Why Frankie Dettori's Suffolk's best known easy rider
PUBLISHED: 12:05 16 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:16 20 February 2013
Boyish good looks, irrepressible charm, an engaging personality, wonderful family life and the talent to be among the world's best at his job. Jockey Frankie Dettori sounds like the man who has it all. Eileen Wise and Roger Hermiston spoke to him
Boyish good looks, irrepressible charm, an engaging personality, wonderful family life and the talent to be among the worlds best at his job. Jockey Frankie Dettori sounds like the man who has it all. Eileen Wise and Roger Hermiston spoke to him
On the day we met him, Frankie Dettori was having a rare 24 hours off from his hectic autumn racing schedule at home and abroad. But it was clear from the briefest of evidence that you could dismiss any thoughts of him resting idly at his home in the pleasant village of Stetchworth, just outside Newmarket.
Relaxation is not a word with a prominent place in the champion jockeys vocabulary; this is a one-man force field of energy, forever on the move, his mind whirling with ideas and options for the day ahead. His packed life is partly dictated by the needs of his profession, and partly by the celebrity status earned by his performances on the turf and his engaging, effervescent personality.
His day had started in earnest at 7.30am on the treadmill in his personal gym, while his wife Catherine was out doing the heavy duty family work of transporting their five children Leo 11, Mia 9, Ella 8, Tallulah 6 and Rocco 5 to school in Cambridge.
A good sweat from an hours running and he was able to put the jockeys perennial worry about weight to the back of his mind, at least for the rest of the day. A simple breakfast of yoghurt and grapefruit followed; the evening meal would be a dish of grilled chicken or fish with vegetables.
A television crew were setting up in an adjoining room, preparing to record an interview for a programme to go out over Christmas. Meanwhile, Frankie was keeping an eye on some rooms beyond the kitchen, where builders were engaged in some serious reconstruction work.
He likes his busy existence, but does get frustrated when it gets in the way of his social life, for hes a naturally gregarious individual with a wide range of interests away from the track.
On this day, he was rueing a couple of missed opportunities. I wanted to do two things tonight I wanted to go to the Arsenal game (hes a big Gunners fan), and then my good friend Ronnie Wood rang to invite me a small gig hes playing in London tonight, just him and his guitar. But I cant go to either Im just too busy.
Frankie stands 5 feet 4 inches tall and has a racing weight of eight and a half stone, but his energetic character makes him seem a much bigger man, and he possesses a wiry strength and the spring and sheen of an elite athlete. When he sits down and talks to you, he commands your attention with attractive, penetrating dark-brown eyes.
He inherited the perfect set of genes for a career in riding racehorses. His father Gianfranco, a Sardinian, drifted over to the Italian mainland in his teens, and eventually found a job in stables near Rome. He signed up as an apprentice jockey at the Capannelle then the home of Italian horse racing despite never having sat on a horse in his life. It didnt stop him going on to win the Italian riding championship 13 times, and also capturing events like the Classic 2,000 Guineas on his occasional visits to Great Britain.
Frankies mother Iris Maria Mara, as shes known had a most exotic background. She was a member of a travelling circus, and when she wasnt taking on the roles of contortionist or juggler, she was guiding two horses round the ring while balancing acrobatically on the backs of both of them, one leg on each with the reins in her hands.
Between them, then, Gianfranco and Mara provided Frankie with a supple, athletic body perfectly designed for life as a jockey. And his mothers agility on the back of a horse is reflected in Frankies trademark celebration, the flying dismount, when he leaps from the saddle into the air and almost always to a safe landing on the ground below.
Yes, I got my flexibility and balance from my mum, and my physique from my dad. So it gelled very well for me. The flying dismount started when I was in America, because the jockey Angel Cordero who was my role model, my folk hero used to do it after races.
Id practice it in my own little barn for a bit, but I didnt actually do it in public for a long time, until 1994.
Frankie (his given name is Lanfranco) has been rewriting the history books ever since he first arrived in Suffolk in 1985 at the age of 14. Apprenticed with Cumani at Newmarket, his first win was at 16 appropriately in Italy with his first victory in Britain following soon afterwards in June 1987.
In 1990 he became the first teenager since Lester Piggott to ride 100 winners in a season. After that he remorselessly started to reel in every Classic race at home and abroad until only the Derby proved elusive. In 2007, at the 15th attempt, he finally put that right by easing the favourite Authorized to victory by five lengths.
But he achieved immortality with the punters if not the bookies, who lost millions of pounds and, in some cases, their jobs when he won all seven races on the card at Ascot in September 1996, a feat unlikely ever to be equalled.
Now, on the eve of his 40th birthday, one wondered what continues to drive him on. After all, hes won all the major prizes while managing to avoid serious injury (on the track) in this, the most precarious of sports. Had any thought been given to a future retirement date?
