Frankie Dettori was sure he’d never ride a better horse than Golden Horn but he was wrong
In Monday’s Daily Mail Frankie Dettori described how he narrowly escaped death in a plane crash.
Now, in the third and final extract from his gripping autobiography ‘Leap Of Faith’, he recalls fighting back from a drugs ban to win his second Derby, and his amazing winning streak on Enable, the best horse he ever rode…
Frankie Dettori discusses his journey with Enable in his new autobiography ‘Leap Of Faith’
Derby Day. There’s nothing else like it. It’s our Super Bowl, our Wimbledon, our Monaco Grand Prix.
It’s the race I dreamed of winning as a young kid on a pony back in Milan. The Derby is the greatest race in the world and for pretty much all my career I’d ridden it every year, and finally achieved my lifelong ambition of winning it in 2007. That was before everything went to pot.
In late 2012, angered by being passed over time and time again in favour of younger jockeys, I announced that I’d no longer be riding for Sheik Mohammed of Dubai’s Godolphin stables in Newmarket. That coincided with my six-month ban from the sport after I’d taken cocaine at a party and tested positive in a random drugs test.
My drugs ban ended in May 2013, just in time for that year’s Derby, but the question was whether anyone would have me and I realised that the break from Godolphin wasn’t just a one-time thing, done and dusted.
An outfit that rich and powerful controls a lot of people, either directly or indirectly. There were trainers who weren’t allowed to give me rides and there were trainers who could give me rides but didn’t want to for fear that they would get blowback from Godolphin.
Dettori recalls being handed a six-month ban after failing a random drugs’ test in 2012
No one said this directly; no one needed to. It was just a general unspoken threat. It was not even necessarily coming straight from Godolphin. But that’s the influence they had.
People who I thought were my friends fobbed me off with lame excuses. I was the forgotten man, the ghost of Derbies past who couldn’t beg, steal or borrow a mount on the biggest day of all.
Finally I got three rides at Epsom on the day before the Derby itself. It was too foggy to go by helicopter so I went by car and when we finally reached the racecourse, after hitting heavy traffic which sent my stress levels through the roof, we couldn’t get past the long queues for the car park.
Missing my comeback wouldn’t have been a great look. It was hard enough getting the rides in the first place. So at the three-furlong marker I hopped out of the car and ran to the rail, where two security guards stopped me and insisted I had to go via the main entrance which would have made me late for the first race.
Almost before I knew it, I’d ducked past them, jumped the rail and was running the last three furlongs. I didn’t look behind to see if they were chasing me and I didn’t care: I wasn’t going to be late.
Dettori celebrates as he rides Golden Horn to win The Investec Derby at Epsom racecourse
Those first three races back yielded two last places and a fifth out of eight. It was hardly the stuff of fairy tales and I realised that the idea that I’d just pick up where I left off was ludicrous.
Six months was by far the longest I’d been out of racing since I began my career almost 25 years previously and I was trying too hard to make things happen. The horses could sense my low mood and the more mistakes I made the more I lost confidence, which made me ride even worse, and the vicious circle went on.
I became depressed, lethargic, moody. I was a complete nuisance: moping around, succeeding only in depressing myself, no use to anybody. To add insult to injury, many people thought my problem was not that I was trying too hard but that I was trying too little.
‘Frankie doesn’t care any more,’ they were saying. ‘He’s too rich, too complacent, too in love with being famous.’
They didn’t say it to my face, of course, but I heard it on the grapevine anyway. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon, got the knives out and kicked me in the backside. At one stage I went 50 races without a winner. Fifty! Even by the law of averages, you’d probably have at least one or two in that time simply by sitting on the horse and pointing it in the right direction.
I finished 2013 with 16 winners, and 2014 wasn’t much better, only yielding 37. I contemplated giving up but then came a call from John Gosden, one of the best trainers in racing, inviting me to ride for him at his Clarehaven Stables in Newmarket.
This was the second time in my career that John had been prepared to back me when nobody else would. The first was when I was 22 and he’d got me riding for Sheik Mohammed, despite a police caution for possession of cocaine.
Now he’d given me the opportunity I’d been praying for, riding a superstar horse in the shape of Golden Horn, the favourite for that 2015 Derby.
The legendary jockey did not believe he would ever ride a better horse than Golden Horn
The night before I slept badly, as I always do. I used to shy away from the nerves but now I embrace them: I need them to help me perform at my best and the night I get eight hours’ uninterrupted kip before the Derby is the day I hang up my boots for good.
Coming downstairs to make myself a coffee that morning on June 6, I saw that my five kids had made a banner for me and draped it across the kitchen window. GOOD LUCK, DADDY, it said.
Leo was then 15, followed by Ella, 14, Mia, 12, Tallula who was 11, and 10-year-old Rocco. They were old enough to know what the race meant to me and I fought back the tears as I kissed them goodbye, one by one, followed by my wife Catherine.
The previous year, when I was about to give up, she’d sat me down and given it to me straight. ‘You keep telling me how f****** good you are,’ she said. ‘Well, now’s the time to show it.’
Now was the time indeed. I hugged her hard. She’d been there for me through all the ups and downs, and we’d had more of both than the Big Dipper on Blackpool Beach. I couldn’t have done any of this without her and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
Epsom is one of the most testing Flat racing tracks on the planet, not least because in the first half mile it rises 150 feet, almost the height of Nelson’s Column. As you’re eased into the stalls it’s like looking up a mountain.
As the race got going, Golden Horn wanted to go out too fast and have his own way. No, I said, come here. I’m in charge, not you.
I always think of the horse as a ball of energy I have to eke out along the course. That energy is like a petrol gauge and if it’s a close race I need it to run out exactly on the line: not a stride after, and certainly not a stride before.
