Frankie Dettori backed to return stronger than ever after being hit with six-month ban for failing drug test
Jockey failed a random drugs test at Longchamp in September
Whatever disgrace may now infect his name beyond the racing parish, within its boundaries Frankie Dettori will find a ready audience for the contrition he expressed when finally issued with a six-month suspension. For even those in the professional community lacking compassion for their fallen idol will remain eager, in enlightened self-interest, to assist his rehabilitation.
From May 19, the most accomplished rider on the planet will be motivated as never before – not just by his humiliation, after failing a random drugs test at Longchamp in September, but also by any presumption that his trademarks of dynamism and effervescence must now ebb away. Even before the scandal broke, Dettori was at a crossroads. His departure from Godolphin, after an 18-year association, had already obliged him to seek a fresh start in 2013, as a freelance, and he turns 42 on Saturday week.
But Lester Piggott and Kieren Fallon could testify that top owners and trainers have shown clemency to much older riders, atoning for past misdemeanours. In the words of a trainer with equivalent global status to Dettori, in his own vocation: “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.”
Moreover the French racing authorities, even in announcing the expected ban, furnished a silver lining. Having had his licence temporarily suspended by their medical commission, a fortnight previously, Dettori was compensated for their cumbersome protocols by having his suspension backdated accordingly. As a result, he will barely miss more of the season than did Richard Hughes this year, when given a 50-day ban in India – and Hughes ended up as champion jockey for the first time. There is a naïve, excitable consensus that Dettori could lose irretrievable momentum in the season’s early weeks, but that is simply not the case. Freelance riders at every level find the going very slow until evening meetings begin.
Dettori was long reconciled to missing the Guineas meeting, in early May, but will now be back in time to take mounts in the Oaks and Derby. In time, however, perhaps he will consider it still more significant that he is free to ride at Goodwood the week after his ban ends. This is not a terribly important meeting, albeit it sometimes volunteers an 11th hour Epsom candidate. But it is the one to which Dettori was flying when he was lucky to survive a plane crash in 2000 – and that will certainly correct any skewed perspectives on his present misfortune.
For now, admittedly, he feels miserably chastened that a father of five should have had his name splashed across the front page of a tabloid as having tested positive to cocaine. He is understood to be taking a long winter holiday with his family before returning to Newmarket, where he will start riding work for a variety of top trainers.
Christopher Stewart-Moore, his lawyer, stressed that Dettori “fully accepts” his ban – and feels corresponding mortification. “He accepts that he has let down the sport he loves and all those associated with it, as well as the wider public,” he said. “But most of all, and this is his greatest regret, he has let down his wife and children.”
As the British sport’s most recognised ambassador, Dettori also acknowledged his betrayal of a broader family. “Racing has been good to Frankie and he knows that his privileged position brings with it responsibility,” Stewart-Moore said. “For this reason he is determined to rebuild his reputation when he returns to the saddle. Frankie could make excuses. He has, after all, regularly been tested for prohibited substances throughout his career. He is clear, however, that the responsibility for his current situation lies squarely with him.”
As such, those close to Dettori suspect that this disaster may yet stimulate the same sort of shocked renewal as obvious counterpoints in his career: the plane crash, above all; but also an earlier embarrassment with drugs, when cautioned by police for possession of a small amount of cocaine in 1993. The following year, he became champion jockey for the first time.
There is something auspicious, after all, about the very fact that he appeared to set a higher value on his self-respect than on the lavish salary he had received, for so many years, from Sheikh Mohammed. The promotion of young Mickael Barzalona, to share his duties at Godolphin, was received as a mystifying affront by a rider who had grown increasingly exasperated by the stable’s inability to produce enough top-class horses for one jockey – never mind two. Dettori, indeed, spent Derby day this year riding at Haydock.
Some read a poignant significance in the fact that he failed his drugs test the day after Barzalona had won the St Leger for Godolphin on Encke. Others limit their judgement of his impetuous side to questioning his wisdom in accepting the ride on Camelot in the Arc for the Sheikh’s great rivals, at Coolmore. One way or another, however, Dettori had already proved the due courage to make a stand.
Whether he will also now see through the shallow glister of celebrity, which extended far beyond the Turf the day he rode all seven winners at Ascot in September 1996, remains to be seen. Perhaps he cannot afford to. He has not hesitated to exploit his fame commercially, with grills and pizza brands, and finds himself raising a large family accustomed to a privileged lifestyle. Now, however, he will surely restore his centre of gravity to the unadorned talent that has underpinned it all.
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