This year you give the impression of a refreshed, new man on and off the racecourse. Is that right?
I was approached by Sheikh Joaan to ride for him after Royal Ascot last year. I thought potentially this could be a big step in the right direction and, to be honest, I didn’t expect to find myself in such a good job so quickly following the end of my days at Godolphin.
We had a good August in Deauville and then we won the Prix Vermeille with Treve. Of course, I was injured after that and missed Treve winning the Arc, but the whole situation gave me a new meaning, a new purpose. Yes, it gave me a great lift and so much to look forward to.
What kind of boss is Sheikh Joaan and what does he want to achieve in the sport?
He is new in the game, thoroughly enjoys the whole experience and is very ambitious, which of course is great for the team around him. His enthusiasm rubs off on all of us. In the past at Godolphin I worked primarily with one trainer, but Al Shaqab Racing has more than ten trainers and that makes my life more interesting and enjoyable.
All those trainers are keen to do well and show the sheikh that they are doing a good job. If you like, it makes for a bit of keen competition between them and that means my life is better because I am on fancied horses all the time.
Do you see any similarities between Al Shaqab Racing and the Godolphin operation when it first started?
Both want to be the best and you can’t have a better ambition than that. Sheikh Joaan’s racing operation has been going for only three years and on the breeding side we are quite a bit behind Darley, but the way things are developing it should not be too long before we catch up. Sheikh Joaan has bought mares and we have Toronado and Olympic Glory as potential stallions, and that’s not too bad, is it?
Godolphin was your life for 18 years and you rode countless big-race winners in the royal blue silks. Is the manner of your exit still a source of sadness and have you spoken to Sheikh Mohammed since?
Absolutely, yes, it was very painful – like a divorce, never a pretty or nice situation. It took me a while to get over the fact that I wasn’t riding for Godolphin any more. I make no secret of that and now I have moved on and got a new life. But I do say hello to Sheikh Mohammed whenever I see him on the racecourse.
And when our paths crossed at the sales and I was nursing my broken leg he came and asked me how the leg was doing and how I was generally. We chatted about things and I suppose you’d say we are more like acquaintances these days.
You have been at the top of your profession and also had some knocks, handling the highs and lows with dignity. Are you a better person for experiencing the two extremes?
I have learnt not to get as stressed as I used to and to enjoy what quite honestly could be my last job. I take things as they come and don’t get so upset when there is a disappointment. I have seen some bad people in my time and of course lots of good people.
I realise the important thing is to be myself and not let the whole business get on top of you. So you see, I have a new philosophy.
What keeps the Dettori engine ticking?
Right now it’s my new job, which is exciting in itself. When you are trying to do your best for everyone around you, you find you are ‘up-for-it’ all the time. I am trying to get the best out of our horses and win the big races; that’s a big task on its own and keeps you up to the mark.
To my way of thinking I don’t have to prove anything to myself any more, because I have done everything in the sport there is to be done.
At 43 you are riding against jockeys half your age. Do you feel you are as strong in the saddle as you were ten years ago?
Luckily I am quite an athletic person and train almost seven days a week. I haven’t got any grey hairs yet! I consider myself still a young man and I envisage the riding as a stepping-stone to further jobs in Sheikh Joaan’s set-up. I would like to carry on in some other capacity helping the firm to continued success.
I don’t think I’d be any good at training because I haven’t got the patience. To train you need the whole package: on the job 365 days of the year, organising people and giving horses time. According to my wife, Catherine, I’ve got the concentration span of a flea. I’m afraid she is right.
Have you found it more difficult to keep in peak shape the older you get?
I train harder now than when I was 20. I have a treadmill at home; I much prefer to run inside rather than outside because then I can watch the replays of the races while I’m training. I do look after my weight, though I have to say when you are born in Italy the first things you learn are to eat and drink! I still enjoy both but luckily I can keep my diet under control.
Of the new generation of jockeys, is there one that stands out in your opinion?
Oisin Murphy has made a tremendous impact for a young kid. He is only 18, rode his first winner last season and obviously still has plenty to learn. But the raw talent is there for him to work on. I can’t say I really know him but he seems to carry himself well and he gets his mounts to run for him, be it in sellers or big races.
Not surprisingly, his name is on everyone’s lips at the moment.
How strong is the camaraderie in the weighing room? Do you all take the mickey and have a laugh?
There were some lunatics when I started and then when some of them retired it went a bit quiet, but now the banter is coming back. In the old days Greville Starkey and Willie Carson were a scream and full of fun, Richard Fox was another, and Steve Cauthen.
Up north there was Lindsay Charnock, George Duffield and Mark Birch. Nowadays Martin Dwyer, Jamie Spencer, Tom Queally and Rab Havlin are a laugh-a-minute. There’s a good craic in the weighing room again.