I had so much experience by then that it was like playing chess. I saw the race not as it was but as it would be in a few seconds’ time. I knew that one horse in front of me would go left and the other would go right.
I didn’t even know how I knew this: it was tiny pieces of memory stored in my brain which came up just when I needed them.
With 150 metres to go it was all sewn up. I knew we were going to win. In all my years of riding, in all the races I’ve won, it was the best and most exciting moment. More than my Magnificent Seven at Ascot, more than my first Derby, more than anything.
They told me I was finished. They told me I’d never be the same jockey again. They told me I should head off into the sunset and let the young bucks fight it out.
They were wrong. They were all wrong. Frankie Dettori, two-time Derby winner. How do you like them apples?
I looked down at my breeches. L. Dettori, they said. L for my full name Lanfranco. And now L for Lazarus.
Later that year, Golden Horn and I won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the French race which is one of the sport’s greatest events.
A Derby–Arc double isn’t unknown — six horses had done it in the previous 50 years — but it is rare and you need a special horse to pull it off.
Enable, ridden by jockey Frankie Dettori wins the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes
At the end of that season Golden Horn was retired to stud. What a horse and what a privilege to have ridden him that year. ‘I’ll never ride a better horse than that,’ I told John. But, not for the first time, I was wrong.
My 2017 season at Clarehaven started with riding out on a filly called Enable. She was a reluctant worker, and every ounce of her demeanour suggested she’d rather be back in her stable having a good old nosh on some hay rather than put up with some damn fool Italian jumping around on her back.
At the races she was a very different horse, puffing out her chest, arching her neck so the veins were sticking out and chewing at the bit like a boxer going into the ring. She just knew that this was her stage.
That year we won all three Oaks — Epsom, Irish and Yorkshire — followed by the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot and then the Prix in which the lift-off when I finally asked her to go wouldn’t have disgraced a rocket.
That was my fifth Arc, a record for one jockey. What a way to do it and what a horse to do it on: a destination horse, one the crowds came to see, one who put thousands on a gate just by her presence alone. They don’t come along very often.
The following year Enable was out of action for several months following knee surgery and I went to see her three or four times a week.
‘Where are you going?’ Catherine would say.
‘To the yard to see Enable.’
‘No reason. Just to see her.’
Just to spend time with her, talk to her, bask in the warmth of her stardust and feed her endless Polo mints. I spent more on those at the garage than I did on petrol.
Dettori, on his horse Enable, celebrates after winning the 2018 Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe
She was fit in time for us to win the Arc again that October of 2018 and the Breeders’ Cup in Kentucky the following month. An Arc and Breeders double. History right there. A few have tried but only Enable had succeeded. A further victory in the King George followed in 2019 and again in 2020, her final season before going off to stud.
That last King George took place only a few months after the start of the pandemic and as we crossed the line, making Enable the first horse to win the race three times, my screams of ‘I love you!’ echoed round the empty stands at Ascot.
Three months later we attempted to win the Arc for the third time, Pierre-Charles Boudot on Waldgeist having beaten us the previous year. No horse had ever achieved the treble and only one jockey had — Pat Eddery, on three different mounts between 1985 and 1987 — but she finished sixth and in front of an empty grandstand to boot.
That is not how it should have ended. Enable deserved a final victory in front of a rapturous crowd cheering her home to the last echo.
I got off and cuddled her. There’s no horse who can replace what we did together. We’d had an unbelievable journey and I was very grateful for that.
On her last day at Clarehaven before going off to stud she had her picture taken in the colours of her owner Prince Abdullah, the lovely pink, green and white she’d worn so well. The entire stable staff came out into the front yard, and I took her on three laps, each one to a standing ovation.
I could hardly see through my tears. Everyone else was crying too. This is how a horse like Enable can touch your soul.
Her road was run and though mine isn’t yet I know that one day it will be. The sands are running through my hourglass the same way they ran through hers, and I know that part of my wanting to stall the end of her time was wanting to stall my own too.
I dread the day I have to stop. I’ve woken up every morning for 35 years doing exactly the same thing, going out there, competing, travelling the world, all the ups and downs, people adoring me and hating me.
I’ve been in the fast lane for so long that I’ve become addicted to it. But nothing lasts for ever.
Once I stop all this madness, when I step off that treadmill, I’ll just have to readjust: reset myself, reset the treadmill at a different pace. Start another life.
God, it will be hard. And scary, too. But I’ll find a way.
THE WEIGHING ROOM KEEPS ME YOUNG(ISH)!
It’s a surreal life, the jockey life, like still being in school.
I’m in the weighing room every day with kids as young as 16, and I’m over 50, and we’re just a big family.
We don’t all love each other all the time — we cross each other, we argue and all that — but overall we get on fine. We travel together, we eat together, we ride together, and when I’m in that bubble I never get old.
The weighing room is our one private space in an arena where we’re otherwise on show the whole time.
There’s endless banter, jokes and card games with piles of cash in the middle, several grand sometimes. ‘Come on, lads, time to saddle up’, and the cries of ‘Just finishing this game!’
When you come in as an apprentice, your peg is the one at the far end. The most senior guys are next to the door because after the door you’re out.
When I started the room was full of men like Walter Swinburn, Ray Cochrane, Greville Starkey and Pat Eddery. Now I get to be the one by the door, hanging on by my fingernails as the young ones want to kick me out.
When I look at them I see myself as I was all those years ago: when they look at me they see their future, an old guy who has to wear glasses to read the form.
Pat Eddery always refused to wear glasses, even when his vision got longer than his arms.
‘Frankie!’ he’d yell. ‘Read this for me! Where am I drawn?’
I used to laugh at him and call him a blind old bat — and now I’m just the same as he was then.
There’s always one old codger in the room and if you can’t see who it is then it’s you