Horse Racing: How Dettori had to rebuild his life

Richard Edmondson talks to Ascot's seven-race king who has ridden through the tough times in racing's fast lane and heeded his lessons
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The Independent Online
Charles Charlesworth, a child from Victorian times, had a swift life. They say he grew a beard at four, developed wrinkles soon after and died of old age before his 12th birthday. As this man's times and story were chronicled in the annual Ripley's Believe It Or Not there are plenty who disbelieve its authenticity. Lanfranco Dettori would probably not be one of them.

The best-known jockey in Britain today has been pressed on to fast-forward ever since he arrived in this country from Italy just over 10 years ago, with a stick and bulging handkerchief over his shoulder.

In between, there has been the meteoric rise from manure-shovelling stable lad to record-breaking apprentice and the dual champion jockey we see today. If Dettori walked into the sea this afternoon, he would leave behind the memory of a sublime rider who conquered his trade by the age of 25 and seared his name indelibly into the record books. On 28 September this year, at Ascot racecourse, Dettori became the first figure in the history of his sport to go through a seven-race card.

This was not a negligible feat. He was subsequently recognised by John Prescott at the Labour Party Conference, by sheets outside the sports pages and by the Prime Minister himself.

Such an eventuality, and such a personality, was not evident when Dettori arrived in this country as a 14-year-old at the beginning of the 1980s. Along with his personal belongings came the family baggage that he was the son of the great Gianfranco Dettori, Italy's champion jockey for many years.

When Dettori Jnr arrived in Newmarket at the stables of his countryman Luca Cumani, and to the immediate nickname of Frankie, the only words of English he knew were "pizza" and "pasta". The journey did, at least, release him from parental handcuffs. For those who saw our man wildly presenting (with matching gold tie and microphone speaker) Top Of The Pops recently, it may be arresting to learn that Dettori was as quiet as a cushion in his infancy. "My father was not easy on me as a child but at the time you don't know any better so you think everyone is treated like that," he said. "It wasn't really his fault because he was concentrating on his job, trying to make some money and trying to be famous. Basically, he didn't have much time for us and the little time he had was pretty tough for us. I know now that racing influences your life a lot."

The young Dettori's first quarters at racing's "Headquarters" were the sort of digs that demanded an escape tunnel, though he did appreciate the bottle of orange that had been left out. Only when our visitor finished it did he discover the syrupy liquid should have been diluted.

His career also developed with unforeseen strength, and Dettori became the first apprentice since Lester Piggott to partner 100 winners in a season. In those early days what kept Dettori's feet on the ground was having them removed from it. When he returned after a winner, Stuart Jackson, Cumani's head lad, would always be lurking. "He used to hide in different places and wait for me to come into work," Dettori said. "Then he'd run out and boot me up the arse."

Gradually, though, different influences came into force and in came the backslappers and hangers-on that have been circling since sportsmen were first sent out to play.

In the autumn of 1992 the leaves were not the only things to fall. When the cherubic figure was searched by police in London, the only element remotely angelic about the Italian was the dust they found on him. Dettori had bought a small quantity of cocaine in a night-club and a whole heap of disgrace. It cost him a lucrative contract in Hong Kong and threatened his career, yet the episode made him the figure we see today. "I learned a lot from 1992 and I felt really bad reading about myself in the newspapers, ashamed," he said. "Racing had stopped being my No 1 priority and I couldn't wait until the weekend and go out and party. Racing became secondary.

"I didn't realise then that racing was the most important thing in my life. Success, money and everything that goes with it had come too easily. I lost perspective. My advice to anyone about drugs is that it's not worth it. But someone probably told me exactly the same thing and I didn't listen to them. Maybe it's a lesson some people have to learn for themselves.

"It was easier for me then because I was successful and I had a little bit of money. I was doing well and I didn't think anyone was in a position to tell me what to do. I wouldn't take advice. But getting caught was the best thing that could have happened to me. The impact on everyone else, especially the newspapers, made it a great shock. They did their best to kill me. I only got back through pride and a sense of natural survival."

