Racing : Dettori bottoms out after celebrity circuit

John Cobb on a bad day at the races for a sporting legend
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The Independent Online
After a break from Britain's racecourses in which the stopping off points have included Crinkley Bottom for Noel's House Party and a South African hospital for treatment to a boil on the bottie, it is tempting to suggest that Frankie Dettori was simply extending his winter theme by paying a visit to racing's nether regions at Wolverhampton yesterday.

The trip, Dettori's first to a British track this year, could comfortably be described as anti-climactic. Instead of last season's scrum of girls seeking his signature, Dettori was greeted by just two elderly gentlemen, pottering into his path with copies of his autobiography in their hands.

The books were duly signed but the pair will have been relieved that Dettori did not volunteer to mark their cards as well. His three mounts, two of them well-fancied, turned out to be three losers.

At least they failed in spectacular style. Maradata, a warm favourite, finished fourth of five; Punkah, also heavily tipped, just avoided finishing ninth of nine, but then Whisper Low brought off the big one, sixth of six, just as her form suggested. The question "how do you manage to keep your feet on the ground" died in every reporter's throat.

Despite this disappointing start to his year in the saddle and despite now being a multi-media celebrity thanks to his seven straight wins at Ascot last September and with appearances on Top of the Pops and the Clive Anderson show to his name, Dettori remained unfailingly courteous throughout this dismal afternoon.

"Okay. Thank-you very much," Dettori told the veteran trainer Reg Hollinshead, who supplied him with the rides on two of the miserable beasts and, what's more, he said it sincerely.

Hollinshead, of course, had already paid his own compliment to the 26- year-old in not bothering to discuss riding tactics with him. "He knows more about this game than anybody," said the man who, at the age of 73 and after 46 years unbroken service as a trainer, is the senior member of his profession in the country.

He wasn't the only one to offer admiration. "The Man is back," shouted Francis Norton, as his fellow jockey stepped towards the changing room of a British racecourse for the first time since last November.

Norton, and a couple of his colleagues who scratch a living out of this bleak winter circuit on the all-weather tracks, revelled in the rare burst of attention Dettori's visit had brought. While the cameramen hovered, waiting for Dettori to re-emerge before letting their film roll, Norton and his mates jostled for position theatrically at the jockeys' snackbar to get into the picture. "Come on Frankie, I've put on three stone waiting for you to come out," Norton bellowed into the room behind.

That there was such media interest in his return and a few extra racegoers to add to a crowd that numbers only about 300 on weekdays seemed to come as a surprise to Dettori. "I can't believe they're even thinking about me with such a great race at Ascot today," he said.

His own thoughts seemed tuned in to the world of National Hunt racing as well. "I wouldn't mind taking part in the Cheltenham Festival Bumper [flat race for future jump horses] if I'm around in March," he said.

"But I'm not interested in riding over jumps. When I rode in a hurdle race at Chepstow last year the jump jockeys told me not to worry when I came to a jump, that I'd see a stride." Pause for effect. "I'm still looking for it."

Before Cheltenham, there is the chance for him to gain his first win of the season at Lingfield today or on Saturday before flying to Dubai to be reunited with the bluebloods likely to carry him to success in the summer's main events.

Tomorrow brings another challenge too when he will have to be at his most boisterous to take on Chris Evans during TFI Friday. The message he can take with him is the greeting he received from all at Wolverhampton: TFI Frankie.

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