Frankie Dettori spoke to me. “I felt really bad reading about myself in the newspapers, ashamed,” he said. “Racing had stopped being my number one priority and I couldn’t wait until the weekend and go out and party. Racing became secondary.
“I didn’t realise then that racing was the most important thing in my life. Success, money and everything that goes with it had come too easily. I lost perspective. My advice to anyone about drugs is that it’s not worth it. But someone probably told me exactly the same thing and I didn’t listen to them. Maybe it’s a lesson some people have to learn for themselves.”
This could have been last week, but it was actually last century, November 1996 to be precise, in the Rib Room of the Carlton Tower Hotel, London. Frankie was discussing the night a young and cherubic Italian jockey was searched by police in London and the only element remotely angelic about the embarrassed little man was the dust they found on him. Dettori told me he had become “a prat”.
What now, then, when the wheel has returned to puncture point and the air seems to be hissing out of Frankie’s career once again? Does the 42-year-old father of five have the stomach to recover as the younger version once did?
These will be difficult times. Instead of a New Year being feted in the Emirates, sunning himself gently and dreamily anticipating the Dubai World Cup and the spread of international meetings, he is now in a cold place.
Anyone remotely close to the man, however, knows he is far more complicated than this vaudeville ever suggested
When Dettori returns after his six-month worldwide ban it is most probable we will see a different person. Frankie has always tried to please, a tendency born out of a challenging relationship with his champion jockey father, Gianfranco. This trait carried over into his professional persona, where he quickly found that his Basil Brush one-liners and upbeat disposition were a much-appreciated counterbalance from the weighing room after the many years of Lester Piggott and his no-liners.
Dettori is a performer, and performers respond to their audience. We enjoyed this act, so he repeated it. For 25 years.
Anyone remotely close to the man, however, knows he is far more complicated than this vaudeville ever suggested. “Everybody expects me to be happy all the time and sometimes, when I’m having a bad day, I have to put on a face,” he told me. “But I’m not putting it all on, it’s more an extension of how I feel. They say every Italian is snappy and temperamental, and I’m no different.”
The blackest moments arrived recently when he realised the old Frankie Dettori had a new name and it was Mickael Barzalona. Here was the replacement young continental jockey coveted by Sheikh Mohammed and there was no space for the original model.
As he thought it might all be coming to an end, Dettori’s reaction may have speeded along the process. He calls it “one night of madness” and we must allow him that assessment of his problems.
In that one night, though, his broader image changed. Dettori does not have to be a cheery cartoon any longer and that cannot detract from his riding when he comes back before us. He certainly has plenty of collateral to draw on.
Frankie has been the public’s racing face for two decades now. His only rival for that title is, interestingly, another contrived television character who has also recently slipped out of the racing mainstream. The fatter one with the sideburns.
Everyone who makes a living out of racing may owe Frankie one and, like Sir Henry Cecil before him, one of the great names of the sport is seeking to culminate a career on his own terms.
Dettori himself remembers earlier painful times from his professional life. When he returned after a winner, Stuart Jackson, Luca Cumani’s head lad, would always be lurking. “He used to hide in different places and wait for me to come into work,” Dettori told me. “Then he’d run out and boot me up the arse.”
Perhaps Frankie needs Stuart again.