Racing: Smile that spreads the word for racing

PRIX DE L'ARC DE TRIOMPHE: Can Europe's most important race become the next great triumph for the championship jockey?; Richard Edmondson on the forces that drive the heir to Archer and Piggott, Frankie Dettori
Click to follow
Before last Saturday, when they discussed Frankie in the pub they meant either Howerd, Vaughan or Valli. But then Lanfranco Dettori rode seven winners from seven rides at Ascot.

Frankie Dettori has been a King Kong figure on the tiny island of horseracing for several years, but only this week has he become a big presence throughout the big city. Now everyone seems to remember the young chap they saw on A Question Of Sport, the athlete who was 66-1 to be the BBC's Sports Personality Of The Year going into the weekend but who is now the 4-5 favourite.

When Dettori partners Classic Cliche in Europe's middle-distance championship, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris tomorrow, it is quite possible the sport of racing may be flickering in some British households for the very first time.

Luca Cumani, the Newmarket trainer, once professed that his fellow Italian had been "born under a lucky star", and it is true that opportunity has regularly jumped out of the shadows and put its arm round Dettori. At 25, he is the champion jockey and the main contracted rider to the globe's most powerful owner, Dubai's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed.

Even more importantly he has managed to organise his birth and career to fill a great void in racing. Fred Archer, Steve Donoghue, Gordon Richards and then Lester Piggott have been the jockeys down the eras who have carried the sport individually. Now, just as the Long Fellow's bony fingers have dropped the torch as Britain's only mass, publicly recognised character of the turf, Dettori has been there to catch it.

Such a station was unimaginable when he arrived, speaking little English and as naive as Paddington, at Cumani's yard, aged 14. The son of Italy's champion jockey Gianfranco Dettori, he became one of the town's young stable lads (a group still awaiting emancipation by Abraham Lincoln) and had nothing but his personality to sustain him through a menial job and to help promote him above his fellow serfs.

For those who now witness his maniacal grinning and acrobatics at the racecourse and deduce his commitment to the sport must be questioned it is worth remembering he has endured racing's bestial apprenticeship. Dettori has had as much muck on his fork as the motorway service station food- tester, and when he eats he follows the diet programme of a wren.

Even when Dettori was a young rider there was much to believe about Cumani's celestial theory, particularly as the jockey himself always believed good fortune was going to be a friend to him. (At the beginning of each season he prays to the Madonna di Montenero for safe passage for the year. For inspiration, he transports religious medallions in his kit bag).

This writer's first interview with Dettori was in his flat, and when the subject of coffee came around the tiro needed help to find his fridge. Once located, it was found to contain nothing but a single bottle of champagne. Later, one August day in 1992, I provided the ballast in a light aircraft to Haydock we shared with Walter Swinburn. Dettori was bemoaning the fact that his career was running up and down on the spot, and that he had just turned down what he considered a derisory offer to become second jockey to Robert Sangster.

The Italian was perhaps as morose as he can get, yet when the plane landed it was as if the theatre curtain had been drawn back. Swinburn had won the big race of the day at Newbury, yet it was Dettori who exuded the ebullience, kissing the stage-door joanies outside the weighing room and towing around a line of autograph hunters.

It is ironic that the extrovert Dettori should now supplant Piggott the self-absorbed as racing's point of reference. Dettori mocks the old master (he once told him that when he died he would be stuffed and put on exhibition) and it is not simple to find connections between the two outside riding excellence. At one of Sheikh Mohammed's great desert feasts he holds before the Dubai World Cup - an occasion when every animal that Noah tended, bar the pig, seems to be twirling on a spit - Dettori was tempted up on stage. He joined the bellydancing temptress and pulled up his shirt to show his own wiggling effort. Old-timers struggled to imagine Lester effecting a similar display.

The easy image about Dettori is of the incorrigible showman, who occasionally wins races and always acts as though someone is applying a tickling stick. For those who like to stand at the bar and psychoanalyse the explanation is simple. Dettori's mother, Mara, who is now divorced from his father, was a trapeze artist and ergo her son, it seems, has inherited a chromosome for flamboyance. This theory would be easier to swallow if Britain's other great son of the circus was of cartwheeling disposition when he emerged from 10 Downing Street.

Besides, Dettori is much more than a blancmange-minded chuckler. According to his training mentor John Gosden, the man he calls his racing hero, there is a lot to appreciate when you step behind the flat facade of Dettori's public face. "He is a great thinker about horses and about races and he's not just the happy-go-lucky fellow we see riding in," the Newmarket trainer said. "He is this naturally open and extrovert person, but that doesn't mean he is not always thinking, because behind that jovial front lurks a very sharp mind.