Have you seen the work theyre doing to the house? I cant afford to stop! he jokes. No, Ill be honest with you, Ill go on as long as I can, and try to get as close to 50 as I can, health permitting. In this day and age 50 is not the age it used to be and I still love it, its a way of life, its my way of life. The diary governs my existence from Dubai in February, through to the Derby and Royal Ascot, then Ebor and Goodwood, then on to September and Newmarket, Champions Day, the Arc its my life, its great.
There may come a day when somebody better and stronger and younger comes along and takes my job. Right now, Im still holding my own so Im ok.
But Frankie freely admits there is an economic imperative that propels him onwards. Theres no other thing in the world that can produce the financial rewards that I can get now, and I still have five kids to raise. It doesnt just stop when they go to school, theyll probably want a car, and flat, and this and that, so Ive got to keep going for that. Its not just me to look after now.
He himself grew up effectively as a single child after his parents divorced when he was just six months old, and then his sister ran away when she was 14 (she was six years older than him).
There was a lot of kidnapping in Italy in the 1970s and my father was afraid for my safety and kept me at home a lot. So I guess Ive always wanted to have the family and company I never had as a child.
Catherine and I both wanted not necessarily a huge family but at least three. So we started with boy/girl straight away, then a girl Mia, then it was going pretty well so we thought wed try for another boy. Then the fourth child was Tallulah, so we tried again and it was a boy, Rocco. Five. Finished! So we didnt set out to have five it just happened.
Frankie enjoyed his schooldays back in Italy but struggled academically, and hes determined his children will get the best possible education and support.
I can see something of myself in Leo (his eldest child), because hes dyslexic, and I guess Im dyslexic as well but in my day you didnt know much about it.
Its amazing how different schooling is in England. Leo has special help after school, loads of assistance and its great I wish Id had that. The best thing you can give your children is a good education, and I know its very expensive they go to a private school but I have to give them that chance, and then theyre on their own.
Ill be honest with you, Ill go on as long as I can, and Ill try to get as close to 50 as I can, health permitting. I still love it. Its a way of life. Its my way of life
The large Dettori family doesnt end with the humans. The kitchen door of their extensive house backs on to a big courtyard with a round, unfenced paddock on which two miniature donkeys Pip and Neville graze, watched over (in their baskets) by three small dogs, a Jack Russell, terrier and a mongrel. The donkeys amble into the kitchen, like oversized dogs, if the door is left open by mistake!
The childrens ponies are also stabled in the courtyard. One member of the equine household could only be spotted in the distance in a nearby paddock thats Fujiyama Crest, the game gelding who was the seventh of Frankies winners by just a neck on that historic day at Ascot.
The relationship between man and horse is something about which Frankie speaks most eloquently. Once hes sitting on the animal, he says it takes him just five seconds to determine its character, its nature, its temperament even its best distance. Hes convinced that the really great jockey must have something of the psychiatrist in his make-up.
People who watch racing, they think it looks quite easy, but they forget youre dealing with an animal who doesnt know if hes racing one mile or ten miles. He doesnt read the Racing Post and say to himself in his box, So, I'm going to Yarmouth today, so how shall I deal with that course! We stick a saddle on him with a number, then I get on him, and then he has to obey my instructions.
From the moment I get on the horse to the moment I get to the start that five to seven minute window weve got to gel, weve got to understand each other, hes got to place his trust in me. It is as important as the race, and your body language and mental state is of huge importance to the outcome of the race.
Your body language is transmitted by your brain and if youre relaxed, confident, positive, then the horse will feel all that. But if youve argued with your missus and youre tense, hell feel it and itll affect his performance.
Hes one of the most outwardly self-confident men you could meet, but says hes no different to anyone else and suffers the occasional blues, The Mondays as he calls it, just like everyone else. But hes very clear and quite ruthless about whats required to get his mind in order for successful racing.
Ive been doing my job for over 20 years, and Ive realised that you need to surround yourself with positive people, with a good family life. You know, if somebody comes up to me and says my dogs died, I say, dont tell me that, go and get another one! I dont need other peoples problems, and I myself try and keep my head as clear and positive as possible.
Youre trying to create an atmosphere where you can perform at 100 per cent most of the time, and perhaps even reach 110 per cent some times. Everybody knows that Im a person who, when Im on a roll, Im really on a roll. Its something I cant even control myself, I may not have done anything different in my preparation, but it just happens.
In June 2000 Frankie narrowly avoided death when the Piper Seneca aircraft he was travelling in with fellow jockey Ray Cochrane crashed on take-off and burst into flames on the Newmarket racecourse. The pilot, Patrick Mackay, was killed, while Frankie escaped after Ray had dragged him clear of the wreck with just a fractured right ankle and injured thumb.
He reflects soberly about the impact of that day. Im a changed person as a result of it. Before I just thought about racing, and that was it, I didnt really have a life, you know. It was a wake-up call. There were little things that used to upset me now they dont bother me any more. I just get on with things if I dont like something, then Im off. I enjoy life more and I think actually for me a lot of good has come out of it.
