Racing: Dettori determined not to be fearful of the Derby

Winning the premier Classic for the first time at Epsom on Saturday would help erase a very bad memory for an Italian jockey.
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IN THE build-up to the Derby they used to ask what Lester Piggott was going to ride. This week the question is being posed of the man who has taken over from the Long Fellow as Britain's dominant jockey.

In the next few days Frankie Dettori will choose to partner either Dubai Millennium or Adair in the 220th Derby at Epsom on Saturday. But at least as important as which he will ride is how well he will do so.

The Blue Riband is a race of huge international interest and significance, and the last time Dettori found himself in such a situation he was found wanting. Churchill Downs in Kentucky on 7 November last year has gone down as the nadir of not only the Italian's career, but possibly that of any leading modern jockey.

That was the occasion he whipped his mount, Swain, across the track as he looked on the point of winning the Breeders' Cup Classic, the centrepoint of the Breeders' Cup series, the richest day's card in world racing. It was a ride which may have surrendered his reputation permanently in north America.

"One glaring error like that will mark him for life over here," Bill Finley, the racing correspondent of of the New York Daily News, says. "It was one of the worst rides in the history of major races.

"We're not so ignorant and so foolish to think that Frankie Dettori is a hopelessly poor rider, but if, on his one big moment in the spotlight, he blows it then that's the impression he's going to leave over here. We don't think he's a bum. Maybe just a little overrated.

"He's not thought of in the United States as a brilliant rider, he's known as the guy who blew the Breeders' Cup."

It was a performance which immediately shocked its perpetrator. Dettori first told us at trackside that his mount swerved because of the glare from television lights. Later he explained his wide passage as a tactic to remove himself from a duel with the pugilistic Silver Charm. It was all, in fact, Dettori removing himself from reality.

"He went through a certain amount of denial," John Gosden, Dettori's great training friend, says. "It wasn't a slight mistake and it wasn't a pretty ride. It was something that he would wish not to do again. Sometimes pressure gets to anybody and I'm sure he was trying too hard.

"But the worst thing was that it was the last major race of the year in America and Europe, his last big fight for five months, and it took him a while to get back in the ring. He had to sit on it.

"That was tough on him through the winter and that's bound to eat into you. There was a lot of time to be on his own and reflective. He couldn't get back out there, ride races, and exorcise the demons."

It has therefore been a vengeful Frankie Dettori we have seen at the beginning of this European Flat season, riding to the rescue of his sporting character at the age of 28. His greatest moment so far was a masterful front-running display on Island Sands in the 2,000 Guineas. The exaggerated howl of justification as he crossed the finishing line at Newmarket suggested how much it meant to him.

The Derby would be a step further. It is the one British Classic the Italian has not won, the one Classic which interests the nation as a whole. And this is the broad church to which Dettori has appealed ever since the September day at Ascot two years ago when he rode all seven winners on the card.

It was a day that made him. It was also a day that came close to breaking him. "It proved very hard for him after the Ascot seven," Gosden says. "It was hard for him to say no. He didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, appear unsensitive or seem high-handed or too big for his boots.

"And it took a massive toll. Suddenly he was Mr Racing, carrying the whole game on his shoulders and everyone wanted a chunk of him. He didn't have a damn choice. He had to perform. To sink back into himself would have been a denial of his nature.

"He paid a very heavy price for that extraordinary achievement. It was a savage schedule there for a year or so and I could just see it in his face. He looked drawn and pale and I could see he was having to summon extraordinary reserves of energy and willpower to keep going."

Something else is driving Dettori this season. He remains the one jockey who will voluntarily march from the sanctuary of the weighing room and engage a group of journalists. He has been talking of the times when he used to go skinny-dipping off the south coast after meetings at Goodwood. He has talked of seeing the scans of his first baby, which will be born in October. And he still talks of Churchill Downs. "After Swain I started playing more golf," he says. "Just in case."

Dettori can laugh now. But he is not always the smiling camera creature. "When he came in the weighing room after America and we were all winding him up about it he wanted a big hole to open so he could dive into it," one of the Italian's colleagues says. "I bet you couldn't have lived with him for ages after the Breeders' Cup.

"He's a man of two extremes, more so now than ever. He can be over-the- top happy, so bubbly, his mouth running away with him when things are going right. But one day you can't shut him up and the next his chin will be on the floor when things change.

"He doesn't like losing. He goes really quiet and everything seems a burden to him until the tide turns again.

"He's definitely a different person now since he got married [next month he celebrates his second wedding anniversary with Catherine]. His feet are more on the ground. Before that he was what you might call a typical racing bachelor, flitting about. Now when he's making all his phone calls they're going back home."

Dettori's connection with Sheikh Mohammed's private Godolphin army makes his the most coveted job in the world. It is a posting to kill for but the knives are never out among his workmates. "There is no jealousy of him because he deserves it," our insider says. "Frankie deserves it. He has the ability. He is an excellent rider. He's got to where he is by being able to ride, not by being able to sell himself."

Others close to the man do a good selling job too. "He is this personable figure everyone sees, an attractive personality with a lot of charm, but he's also a real thinker," Gosden says. "He's an intelligent jockey and an intelligent young man. He doesn't just out-ride people, he out- thinks them. He's a thoughtful, sensitive person.

"He deserves to be at the top. He's no flash in the pan. He has the talent and intelligence to be there and remain there.

"This guy can really graft and work. He's not some fellow who just tips up for the big occasion. And he doesn't do it on much grub. His diet would have most people in the nuthouse."

However, Dettori's highest skill, a talent even greater than the one he brings to the saddle, is the way he takes his sport to a wider audience. While racing's mandarins twiddle with fixture lists in an effort to popularise racing they should really be in the laboratory trying to clone the game's best-known figure.

Dettori will be much in demand this week as many in the nation tune into Flat racing for the only time of the year. They may not even know about Churchill Downs, but Frankie does. He has spoken of the fear that a two- minute horse race may have impaled a 10-year career. He has admitted that will-to-win wrestled with common sense that November day. And, disastrously, it won.

Frankie Dettori has promised himself it will never happen again. He has made the mental note to be cool when the pressure once again rages at its fiercest. The time for deed is close and on Saturday comes a forum for which Dettori has been waiting. No jockey will enjoy victory, or the thought of it being beamed around the globe, more.