"Intelligence is nothing to do with education, that's rule No 1 in life, and he can analyse a situation very quickly and never ceases to surprise me with that ability. We're talking situations of a political nature in racing here."

Dettori, it seems, is easily as much a product of his nurturing, a man who had to give vent to the more positive elements of his character to get noticed, both in his family and his early British days. He talks openly about how he was suffocated emotionally by his father as a young boy, yet he has no greater love for another human being. Father and son may startle some Anglo-Saxon mentalities when they walk around hand-in-hand publicly, yet they can just as easily have their palms crashing against each other's cheeks. "We shout at each other and gesticulate, then kiss and make up," the son said. "Very Italian."

With such wilfulness comes problems, however. There is a common mathematical equation in sport that success plus youth equals trouble and Dettori did not escape its conclusion. In 1992, the young Italian was found in a car in London with something other than boiled sweets in the glove compartment. Dettori was cautioned for possession of cocaine and, when the incident filtered out, a contract to ride in Hong Kong was quickly fed into the shredder. "They never gave me a reason why they turned me down, they didn't have to," he said this week. "I was only 21 when all this happened and very young. I had rather lost my way at the time."

Dettori looked at himself and those around him at that moment and was not much impressed with either the central figure or his hangers-on. These days, Dettori's business men at least, are no fools. Their client's quick cameos for the cameras are still available but when it comes to in-depth interviews it is easier to get your foot in the Vatican door. Dettori speaks to only one national newspaper, which may be linked to the fact it pays him pounds 1,000 every time he does so.

The demeanour apart, Dettori is made conspicuous by a competitive style which is an alloy of techniques from either side of the Atlantic. The Stateside influence was collected in early winter sojourns to California, where the emphasis on working to the stopwatch is also thought to have given Dettori an acute sense of pace in races. He rides with his toes in the irons and a spine so parallel to his mount's you could balance your mum's tea tray and best china on it. As he passes the post in victory his whip goes up, like a snorkel, by the side of his face. "His style is the most perfect combination of the European and the American," Gosden said.

"What I particularly like is the way he changes hands more often than anyone else. He sets off on one particular length of rein and then as the race picks up he'll collect a bit of rein in flamboyant fashion, rather like Chris McCarron [the American jockey] does. This manoeuvre makes the horse take hold of the bit and gives him a new lease of energy. You'll see Frankie do this four or five times in a race before he even dreams of going for the whip, and that, in my opinion, gets a lot of run out of a horse, keeps them balanced and encourages them."

Rather oddly though, Dettori has become most notable for what he does out of the saddle, or rather the mechanism he uses to get to that standing position. After each Group One victory he employs a dismount borrowed from his Hispanic hero, Angel Cordero, and leaps vertically from the saddle, like some marionette being jerked from the ground.

This package, Gosden believes, is unparalleled in any weighing room on the planet. "I would say now he is the most complete jockey. The championship jockey," the trainer said. "He is the champion rider here and I'm pretty sure he would be champion rider in North America if he moved over there.

"Bill Shoemaker [the winningmost jockey in history] always said Pat Valenzuela was the greatest riding talent he ever saw. But he didn't have the mind to go with it. Here we have someone who has both and I think that is unique."

After tomorrow's examination by the jockeys of France in the Bois de Boulogne, Dettori will get his chance to take on North America's finest in the Breeders' Cup Series in Toronto later this month. Then, like a good missionary, he will place the form book under his arm and, this winter, spread the good word of racing in Japan, South Africa, Australia and Hong Kong, where he is now forgiven for the sins of the boy.

The story book has already unfolded as far as next winter, when he will marry his fiancee, Catherine Allen, in Newmarket. By that time we will know if Lanfranco Dettori is still the main Frankie in the pub.

John Gosden warms to his protege's elevation, but warns that his effervescence must not be capped by overdemand. "He has to be a good thing for the profile of horseracing in this country but I think it's fair to say that a lot is being put on Frankie's shoulders," he said. "A great deal is being expected of him as being the sport's promotional star.

"We in racing must caution ourselves against expecting someone to do what we have failed to manage over the years [in attracting people to the sport]. We have never been farsighted enough, and seem to have the attitude that this is a game that only we understand and anyone else can turn up to if they want. We're using him to change that and that must mean putting a considerable amount of pressure on one individual.

"But it is very important that enjoyment remains part of him and he expresses himself through his riding as he likes to show his flair. What we don't need is to expect him to be the ultimate showman and carry the whole damn business on his back. If we do that, you could end up breaking him."