After a quiet start to his new career as a freelance, Frankie Dettori last night restored sunshine to his life even as the shadows lengthened at Sandown. Having drawn a blank since returning at Epsom last Friday, the jockey won a sprint handicap on Asian Trader – and promptly treated his fans to a flying dismount. But there was no mistaking the wry, sober look that preceded his trademark celebration, nor the relief with which he had raised a grateful forefinger as he was cheered into the winner's enclosure.
Dettori's 2,822nd winner in Britain may well mean as much to him as the first, almost exactly 26 years previously. Since riding Lizzie Hare at Goodwood, on 9 June 1987, he has become arguably the world's most accomplished jockey. But he finds himself at a crossroads, after serving a six-month suspension for testing positive to cocaine at Longchamp last September. Having meanwhile parted company with Godolphin, after an 18-year association, Dettori, 42, must now carve out a new niche for himself.
"Look, I've ridden 3,000 winners, but everyone is waiting for this one," he said. "The first winner is always sweet, and I've had plenty of practice these last six days. Today I knew I had live chances, and one of them has won."
It is notoriously difficult for jockeys to retrieve mental and physical sharpness in the first days following a prolonged lay-off, and Dettori will remain in need of match practice before Royal Ascot starts on Tuesday week. But last night's success served as a vital boost to the confidence of a jockey who has always thrived on the self-fulfilling buzz of riding winners. It was an alert ride. Asian Trader, trained by William Haggas, missed the break and Dettori was forced to bide his time on the rail, but pounced hungrily when a gap appeared and drove his mount out for a narrow success.
Afterwards, for the first time since his return, he set himself a target for the rest of the season. "I'm not aiming high, but I'd like to win 100 races now," he said. "I've plenty of rides coming up, including 10 on Saturday."
Another of the modern Turf's high achievers, Dermot Weld, is meanwhile pushing the boundaries once again as he makes his own Ascot preparations. For after bypassing a warm-up at Leopardstown tonight, he must now try to win the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot with a nine-year-old whose entire Flat career will still comprise only five starts.
If any trainer can do it, Weld can. When he won at Ascot last autumn, Rite Of Passage had not been seen in 17 months. Moreover, he had previously won the 2010 Gold Cup with a Flat CV consisting of a Ballinrobe maiden and a Leopardstown handicap.
Weld opted to sit out a return to Leopardstown on account of going that could yet rule Rite Of Passage, 5-1 favourite with Coral, out of the Gold Cup as well. "If the ground did happen to come up on the firm side at Ascot, I'd have to say he would be a doubtful runner," he admitted. "This is a horse that has broken down twice. It will always be a day-to-day with him."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Mankini (5.30 Newmarket) Showed ability in qualifying for a low mark in maidens and – with his classy pedigree in mind, as a son of Dansili out of an Italian Oaks winner – can find due improvement at this longer trip.
Duke Of Perth (8.05 Pontefract) Similar type for the same stable, just caught out by a steady gallop at Salisbury and is likely to relish this stiff track.
One to watch
Karaka Jack (David Nicholls) Continues to thrive, tanking along when short of room and so giving the neck winner a crucial start at Musselburgh on Saturday.
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