He needs to fly all over the world for his job, but fortunately the crash has not left him fearful of the bigger aircraft he travels in. But he hasnt been up in a small plane since that day.
Frankie has now lived in and around Newmarket for much of the last 25 years. He loves his home in Stetchworth for the privacy and quiet it affords him after his global travels, and he appreciates his relative anonymity in the local area.
I guess you cant compare Newmarket itself to the rest of Suffolk because weve got a mix of all kinds, all nationalities, especially in the racing world. But what I love about here is my home and I miss it when Im away.
Its my life, you know. I pick up my car, go to Waitrose like a normal human being, just do normal things, and I really enjoy that. Its probably the only place that I can walk around without feeling Im going to be bothered. I can go down the pub and have a beer and people will say nothing. Theyre used to seeing me and Im not a famous face to them, Im just one of the community.
With the hectic lives both he and Catherine lead, most nights theyre content to have dinner, watch a bit of television and go to bed. But when a babysitter can be found, and hes got a day off when he can momentarily relax about what hes eating, they like to head out to good local restaurants and pubs.
I like to drag Catherine over to Tuddenham Mill in Tuddenham, because its a nice, quiet place where you can get a really good meal. Im fond of Chinese food so we might go to The Fountain in Newmarket, and if were out with the kids then theres the famous Prezzo. Were also lucky that we have a good pub next door in Dullingham The Kings Head.
Food is now of course also a business for Frankie. He owns a chain of restaurants; Frankies Bar and Grill, with the similarly charismatic chef Marco Pierre White, and it just might be an area of gainful employment in the distant future when he decides to hang up his racing boots.
Im a shareholder and my name is on the wall, but basically Marco does everything. Obviously when we first started we talked about the menu and what sort of restaurant road we wanted to go down, but now that its up-and-running he does it all.
Its nice that Ive got this to fall back on. It would be completely different to racing, but I enjoy communicating with people and its another way of life Im interested in.
The subject of a jockeys food intake is one of perpetual fascination to those outside the sport but constant strain for the riders themselves. In the past, Frankie admitted he took diuretic drugs to keep his weight down (before they were banned in 1998) but he was just one of many.
These days, with greater experience of the problems, hes more settled in his mind about his approach. Its all about give and take. If I get up and do a good hour on the treadmill, like this morning, then I can have a normal sort of meal tonight.
In the summer the Dettori family spend a good deal of time apart Frankie is in the most intensive period of his sporting year, racing virtually every afternoon and evening, many of them big events. So hes largely on his own in Stetchworth while Catherine and the children are out at the family home in Sardinia.
Catherine has travelled the world with Frankie, but these days, with five children to look after, she rarely spends much time at the racecourse watching him.
Shes got her own life, and it would be a wasteful day for her just to sit there outside the jockey room, wave and say Hi to me. Shes got loads of other things to do. She probably goes to the races two or three times a year. She does Ladies Day at Newmarket with her girlie friends; they get dressed up and spend most of the time in the bar, and probably only watch the races on telly! he says teasingly.
Five or six years ago she came to the Arc weekend, so we stayed in Paris on Saturday night and when she woke up on Sunday morning she said, Ive changed my mind, Im going back home. So she missed the race and I won!
Over the last decade or so Frankie has helped build up the reputation of Dubai as an important centre for racing, and he relishes the winter months he spends in the United Arab Emirates.
My kids absolutely love it in Dubai too its very child-friendly. Its one big holiday when they come over, they have the beach and the pool and its just Dad, lets go go-karting or Lets go and see the dolphins. Everything they could want is there. Its very Westernised out there as long as youre not vulgar and do something stupid like walk around with next-to-nothing on.
Flat racing jockeys inhabit a very peculiar, specialised world, and when they stray outside it they can feel surprisingly adrift. Frankie has tried his luck jumping hurdles hes even been on a hunt or two around Cambridge but always professes to find it quite intimidating.
I remember trying it when I was 19 years old, in a charity race. Id never jumped anything in my life but I thought, I can do it, its no problem. It turned out Id never been so scared in my life! I called up Richard Dunwoody (twice a Grand National winner), a good friend of mine at the time, and asked, What do I do? He said, Youve been riding horses all your life, dont worry, youll see the stride. I called him after the race and told him, Listen, what stride were you talking about? I had my eyes shut all the time!
If his sons wanted to follow in his footsteps, Frankie wouldnt hold them back. If Leo said he wanted to be a jockey, I wouldnt discourage him. Id rather he doesnt, Ill be honest with you, but if he wants to, well, its part of the tradition in my family so it would feel normal.
When he finishes riding Frankie says he has no ambition to turn trainer, citing a lack of patience and a belief that he would get easily bored. But retirement is still a long, long way off. Sir Gordon Richards didnt finish until he was 50, while Lester Piggott rode his last race at 60. The Dettori era still has some way yet to run.