Racing: Regret colours Dettori revival: Spoilt for success as a teenager, the country's most talented young rider has been made to struggle this season. Richard Edmondson reports

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The Independent Online
FOR TWO YEARS life flew past Lanfranco Dettori like the countryside from a train window. Only now, as his career is temporarily on the branch lines, can the jockey appreciate what a pleasant journey it was.

The champion apprentice in 1989, Dettori was fourth in the jockeys' title the following year as a 19-year-old, when he was the youngest man ever to 100 winners in a season. While these statistics made a significant impact in the record books, Dettori recognises they did not have a similar effect on him.

'When I look back I think 'what a great run',' he says. 'For two years I didn't have a setback, for two years I was just on the way up. I went from zero to 100 without a setback. I was spoilt.

'I did it without thinking about it, without any emotion, without any feeling. I didn't realise how lucky I was and I wish I could do it again and enjoy it more.'

Dettori's reflection has been prompted by a relative downturn in fortunes. A combination of a virus and the removal of the Aga Khan's horses from the Newmarket yard of Luca Cumani, to whom Dettori is stable jockey, meant he was down to eighth in the table last year. This season he is back in 12th place, but to suggest that a jockey who has won over pounds 650,000 in prize-money this term could be struggling is close to absurd, particularly since he has won on four of his last six mounts.

But Dettori is a man taken by high ambition. Ask him when he will consider himself a success and the response is brief. 'Never.'

'I think everyone's got the same problems, they don't know what they want from their lives,' he says. 'They always want more from their lives and I'm like that, if I win a race I want to win another.'

Though Dettori's overall tally has been down he has had three Group One successes this year. 'Apart from not having a lot of winners I've been lucky,' he says. 'I've won the French Derby (Polytain), the Gold Cup (Drum Taps) and the Heinz 57 (Pips Pride).'

There may soon be others to add to the list, for within the space of the next two and a half weeks he partners Second Set in the Arlington Million and Bonny Scot in the St Leger.

These horses, as with all his other mounts, will be ridden by a jockey whose grinning ways have become a trademark. However, the easy perception of Dettori as a young man whose merry manner signals a lack of purpose is unsafe. The jockey himself says his upbeat demeanour is more than a veneer, but that it masks a fierce resolve.

'There's nobody that wants to win more than I do,' he says. 'If people think I don't care because I'm joking and laughing that's a way to get an advantage. It's a way to put people off.'

Indeed, the Dettori that skips his way out of the weighing room and the Dettori that comes out of the stalls appear to be two separate beasts. 'There is a way I do things,' he says. 'I know the horses I ride, I get more information from the papers in the morning and then I get more orders from the trainer. I accumulate as much knowledge as I can before a race, and once I know all that I switch off.

'It only appears again in my brain when the gates open. It all comes back up and I seem to do things naturally without realising it. I watch replays and I see myself switching my stick when I can't even remember doing it.'

That Dettori seems programmed to the job is hardly surprising. His father Gianfranco, Italy's leading jockey of recent years, has been drilling his boy since the day he rigged up a set of reins on a well in the garden of the family home.

Dettori snr remains the biggest influence on his son's career. 'I've always listened to him,' Lanfranco says. 'My father brainwashed me when I was 14 and told me I was going to England and I was going to be a jockey. He gave me pounds 360 and told me to buy a bicycle.

'The first six months, when I couldn't speak English, were like being in prison. It was work, bed, work, bed and nothing else. But I always aimed high, I wanted to be like Pat (Eddery) and Wally (Swinburn), and everything went smooth right to the top.

'It's only six years since I had my first winner but I feel as though I've been riding 20 years. It's been so compact and it took me until the first four months of the season when I was knocked down a step to realise how lucky I'd been when I first started.'

Dettori's father has promised the good times will return. 'My father says that if you're good - and he thinks I'm riding better now - the winners will come, that sooner or later it will swing your way. He helps me keep my spirit high.'

But, unlike his father, and more in tune with his weighing-room colleague Steve Cauthen, Dettori now feels he is at least part British. 'My heart is still Italian, but I feel lost when I go there, I've lost my friends, and I don't feel that here,' he says. 'I feel a lot of me is English now.'

Confirmation that the jockey is an Anglophile comes when he discusses his victory on Polytain in the Prix du Jockey Club: 'It was great to win the French Derby, but it's an English Classic everyone wants.'

He gets a chance to achieve that ambition with Bonny Scot in the St Leger in 16 days' time. 'I think he's got a good chance because he gave me a great feel at Goodwood (in the Gordon Stakes) and in the Voltigeur (at York),' he says.

'Before he was a little laid- back, a little bit floppy, but he's sorted himself out and now he's got his head together, he's become a serious horse. He's taking more notice.' So is his jockey.

(Photograph omitted)

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