Frankie Dettori MBE

Words: Andy Tongue
Portraits: Shamil Tanna
Hair and make-up: Louise Ormiston


As Frankie Dettori strides purposefully into the studio he is carrying a stylish milliner’s case, which immediately attracts everybody’s attention. With a typically theatrical flourish he produces a beautiful, vintage top hat, which has PODIUM’s art director purring with delight—the silk is so fine you can almost see your reflection in it.

“Do you like it? It’s over 100 years old,” he asks. “Like it, it’s amazing,” mumbles our aforementioned man. “It cost me £5,000 secondhand,” says Dettori proudly (and presumably not from ebay either). “It is quite tight but I have a small head so it fits me perfectly,” he adds, grinning.

In person, Lanfranco Dettori is just as you would expect—charismatic, charming and a bundle of energy, jumping around, inspecting our photographer’s equipment, giving his input and eventually directing the shoot himself! “Frankie will be great; just make sure he doesn’t get bored,” we had been told and so the music was turned up and we set to work. With his cheeky chappie persona (definitely genuine rather than contrived) and flamboyant flying dismount for which he is known beyond racing’s usual boundaries, Dettori was the natural choice to front the QIPCO Champions Series, flat racing’s attempt to create a summer-long competition that would engage the wider sports public as well as committed turf fans.


League of champions


Comprising five categories—Sprint, Mile, Middle Distance, Long Distance and Fillies and Mares—the Series features the seven highest-rated races in each category and has been staged at the leading courses around the country, encompassing all flat racing’s key festivals, including the QIPCO Guineas Festival, the Investec Derby Festival, Royal Ascot, the July Festival, Glorious Goodwood, the Ebor Festival at York and the Ladbrokes St Leger meeting.

It was something that racing needed. We’ve got to compete with other sports

Although a new venture, it has certainly made a decent impression. “It was something that racing needed,” says Dettori. “We’ve got to compete with other sports. The concept is simple, with the best horses racing at the best tracks and it’s easy to follow for the general public.

“It’s a bit like the Champions League—the best teams from each country go to the best stadiums and have the best final. That’s what the people want to see and what racing should give them.”

The culmination of the series is British Champions Day at Ascot on 15 October, which is the richest single day’s racing ever staged in the UK, featuring more than £3m in prize money.

The job of marketing it has certainly been helped by the emergence of the best horse of recent years and one which could go on to become an all-time great: Frankel. The Henry Cecil-trained colt won the 2,000 Guineas in sensational style at Newmarket in April, sprinting out from the stalls to open a 16-length lead and holding on to win by a clear seven lengths—something that had never been seen before in a British Classic. He followed that up with a scintillating demolition of the champion four-year-old miler Canford Cliffs at Goodwood to confirm his status as the best horse in the world.

Frankel is due to run at Ascot in the Mile and Dettori is relishing the prospect. “All eyes will be on Frankel. He’s the flag-bearer for racing at the moment and it’s great for the sport even if the rest of us can’t get close to him. I saw him at the start in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood but after that only his backside,” he laughs. “And in the Guineas, I tried to go with him but just burnt out my horse (Casamento), while he kept going. He’s a wonderful animal.”


Racing needs stars


Flat racing often suffers in comparison to the jumps when the best horses are retired as three-year-olds, as in the case of Sea the Stars. The public are also unable to develop an affinity with them in the way they do with the likes of Kauto Star, Denman, Desert Orchid and many others. So the news that Frankel is due to stay in training and run again next year is welcomed by Dettori: “I think he will be even better next year and he’ll probably step up to 10 furlongs, which means there will be some very big races for him.”

Asked which of the top milers he’s ridden over the years would come closest to the wonder horse, he plumps for Mark of Esteem—winner of the 2,000 Guineas in 1996 and then the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes the following year, where he demolished a high-class field.

This was Dettori’s third race of the day—28 September 1996—when he famously went through the card to record his “Magnificent Seven”, which left the bookies reeling and delighted race fans across the country. It confirmed his status as the best-known and most popular jockey of his generation. As he crossed the winning line time after time the odds on his following rides crashed, but anyone staking one pound at the morning prices on his seven runners would have picked up a cool £120,000.

“Ascot is my favourite track so I always love riding there. There’s always a great crowd, it has the best grandstand of any track in the country and I get a great buzz from the place—maybe that releases some extra adrenalin which affects the way I ride,” Dettori says, before adding: “I never won the Champion Stakes at Newmarket so I’m very glad they’ve moved it to Ascot.”


Going strong at 40


He is likely to have a couple of plum rides of his own for the Godolphin stable on the filly Blue Bunting (winner of the 1,000 Guineas and Irish and Yorkshire Oaks), as well as gutsy stayer Opinion Poll, winner of both the Goodwood and Lonsdale Cups this summer. Both are very good horses, potentially top class in the case of Blue Bunting, but which would he say are the best horses he has ridden in his career? “Obviously Dubai Millennium—he was the best. Fantastic Light was great and Authorize, the horse I rode when I won the Epsom Derby. Lammtarra was unbeaten and Sakhee won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe by six lengths.”

Aged 40, Dettori seems to be riding better than ever this summer. He has enjoyed some great victories, including Rewilding getting the better of the Australian raider So You Think at Royal Ascot in June and achieving a treble in August at the Ebor Festival at York. What is the secret to his longevity?

