‘My finale’: Frankie Dettori set to retire from riding after 2023 Flat season
For years, racing has wondered what it will do without Frankie Dettori, who took over from Lester Piggott as the sport’s greatest headline-grabber and has now held the mantle for more than three decades. In a little less than 11 months’ time we will finally find out, after Dettori’s disclosure to ITV Racing on Saturday that the 2023 Flat season will be his final campaign in the saddle.
Dettori, as he always intended, will bow out at the top, probably on 4 November 2023 at the Breeders’ Cup meeting at Santa Anita, the track where he steered Raven’s Pass to the first – and still only – success for a British-trained runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
That is just one among dozens of highlights on Dettori’s showreel, which opens with a big-race double at Ascot in September 1990, when he was three months shy of his 20th birthday, and includes the unforgettable afternoon at the same track in 1996 when he went straight through the seven-race card. Dubai Millennium, Swain, Ouija Board, Fantastic Light, Golden Horn, Enable and Stradivarius are just a handful of the champions that earned their place in the pantheon with Dettori holding the reins.
“It is a very difficult decision because my heart wants to carry on riding,” Dettori said. “But I have had to use my brain and I’ve just turned 52 and next year I’ll be 53. I want to be competitive enough to do my owners and my horses justice next year and I think I’m still in that bracket of being good. It was difficult, but it is the right time.
“I spoke to my dad [the former Italian champion Gianfranco] at length. My dad stopped at 51, he is very supporting and I also had to speak to my wife and children, who are delighted because they have barely seen me for 35 years.
“I’ve decided with the firepower I have next year, I can finish my career on a big note. Fingers crossed, I stay in one piece and we’ll give it a good go next year. Look at Ronaldo, one day he was playing and he’s on the bench the next. I don’t want to end up like that and end up where I’m struggling to get rides in the big races. At the moment I still have good horses to ride and I want to finish like that.”
From his earliest days as a teenaged apprentice – and the first fledgling rider since Piggott to ride 100 winners in a season – horses have always run for Dettori. His immense natural talent and horsemanship found an ideal foil in the trainer Luca Cumani, who steered him through some difficult early years in Newmarket dealing with his celebrity status, which included a caution for possession of cocaine in April 1993.
The following year, he teamed up with Sheikh Mohammed’s embryonic Godolphin operation, at the start of a 20-year run of almost unbroken success on the track in their royal blue silks. The first of his three Flat jockeys’ championships arrived the same year, when his final total of 233 winners was the highest for 45 years.
The nadir of Dettori’s two decades with Godolphin was the plane crash in June 2000 which claimed the life of his pilot, Patrick Mackey. He was pulled from the burning wreckage by his fellow rider Ray Cochrane, and returned to the saddle only two months later.
By then, Dettori was already firmly established as one of the sporting world’s most familiar names, thanks in part to his magnificent seven at Ascot in 1996 but also his natural ebullience in front of the cameras. Where Piggott, his predecessor as the betting public’s go-to jockey, shied away from interviews and microphones, Dettori embraced celebrity easily and instinctively, reaching new audiences via shows as varied as A Question Of Sport and Loose Women.
Dettori was, in his later years, a flawed hero too, forced to rebuild his career in the post-Godolphin days after a six-month ban for testing positive for cocaine in September 2012. He checked in to the Celebrity Big Brother house while serving his suspension, then returned to his day job in May 2013 with his talent undimmed but a host of young and hungry rivals ahead of him in many trainers’ pecking orders.
The 10 seasons since have seen Dettori enjoy an Indian summer in association with John Gosden’s powerhouse yard in Newmarket. A typically brilliant ride from a wide draw aboard Golden Horn in the 2015 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe further cemented his status as one of the few individuals in any sport for whom no surname is required, while Enable and Stradivarius ran up long sequences of wins in Group One events.
Dettori’s 11-month farewell tour will give his public every chance to say goodbye and will no doubt be emotional at times, with his last Guineas meeting, last Derby and last Royal Ascot all leading towards a final wave to the fans at the Breeders’ Cup in California.
The last of his 14 winners at the meeting – a record for a European-based rider – came in 2018, but who would bet against one last flying dismount by Dettori against the backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains in November?