Dettori's recent public purgation about this episode has followed a tearful trend. Elsewhere there have been Adams and Merson (Arsenal and England) and Ferguson (Windsor and England as opposed to Everton and Scotland). The jockey, who celebrates his 26th birthday next month, is ahead in that his misdemeanours have been erased not by words but the ticking of the clock. If there are excesses these days they are not betrayed in his face. With his tanned hide, blemish-free skin and well-organised features Dettori looks like the sort of person who exists not in real life but in magazine advertisements.

Our interview began after Dettori had just eaten the sort of piggy breakfast he enjoys only in his dreams during the season. The discussion suggested that he has gone some way to conquering fear of media scrutiny as he answered this reporter's probing with one of his bejeaned legs slung over the arm of a seat.

Like many sportsmen these days, Dettori seems to be struggling with the urge to spit on the floor when the subject of the noble yeoman of the Fourth Estate is introduced. However, after a courageous battle with his emotions, he has managed to bring himself to talk to the pack on the topic of his recently published autobiography.

We occupied The Rib Room of the Carlton Tower Hotel, SW1, a property owned by Dettori's principal patron, Sheikh Mohammed, the crown prince of Dubai. Morning's repast, for three, came to pounds 60 as the jockey talked about his unique seven at Ascot (his autograph now includes the number in a circle), which was rather appropriate as Roger Moore walked past.

The jockey now knows what he was in the bad old days. He characterises Dettori 1992 as "a prat". This description was hard to recognise 12 months later when the Italian decided he would launch an assault on the championship. To remove himself from the person he had become, Dettori travelled to Morocco towards the end of the year and set about recreating himself. Every morning he would drink a single cup of coffee and every afternoon a bottle of mineral water would follow it down. At night he would grill a sea bass purchased at market, and then he would walk the beaches wearing just trunks and headphones.

By the time Dettori returned for the all-weather season, his hair dramatically cropped, he looked tanned, gaunt and mean, but, most of all as far as the man himself was concerned, he looked different.

At the race-track he laughs as though he has been injected from a cylinder. He is not as high voltage off camera, but then Dr Frankenstein would have to put him to bed for that. "Everybody expects me to be happy all the time and sometimes, when I'm having a bad day, I have to put on a face," he said. "But I'm not putting it all on, it's more an extension of how I feel. They say every Italian is snappy and temperamental and I'm no different. You'd better ask Catherine [Allen, his fiancee] about my dark side."

They also say Italians are testosterone wrapped in human skin, men who would chase anything in a skirt apart from a hovercraft. This generalisation Dettori will not endorse. "They gave me this image of being the Italian stallion, but nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "I'm so far away from this sex maniac, this sex monster people who don't know me at all like to make out. I had some good times in my teens, but I don't miss that sort of thing. I'm very fortunate that I found Catherine."

Dettori has also found religion fairly late in life and practises his Catholic faith when possible. On Sunday mornings, though, he is closer to his God than most of us as he flies to manifold commitments on the Continent.

This will be the demanding agenda well into the next millennium, even if Dettori has no wish to continue when the canyons start appearing on his face. "No doubt I will be riding for another 15 years, but I won't be going on until I'm 60," he said. "It's a very demanding job and not something you can do part time."

When he looks back in the photo album, Dettori will scrutinise most the recent pictures and the decade that preceded them. "A lot of things have happened to me in the last 10 years and I hope the next 10 are a little more consistent," he said. "From 15 to 25 is probably the most important time in everyone's life: the character comes, they are maturing, you experience different things. I like the pattern my life has taken in the last three years." According to his own conservative arithmetic, Dettori reckons he is not yet a millionaire, though he will concede he has gathered the other great riches life has to offer. The teenager who used to bluff his way into the Golden Lion on Newmarket's High Street with newspaper print smudged most deceivingly on his top lip has now gained acceptance as both one of the globe's top jockeys and a man who is exceedingly difficult to dislike. He is happy to stand where he is. "It could all stop right now," Dettori said, "and I would still be happy."

* A Year In The Life Of Frankie Dettori (Heinemann, pounds 15.99).