Frankie Dettori can prove doubters wrong, if he gets right rides
All his tests were negative, all the thinking should now be positive. That was Frankie Dettori's message to the press and media, when finally making his comeback at Epsom last Friday – delivered, it must be said, with an unfamiliar air of insecurity. In many cases, his plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
An unseemly relish, in fact, is infecting the consensus over Dettori's prospects as he embarks on a freelance career at 42.
It has variously been argued that the opportunities simply aren't available, and that he won't have the graft and resilience to force new ones for himself. Flat jockeys, it turns out, are not tall until cast as poppies.
Yet many now predicting only toil and discouragement had previously grieved to see Dettori squander his prime on a stable that increasingly struggled to find mounts commensurate with his talent.
Since their golden early years together, Godolphin had arrested the fulfilment of the world's most accomplished jockey – and Sheikh Mohammed's promotion of Mickael Barzalona and Silvestre de Sousa only compounded that waste. Godolphin did not have the horses for one top jockey, never mind three.
Auspiciously for the test of character now awaiting, Dettori ultimately valued self-respect even more highly than the lavish salary he had banked for 18 years. The supervening humiliation of a six-month cocaine suspension has plainly raised the stakes, but you can't have it both ways.
The same people who pronounce Dettori lost without the sort of bedrock Ryan Moore enjoys with Sir Michael Stoute will, in the next breath, warn that he can never expect to beat Moore to serious "spares" from Ballydoyle. Yet Dettori was offered the mount on Camelot himself in the Arc last autumn – notoriously the final straw in his partnership with Godolphin – because Joseph O'Brien was unable to manage even 8st 11lbs, and Moore was committed to Stoute.
The fact is that there is plenty of room at the top. Just ask Graham Lee. Talented as he is, Lee must have been astounded that a jump jockey could prove such a prolific success, overnight, on the Flat.
We have a champion in his pomp, in Richard Hughes; and Moore's elite status was compellingly reiterated on Saturday. But Johnny Murtagh, increasingly preoccupied with training, is in the evening of his career; and Eddie Ahern's disastrous ban takes one of the few absolute naturals of their generation out of day-to-day competition. Retainers limit the availability of Jamie Spencer, William Buick and Paul Hanagan. And the bottom line is that none of these will keep Dettori from the front of any queue, regardless, once he is demonstrably back to his best.
In fairness, that will take time. Somehow race-riding makes demands of fitness that can never be met in the gym, but the critical sharpening will sooner concern his instincts, his decision-making in the heat of battle.
In Dettori's case, in particular, that introduces a chicken-and-egg quality to the situation. Though irresistible "in the zone", he can only get there by riding winners in the first place.
His agent, then, must really earn his corn now. Having pulled him from a burning plane, Ray Cochrane was formerly entitled to view his role in retirement as a comfortable sinecure, his employer being conveniently indifferent to the day-to-day grind. Cochrane has now got to prove that he can hustle, and hustle productively.
If he needs to send Dettori to an evening meeting at Catterick, to get him rolling, then so be it. They could not have parachuted on to the scene at a better time, after all, with the bloated summer programme stretching the professional community to all points of the compass, afternoon and evening.
You can rest assured that trainers and owners, once glimpsing the old Dettori, will gladly indulge any perceived damage to his reputation.
Through the delay in his relicensing, Epsom ultimately became a gnawing distraction. Even Royal Ascot, just a fortnight away, should be viewed only as a foothold. In the long run, however, a challenge of this kind might turn out to be just about the only way for Dettori to renew a vocation that had turned stale.
If he requires motivation, he need only recall the indignity of his later treatment at Godolphin. And if that doesn't work, then perhaps all this gleeful Schadenfreude will do the trick instead.
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