Does the Professional Jockeys’ Association have a strong enough voice and what could be done to improve the jockeys’ lot?
They do as good a job as they can. There is a lack of funds in every division of our racing and jockeys, particularly at the lower end, feel the pinch. Our percentage of prize-money is the lowest in Europe. On the other hand we have a very good insurance scheme and the backing of the Injured Jockeys Fund when things go wrong.
Facilities in the weighing room have improved, particularly the food and refreshments. In the old days all you got to eat was a cup of tea and corned beef sandwich, now it would be more like a prawn sandwich.
Is there one racecourse you enjoy riding more than the others, and what makes it special?
Ascot for many reasons, but, of course, one in particular – when I rode all seven winners in 1996. I’ve won four King Georges, five Gold Cups, six Queen Annes and five QEIIs. I’m also the leading rider at the royal meeting.
My first Group 1 was at Ascot on Markofdistinction in the 1990 QEII, followed half an hour later by another, Shamshir in the Fillies’ Mile. So it is easy to see why Ascot is closest to my heart, though I must say I enjoy riding Longchamp and Newmarket as well.
Longchamp is very tricky; you have to have pace and keep awake for any number of incidents there, while I like the Rowley Mile because I am a free-wheeling jockey. I like to let my horses free-wheel under me and Newmarket suits that style.
Married to Catherine and father of five, how do you fit family life into your busy schedule, which at times takes you to all points of the globe?
I’ve been chasing my tail for 25 years, not knowing what was going on. Then I had a six-month ban followed by six months off with a broken leg. In that year I was sidelined I managed to spend much more time with the children – Leo, 14, Ella, 13, Mia, 12, Tallula, 10, Rocco, 9. And it was complete fun; there is always something happening in the house. We holiday together in the winter and last year we spent three weeks in Thailand.
You have decided to sell your Newmarket family home, White Horse Stables. Why?
I have a stud at Hare Park a few miles away near Six Mile Bottom and we are building a house there. Catherine’s mum lives there, her brother, who likes to play polo, has a couple of polo pitches there as well as paddocks for his polo ponies.
There is also a livery yard, which I rent out. The idea is for all the family to be together.
As one of Britain’s most famous sports stars, how have you dealt with all the interest and attention over the years?
Overall I love it. I have to say at times it can get on my nerves but, if I’m honest, I’ve thrived on it. It makes me appreciate how well I’ve done and more importantly brings home to me how lucky I am to have such a great job.
If you were allowed to go back in time and ride one race differently, which would it be and why?
The 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic on Swain at Churchill Downs. The occasion got to me. I was trying to whip the horse over the line and he swerved across the track and was narrowly beaten by Awesome Again and Silver Charm. On reflection, if I had sat quietly, he would probably have galloped straight to the line and won.
But when you are a young man you make mistakes and that was one of my worst. It was the one that got away. Fortunately, I made up for it to a degree by winning the Classic on Raven’s Pass a decade later.
You must have a favourite horse. What is it, and why? And is there one for us to follow in the second half of the season?
Fujiyama Crest, who won the seventh race for me on that day at Ascot. He is 22 years old now and in the field at home. He was just a modest handicapper but he is the one that made me famous. To all of us at home he is a gentle giant and the whole family loves him.
I know Bunker ran rusty in the Dante but he has always been one of my favourites. He ran better at Royal Ascot and I think he could be on the St Leger trail. I certainly haven’t lost faith in him.
How disappointed were you with Treve’s defeats at Longchamp and Royal Ascot this year?
I was disappointed she didn’t win the Prix Ganay on her reappearance but when you look at how Cirrus Des Aigles came out and won again, it was a tip-top performance. At Ascot I knew I was in trouble galloping to the start – her action was very choppy and she didn’t feel like Treve.
I was hoping she would loosen up in the race but I knew my fate at the three-furlong marker. It wasn’t the Treve we all know. Hopefully we’ll be back for the Arc. I still have plenty of confidence in her.
What is your view of British Champions Day?
I think all the seasonal Flat championships for owners, trainers and jockeys, should start with the Guineas meeting at Newmarket and end with British Champions Day. The season would then have a recognisable beginning and end, and would be much easier for the public to follow.
Champions Day is a win-win situation, providing a wonderful finale with tremendous prizes and is just the gee-up the sport needed at that time of year.
Finally, it’s 18 years since your ‘Magnificent Seven’ at Ascot. How long did it take for your achievement to sink in and can you ever see yourself or someone else doing the same thing again?
It didn’t really hit me until the next day when I saw the front pages of the papers. Even today I think it is almost madness how I did it. It was the most extraordinary feat just to keep on winning race after race on a day as big as that.
Richard Hughes has had seven out of eight at Windsor, but to win every race on such a high-class Ascot card would be very hard to repeat.