Epsom Derby: Dettori clears one last obstacle – and comes last (twice)

 

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The Independent Online

Had he known how his mounts were going to perform, he might not have been in such a hurry. As it was, Frankie Dettori encountered one authority figure too many here yesterday, when his comeback was briefly menaced with yet another delay.

This time, after he had been held up in traffic, the way was barred by two security guards who wanted to see his badge. It was almost as if they had been planted there in malign incarnation of his worst fears: everybody would have forgotten him. No less than in his new career as a freelance jockey, Dettori resolved to go out there and prove himself: he jumped the rail, and sprinted three furlongs down the track into the sanctuary of the weighing room. “I didn’t care if they chased me or not,” he said. “After six months, I wasn’t going to miss my first ride back.”

Though Dettori had completed his suspension 12 days previously, the return of his licence had been mysteriously delayed by an “irregularity” in one of several samples he had provided the French authorities, who banned him after he tested positive for cocaine at Longchamp last September. Dettori betrayed exasperation when asked to clarify the problem yesterday. “I have been going through this for six months and I am fed up with talking about it,” he said. “I am clean and it is all done and I want to move forward. I want positive thinking now.”

One way or another France Galop finally pronounced themselves satisfied on Thursday afternoon and the British Horseracing Authority, as promised, was swift to reciprocate. Lack of match practice made it impractical to hope for an 11th-hour booking in the Investec Derby today, but Dettori was permitted to replace nominated riders in three races on yesterday’s card.

At least one of them seemed fairly disgruntled by such abrupt evidence of the difference Dettori is going to make, in terms of competition for rides. But none really missed out. Two of his mounts trailed in last, and the other was comfortably held in fifth. In the end, the only real elevation of his pulse had been prompted by a deadline to weigh out for the first race.

“I was extremely nervous today, coming down,” he admitted. “You want everything to go smoothly. So I was going to take a helicopter down from Newmarket. But then there was fog this morning, it couldn’t land, and we had to drive. Then there was all this traffic. So at the three-furlong marker I hopped out of the car.”

And that was where the security guards blocked his path. With hindsight, the dash for freedom “took all my worries away – I didn’t have time to get nervous”. And though his comeback mount, Beatrice Aurore, was so awkward on the camber that he could barely ride her out, Dettori pronounced himself seamlessly at home. “Luckily, I had Johnny [Murtagh] next to me, and after riding together so many years I knew he wasn’t going to kill me on my first day back,” he said. “But this is one of the hardest tracks in the world to ride and I felt surprisingly comfortable. I’ve done well with my fitness, even if I’ve still got a bit of a ‘J-Lo’ bum and need to shed two or three pounds. I didn’t feel at all out of place. I suppose it’s something I’ve been doing all my life, so it’s no surprise to slot in like that.”

By the same token, at 42, he had found his prohibition very trying – and vowed to spend the next fortnight, starting at Chantilly tomorrow, honing his physical and tactical sharpness for Royal Ascot. “The time off was a novelty to begin with, to be able to eat and chill with the family,” he said. “But the last two months were really hard. I’ve missed riding, the buzz of racing, and I was pleased to leave the house this morning. Obviously, I’m freelance now. I worked for one firm for 18 years. And I’m afraid a little bit afraid of the future, it’s natural. But I’m very positive and I’ve a good clear head. I’ve been riding out for numerous trainers, and their feedback has all been good. My agent’s keen, and I’m keen. It’s a new challenge – and a good challenge.”

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