important piece. To win would fulfil my ambition, complete the dream. I would prefer not to retire without having won it. Lester managed nine - surely I can have one."

Piggott's famous - or infamous - ability to wangle himself on to the right horse, from whatever stable, was hugely influential in his tally, the best in Derby history. Dettori rides for Sheikh Mohammed and the way things have panned out in that department come under the sod's law heading.

In 1997, for instance, he would have ridden Benny The Dip but for a late decision by the man from Dubai to run the no-hoper Bold Demand. And two years before that, riding Tamure in the Sheikh's maroon-and-white silks, he was caught close home by Lammtarra, the much less-fancied representative of the then-fledgling Godolphin empire.

Snow Ridge, currently the Derby second favourite, was headhunted by Godolphin from the late Lord Weinstock's operation last autumn. One of his perceived main rivals, Fallon's mount North Light, still carries the Ballymacoll pale blue. Saturday will reveal who got it right, but Dettori feels his side have.

"I've ridden decent horses in the Derby before, but none that I felt that I was definitely going to win on," he said. "I know Cape Verdi and Dubai Millennium both started favourite, but she was always going to be up against it against colts and you didn't have to be Einstein to work out that he probably wouldn't stay. This Snow Ridge is the first serious live contender that I've had."

This season, Dettori, champion in 1994 and 1995, has been riding with notable renewed zest. The light-aircraft crash at Newmarket that could have killed him is now four years distant but it has taken that time for him to come fully to terms with its implications and after-effects. A reminder from the Sheikh that Godolphin was not a mink-lined armchair, coupled with criticism that he was squandering his talent by merely going through the motions, provided the kick up the backside he needed.

"It did change my outlook," he admitted, "but it wasn't just him, it was me too. A few people upset me last year with things they said and I wanted to prove them wrong, to prove I was still here. In the end it wasn't really a choice because this is what I do best. And I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I'm hungry for winners again."

On his first run in the Godolphin blue, Snow Ridge finished a staying-on second in the 2,000 Guineas. It is the only time Dettori has ridden the colt in anger, but he likes what he felt then and since behind the scenes.

"He has all the qualities for Epsom," he said. "He is well-balanced, has a good cruising speed and a good turn of foot. He is very placid, almost too laid-back, so he should cope with the pressure of the occasion. The hill should be no problem as he's got the pace to be travelling within himself. The ones who don't come down the hill are the ones you're having to push along to keep a position."

Dettori was heading the jockey's table when his road to the Blue Riband almost came to an end at Goodwood 12 days ago. In the most innocuous of accidents, he broke his left little finger as his mount spooked at a pheasant and slipped and fell on the way to post. "When I heard the crack I was thinking of the Derby almost before I hit the ground," he said. "I don't really expect to win another title, though I'll give it my best shot. But missing this Derby would have been hard to bear."