So the agony of Frankie Dettori is prolonged. Two days before the scheduled end of his six-month drugs suspension, the jockey discovered that a hold-up in paperwork may yet prevent him from riding at Leicester on Monday. If nothing else, this latest melodrama seemed an apt symbol of what has become an excruciating rut for a sport shorn of glamour by the retirement of Frankel. Suddenly the curiosity of outsiders has obtained a new edge of malice. For however offensive the stereotype, to its professional community, it now seems perfectly excusable to ask who is more likely to be on drugs: the horse, or the jockey?
As the Godolphin steroids scandal continues to simmer, attention has switched to the man who ended an 18-year association with Sheikh Mohammed’s elite stable only last autumn. Dettori, the most celebrated Flat jockey since Lester Piggott, notoriously failed a dope test in Paris last September. The French authorities had evidently assumed that he would be clear to ride in Britain from Monday, but require him to go before their medical panel before approving his French licence. Because of their reciprocal arrangements, this caused a sudden suspension of what had seemed a routine licensing process in London. The British Horseracing Authority was last night “seeking clarification” as to whether the red tape could be untangled, not least with the relevant French panel unlikely to meet before the end of the week.
To judge from his demeanour during a Channel 4 interview this week, the delay will seem a renewed purgatory for Dettori. In contrast with Mahmood al-Zarooni, the trainer banned for eight years after administering anabolic steroids to Godolphin horses, he did not use performance-enhancing drugs. But for a 42-year-old father of five, even a flirtation with cocaine represents a humiliating measure of the crossroads he had already reached.
He has no better spur than the example of Piggott himself, who ended a five-year retirement – including a spell in prison for tax evasion – in 1990. Within a fortnight, the disgraced icon’s rehabilitation was consummated by a fairy-tale success on Royal Academy at the Breeders’ Cup. And it just happens that a similar interval divides Dettori’s planned return from the prospect of equivalent redemption. The Investec Derby is run a fortnight today, and Dettori might yet find himself with a fancied mount. Aidan O’Brien as usual seems guaranteed to saddle several runners at Epsom and O’Brien’s patrons at Coolmore Stud – longstanding antagonists of Sheikh Mohammed – may well feel they owe Dettori some impetus as he seeks to rebuild his career.
For it was his decision last October to accept the mount on Camelot in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe that finally precipitated Dettori’s divorce from Godolphin. Earlier in the season, the colt had been a brilliant winner of the Derby for O’Brien. Dettori, increasingly affronted by the promotion of a young French rival, plainly decided that his relationship with Godolphin had broken down irretrievably.
The fast-tracking of Mickael Barzalona, brilliant but raw, had occurred in tandem with Zarooni’s elevation to run a stable in his own name, after previously serving as assistant to the senior Godolphin trainer, Saeed Bin Suroor. By the time Dettori rode Farhh for Bin Suroor at Longchamp last September, both men seemed joined in pitiable relegation behind the young guns. The previous afternoon, in fact, an inspired ride from Barzalona on Encke, a Zarooni colt, had narrowly thwarted Camelot’s historic Triple Crown bid in the St Leger.
Dettori watched that finish enviously, coming third for another stable. At some point, around that time, he indulged himself with an artificial release from his misery. And then he arrived at the Longchamp changing rooms to find the French authorities taking random urine samples.
Listening to his Channel 4 interview, you could sense an almost wilful quality to the way Dettori courted his doom. With his head “absolutely wrecked”, it was as though he was subconsciously prepared even for Hell as a way out of his purgatory.
And then suddenly he had a better straw to clutch. “When I got offered the ride on Camelot it was like winning the Lottery,” he said. “I felt wanted again and for me it was a way out of the job. It was a cry for help. I knew then, when I did ride the horse, that was me finished. For me wanting to leave, as much for them wanting to get rid of me. I did not want to leave … but in a way they forced my hand. I wasn’t riding the horses, I was getting depressed. Another six months there and I think I would definitely have ended up in The Priory. I was done in.”
Now the strands of a story that had seemed chaotically frayed are all beginning to entwine. For Farhh himself runs at Newbury today, for the first time since, with Godolphin in desperate need of succour. Contrary to all expectation, Dettori returns to find that his own precious “brand” (long nurtured to his commercial advantage) is less tarnished than that of Godolphin itself. Zarooni claims never to have used steroids systematically, but his downfall has been so flagrant that he has forfeited any right to assumptions in his favour – whether about Encke, or any of his other big winners over the past three years.
