The mystifying impasse that has delayed the return of Frankie Dettori was agonisingly prolonged today, leaving his hopes of a comeback in time for the Investec Derby on Saturday hanging by a horsehair. Renewed talks with the French regulators could not secure the return of his licence, but it remains conceivable that he could satisfy their outstanding criteria by the weekend. Whether he can do so in time to ride at Epsom seems doubtful, but the situation is so consistent with his trademark theatricality that it is hard to rule anything out. Certainly Dettori's team is optimistic that matters will be resolved imminently, if not in time for a fairytale comeback in the Derby.
The British Horseracing Authority has promised to compensate Dettori for the dilatory approach of their counterparts over the Channel, undertaking to expedite their own procedures as and when France Galop confirm that Dettori has gained the green light. For now that goodwill, like his licence, remains suspended. The BHA confined themselves last night to a brief statement, saying: "We have been in contact with France Galop, who have informed us that they are not in a position to provide any further information at present."
But it remains feasible for some dispensation to be made available to Dettori, should the French indicate that he will be authorised to ride in their own jurisdiction before the weekend. Declarations for Derby day are made at 10 am tomorrow.
Originally scheduled to end his six-month drugs ban at Leicester nine days ago, Dettori was left in limbo by an unspecified "glitch" in one of a series of tests he underwent for the French authorities. It had been their testing officials who discovered traces of cocaine in a random sample, taken at Longchamp last September, and their licensing body that subsequently banned him. Reciprocal arrangements oblige the BHA to delay the return of Dettori's British licence until he had been cleared in Paris.
The problems experienced by his team there have remained impenetrable throughout, thanks to the scrupulous confidentiality of the French authorities. Ultimately Dettori's lawyers conceded that there was an issue with one of his tests, and sent him back to Paris last week to provide a further series of samples. His lawyer duly met with officials there – but whereas it had been assumed that the medical commission of France Galop would formally convene to discuss the results, Christopher Stewart-Moore emerged to describe it merely as "a private discussion".
It is understood that the first two tests to be analysed have duly proved negative, and that the remaining two – or three, according to other sources – are expected to be processed tomorrow. Herve Naggar, Dettori's French agent, claimed last night that "the medical committee accepted the explanation of the mishap with his earlier test." As a result, it was hoped "that by the end of the week Frankie will be allowed to ride in France… subject to getting the results of his final tests and them coming back all clear."
As it is, Aidan O'Brien is not certain to run more than half the six colts he has left in the race, so there may only be a couple of vacancies after his son, Joseph, has made his choice. It would have been out of character for O'Brien – or his patrons at Coolmore – to fast-track Dettori past those Ballydoyle stalwarts, Colm O'Donoghue and Seamus Heffernan, never mind Ryan Moore, who has an established link with the yard and is available following the defection of Telescope.
O'Brien and his employers do recognise the stakes embraced by Dettori after 18 years in the service of their longstanding adversary, Sheikh Mohammed. But they were concerned that Epsom is hardly the place to ride "cold", and may well have preferred to wait until Royal Ascot. Last night that nettle seemed to have been moved beyond their grasp.