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Frankie Dettori: The winners, the drugs, and the dice with death

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It was 2012. Lanfranco ‘Frankie’ Dettori, the biggest name in racing, was making headlines worldwide but for all the wrong reasons.

The three-time champion jockey, rider of more than 3,000 winners, had been banned for six months after testing positive for cocaine.

What led him to the lowest point in what had been a hugely successful career to that point, is explored with searing honesty in Leap of Faith, Dettori’s new autobiography, written with best-selling author Basil Starling.

The flying dismount which has become Frankie's trademark
The flying dismount which has become Frankie's trademark

And it wasn’t the first time the drug had threatened to derail his career. Back in 1993 he had been lucky to receive only a police caution for possessing a small amount of cocaine. That brush with the law lost him a lucrative riding job in Hong Kong, the acceptance of which had already seen him split with trainer, Luca Cumani, the man who had helped nurture the career of the son of a champion jockey, and a trapeze artist, whose marriage according to Dettori “was over before he was born”.

With a tag round his neck like Paddington Bear, the 14-year-old had been sent to England to hone his skills as a jockey. The move was to be Dettori’s first, but certainly not his last, leap of faith, and at Cumani’s Bedford House stables, he became known as Frankie as the lads quickly ditched Lanfranco.

Stepping out of the long shadow, cast by his father’s successes, was a tough ask but Dettori succeeded. The 2007 Derby win on Authorized, after 15 years of trying, is remembered as a watershed moment in Dettori’s relationship with his father who presented him with the 1960s white-gold Piaget watch he had only ever wore once a year, and had promised to his 13-year-old son if he ever won the Epsom classic.

Frankie Dettori on his beloved Enable working on the Rowley Mile
Frankie Dettori on his beloved Enable working on the Rowley Mile

“That watch has been so big in my life that I’m scared to wear it, “said Dettori.

“To me it’s a symbol of so much. It’s not just a reward for winning a race or a marker of growing up. It reminds me where I came from and what I have.”

And what he already was was a national name as, in 1996, after becoming first jockey to Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin racing operation, he rode his Magnificent Seven winners at Ascot securing his place in racing folklore.

With the highs came the lows. June 1, 2000. Dettori, and fellow jockey, Ray Cochrane, were flying to Goodwood but their plane crashed near the Rowley Mile in Newmarket killing the pilot Patrick Mackey. Dettori was dragged to safety by Cochrane who was later to become his agent. He recalled it was “the only way I can even begin to pay him back for saving my life. Because he did save my life, simple as that. If he hadn’t first kicked me out of the plane and then dragged me away, I’d have been caught up in the fireball and burnt to death.”

Frankie Dettori unveils his Legend of the Turf slab in Newmarket High Street
Frankie Dettori unveils his Legend of the Turf slab in Newmarket High Street

Leap of Faith also details the acrimonious split with Godolphin in which Dettori regarded its then trainer, Mahmood al Zarooni, later banned for eight years for doping horses, as the villain of the piece. “He was the one who wanted me out: he was the one who pretty much forced me out,” he said.

A time in racing’s wilderness followed his return from his drugs ban. “Nobody phones. I can hardly beg a ride,” said Dettori, who remembered not even being recognised by the gate man when he turned up for three rides at Epsom.

A slide towards the racing’s wasteland threatened but, with backing of trainer, John Gosden, and the unwavering support of his adored family, Dettori was to dominate again and enjoy even greater glory on the likes of Stadivarius, Golden Horn, and notably his beloved Enable.

Leap of Faith (Harper Collins Publishing) is out today, price £20.

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