Dettori used his interview to identify Zarooni as the common culprit to twin disasters. “All the hard work – not just me, the whole stable – has been ruined by one person,” he said. “It’s ruined my career, to start, and now it’s ruined Godolphin. When I say ‘ruined’, he’s just given them a very bad reputation.”
But Zarooni is already an outcast. Dettori, in contrast, will find many trainers and owners prepared to slay the fatted calf now that he is back in the fold – if not through compassion, then through enlightened self-interest. Like Piggott, Kieren Fallon can testify to the clemency shown to still older riders, having made a successful return to the saddle after two drug bans of his own.
At 42, Dettori not only remains the most accomplished rider on the planet. He will also be the most motivated. His trademarks of dynamism and effervescence, seemingly exhausted at Godolphin, could well be renewed by his injured pride. On the day his ban was confirmed the champion trainer, John Gosden, remarked: “Pound for pound, Frankie is still the best, any track, any country. He’s going to come back fresh and hungry for a good five years at the top.”
Dettori, cautioned for possession of cocaine during his apprentice days, insisted in his interview that he had never been a habitual user of the drug. “You feel low and perhaps you want to escape the reality of life,” he said. “It was a moment of weakness and I fell for it. I’ve only got myself to blame. It was Sod’s Law. I did the wrong thing at the wrong time and I got tested. It’s not just in this country we get tested. We get tested everywhere we go. If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.”
For the ultimate correction of his perspective, Dettori need wait only for Goodwood next week. This is not a terribly important meeting in its own right – but it is the one to which Dettori was flying when he was so lucky to survive a plane crash in 2000. Perhaps even this, relatively trivial shock to his system will caution him afresh against the shallow glister of celebrity, to which he has sometimes seemed in thrall since the day he rode all seven winners at Ascot in September 1996. There is something auspicious, after all, about the very fact that he set a higher value on his self-respect than on the lavish salary he had received, for so many years, from the sheikh.
In a telling admission, he told Clare Balding how he had gone to Dubai in the hope of establishing that there were no hard feelings with his former boss. “I wanted to basically shake hands with Sheikh Mohammed, my patron for 18 years, and say thank you for all the good things that he did for me,” he said. “But for some reason or another, he was too busy. I’m not sure if he refused [to see me], he was too busy.”
Dettori cut an uncharacteristically anxious figure in his interview, even comparing himself to Lance Armstrong. He is no longer certain of his place in a sport he once bestrode. “Of course I am nervous,” he said. “I’ve been away for so long. I don’t know what people expect of me, and what I expect from other people. I’m more nervous about people, perception – not about my riding. For the last nine months, I’ve been in the news for all the wrong reasons. I don’t know what people think of me now. I’ve got it in me. But we’ll see.”
Riding high and low: Dettori’s ups and downs
October 1994 Announces himself on the world stage with the first of 10 Breeders’ Cup wins to date on Barathea.
September 1996 Goes through the card at Ascot with the “Magnificent Seven”, leaving several bookmakers cleaned out in the process.
2004 Having concentrated on quality since winning consecutive titles in 1994 and 1995 – as evinced by three Arc winners – Dettori proves he still has the hunger by winning a third jockeys’ championship.
June 2007 Finally wins the Derby on Authorized, the hot favourite, after notoriously drawing a blank in 14 previous attempts.
October 2008 Rides Raven’s Pass to become the first British winner of America’s most valuable race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
1993 The rising star and champion apprentice is cautioned by London police for possession of a small amount of cocaine.
May 2000 Hauled from the wreckage of a light plane after crashing on take-off; the pilot was killed but Dettori escaped with a fractured ankle.
June 2012 Having seen Mickael Barzalona ride Godolphin’s only possible Epsom contender in a disappointing trial, he spends Derby day at Haydock. September 2012 Watches Barzalona win the St Leger for Godolphin; the next day, at Longchamp, he gives a fateful sample in random drug testing.
December 2012 Having parted company with Godolphin, Dettori is given a worldwide ban of six months after testing positive for cocaine.