I’m in better shape now than I was at half my age

“It’s a milestone,” he admits. “But I still feel quite young at heart. I train for at least an hour every day—I was in the gym this morning before coming here so I’m in better shape now than I was at half my age. I like a nice glass of wine and enjoy good food so you have to work it off.

“I’m fortunate that I can pick and choose when to race and I don’t have to flog myself to death. But I can’t retire yet. I’ve got five kids and they need to be fed and provided with all the other things they need.

“During your career you have the first stage where you dream your dreams, then the second stage where you fulfil them. I’m now at the third stage where I just enjoy doing what I’m doing. I’ve won most of the big races around the world so I can go out without feeling too much pressure and just enjoy riding. I love it!

“My target is to ride at 50—Mick Kinane got there and so did Pat (Eddery) and Willie (Carson)—but obviously to do so I need to stay healthy so I’ll take it a year at a time.”

A passionate and avid Arsenal fan, the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford can’t have done his blood pressure much good but he jumps to the defence of Arsène Wenger: “I’ve got total faith in him. We’ve got plenty of very good players and have no problems scoring against anyone—we just need to tighten up at the back. I think we’ll finish in the top three again this season.”

His opportunities to go to the Emirates are limited, though, due to the global nature of the Godolphin operation. “From November each year I am on a bit of a world tour—America for the Breeder’s Cup, then the Japan Cup, Melbourne Cup (the people there go nuts for that race) before every February and March in Dubai, which I really enjoy. It’s a good time to escape from Britain—the weather’s not so great at that time of year, is it?”

The jet-setting means he has had to turn down the chance to appear on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing on more than one occasion but there is one show which could tempt him—I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here. “I would love to go into the jungle,” he declares. “I’m Italian, I’ll eat anything. Crocodile’s penis? Bring it on!”

After spending the afternoon with PODIUM, Dettori is off to his latest restaurant in Chelsea, Cavallino (Italian for small horse). He also has his long-running venture with Marco Pierre White, Frankie’s Bar & Grill, now based in five locations—Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Dublin, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. “Cavallino is an all-Italian set-up. We’ve got a great chef over from Italy. Frankie’s is more of a fun place for drinking and perhaps some dancing. This is all about an upmarket, top-quality dining experience.”

And there is some serious business awaiting him. “We’ve got some nice Italian reds lined up that I have to taste—I get all the best jobs,” he laughs. “But on a serious note, I was talking to the restaurant manager and we agreed that we need wines which are nice but also affordable. We’re in a recession at the moment and you can’t ignore that.”

And what should we be eating with these wines? “The liver is fantastic but we also have some very good fish on the menu.”

Sounds like a good night, so it’s just as well he is not riding again until a few days later— when we meet he is serving out a suspension for misuse of the whip at Royal Ascot.

I’m not the sort of person who can sit indoors and watch Coronation Street… I have to go out with the boys and be
at the heart of the action!

Again, it is probably a good thing that he doesn’t live amidst the bright lights of London but in more sedate surroundings near Newmarket with his wife Catherine and their five children—Leo, Ella, Mia, Tallulah and Rocco—in fairly lavish converted stables, where Fujyama Crest, the last of his seven rides on that famous afternoon at Ascot in 1996, resides in retirement as part of the family. His wife also keeps ponies, which Dettori jokes are better looked after than he is. “I’ll get home and the fridge might be empty but the ponies are living like kings—mucked out every morning and always well-fed.”

As for the kids: “They all ride the ponies and if one of them said they wanted to be a jockey I’d encourage them, explain to them the task ahead. But I’d make sure they understood that I’m very lucky to be riding some of the best horses around and it’s not like that for every jockey—it’s a tough game.”


Cheating death


The domestic bliss is only shattered when it comes to packing for his trips abroad. “I’ve learned to travel as light as possible after many years but my wife is still lugging three suitcases behind her—one of which is full of magazines—don’t they sell them in other parts of the world?” he laughs.

The happy-go-lucky persona is certainly genuine but is any of it related to his very close brush with death back in 2000, when the plane carrying him, and his agent and close friend Ray Cochrane, crashed on take-off at Newmarket, killing the pilot? Dettori escaped with just a fractured right ankle and an injured thumb.

“I cheated death,” he reflects. “I was meant to be dead. Of course it affects you and the way you approach life. I make sure I surround myself with positive people and cherish my family and enjoy my job… I’m very lucky to have the life that I do and the opportunities in racing and other things such as the restaurants.”

On that cheerier note, and before his car arrives to take him across London to Chelsea, Frankie wants to take over the photoshoot. “Let’s try this shot,” he says, climbing on a bar stool and crouching in the drive position he would adopt turning into the home straight at Ascot.

The balance shown is remarkable and certainly nothing anybody else in the studio would have even thought of attempting. Our art director is open-mouthed in admiration for the second time that afternoon: “What a picture. I wish I’d thought of that!”

Andy Tongue is the editor of PODIUM. He’s hoping Frankie can provide us with a few tips for British Champions Day

Always the entertainer, Dettori joked, laughed and danced his way through an afternoon with the PODIUM team.

Portraits: Shamil Tanna