Frankie Dettori is having a think and a giggle about other members of royalty. He is at his favourite spot, racing’s palace in Ascot, and the old king is running breathless through some memories.
They are mostly about his mate, the Queen. He knows her heart will always belong to another of the little big men and that would be the late and great Lester Piggott. Always Lester at No 1. Always Lester grabbing him by the crown jewels. But Dettori has learnt to live with being second to his hero and so he is wearing that famous grin and hopping across the weighing room — his weighing room — as he shares a few of his classics.
In time he will get to the story of her majesty and his dog and her carpet, and others about dinner and gin. But for now, as he bounces around in anticipation of Royal Ascot, which starts on June 14, and where he has ridden 76 winners, he wants to begin with a tale of a right royal ‘f*** up’.
Frankie Dettori recounted a hilarious tale of his first encounters with the Queen through racing
‘Whenever I think about Royal Ascot I think about that,’ he says. ‘F****** hell, mate.’
It will be another five minutes before he takes a pause. ‘It was the first day of Royal Ascot in 1994. I was working for Ian Balding, who was the main trainer for the Queen. I was only 23 or something and just having the colours on the peg, the purple and red with the gold tassels, what an honour.
‘But that week, racing for the Queen, was great. First day, there’s a man at the door of the weighing room. It’s Lord Carnarvon, the Queen’s racing manager.
‘I don’t know if you noticed but the more noble you are the bigger the hat and his is huge. He looks down his nose, “Do you know how to address the Queen, boy?” Not really. “You tip your hat, you bow and call her, Your Majesty, then you don’t speak until she speaks. If she does, you finish with Ma’am”.
The legendary jockey will forever have a place in Ascot folklore after his magnificent seven
‘I’m petrified but I went outside, saw her, bowed and said the right things and she doesn’t say a word. Day two, she asks about tactics. I nail it, no f*** up. Day three, we talk about the Gold Cup. I’m getting good at this. “Good to firm, Ma’am”. Then it is Saturday. I’m walking with two jockeys, talking cars and women, and there is none of the commotion you get when the Queen is near. But I glance up and she’s two steps in front of me. In complete shock, I blurt out, “How are ya?” like a mad cockney. She laughs, “I’m still here”, and then Lord Carnarvon kicked me in the shin.’
Dettori is howling before he cuts himself off. ‘My dog p***** on her rug once,’ he says, and away he goes again.
‘I won a big race in 2005 and had a party. I was hammered and left the gates open. At some time in all that my dachshund ran away and we had a call in the morning from the Queen’s racing manager, Caroline, who lived nearby in Newmarket. “We found your dog, but we are just going to pick up the Queen from Sandringham and we are going somewhere — meet us there at 7pm.”
The jockey recounted a story of when his dog wee’d on a Persian carpet at the Queen’s residence
‘I shout out to the window to my wife Catherine, “Hey, the Queen has our dog”. She shouts back, “F*** off”, doesn’t believe me. I get my daughter, Ella, who was little, and we get dressed up, her and me. We arrive and the Queen is immaculate in a purple dress, having a gin and tonic next to the fire. She was talking to Ella and it was lovely, but then they let the dog out and it was so excited it p***** on the Persian carpet. OK Frankie, time to go.’
He is banging a fist on the table as he laughs. ‘I always love being around the Queen and it is one reason I love Royal Ascot. I come to life here. It is a special place and she is wonderful — she loves racing and meeting her is such a privilege. But… Lester she loves most.’
Piggott — the greatest Flat racer of them all, 116 Ascot winners. This interview was conducted shortly before his death, but the Queen was not alone in her deep affection for a man later described by Dettori as his ‘friend and hero’.
‘He will always be her favourite,’ says Dettori. ‘I went to Windsor Castle this one year for a pre-Ascot dinner. I was talking to her and then she suddenly says, “Frankie, go get me Lester”. That is me told. He is ahead of me.’
No one else can quite make the same claim. At Ascot and almost any other field where folk play sport.
Frankie Dettori at last week’s Epsom Derby meeting – the jockey has no plans to stop riding
It is a funny old spot, the weighing room. And he is a funny old guy, Frankie Dettori. His dad, was once the most famous jockey in Italy and his mum was a circus performer; the son took from both and he has been sharing it with the rest of us for 35 seasons now.
He will be 52 before this year is out and when he talks about the life cycle of a jockey, it is told in the context of one’s place in a weighing room. Like their horses, jockeys have a hierarchy; like horses, they all have their time, even the wild boy who never grew up. It terrifies him.
‘I know the end will come,’ he says, and for once in this conversation he offers no punchline.
Frankie Dettori alongside trainer Donnacha O’Brien at Epsom last Saturday ahead of the Derby
‘It scares me. My dad, Gianfranco, is 81, he told me, “One day it will come, so ride as long as you can”. People ask always when I will retire and I try to talk about other things. It will be hard to leave this life. Look at this place, mate.’
He points around the long rectangular room, with seats and pegs along all four walls. His are in the middle of the wall furthest from the door.
‘In most weighing rooms, you start on the back wall and as people retire you move towards the door, until you are next out. That is where I am in other places. Ascot is different.
‘I love it here. You imagine the noise. Dozens of guys, shouting, joking, fighting. And the best thing is when you go in here it is timeless, we are all the same age.
‘When Royal Ascot is on, there will be kids who are 16 and an old fart like me, all wanting the same thing. That is why it is very hard to let go. A secret to stay young? Here you have it.’ For the briefest of moments, he almost looks sad. This is not the persona we are so accustomed to seeing. The one we know is fun-time Frankie. Flash Frankie with four Ferraris. Frankie the joker of Question of Sport.
Frankie Dettori says the feeling of Royal Ascot makes it ‘very difficult’ for him to let go
Frankie who leapt from his stirrups after his magnificent seven here 26 years ago and still has not landed. Frankie who has flown high on 3,305 career wins and a few other drugs. Across almost four decades, right back to when he was sent by his father to Newmarket, a 14-year-old boy with £366 in his pocket, those have been Dettori’s faces to the world.
‘We all have fears,’ he says. ‘Stopping is mine and it is a fear that now pushes me.’
There is a short silence and a look into the void that all athletes face, but as quickly as he left, the lighter Dettori returns.
‘The kids in here now will probably want to push me out of that door,’ he says. ‘I’m scratching on the wall, holding with my teeth, “Don’t take me, I am not ready”.’
The jockey says his fear is that of stopping and retiring from the sport that he so dearly loves
He is laughing again and well he might, because the good days are still rolling. He has been hired on this day to launch Ascot’s partnership with Peroni, and a few weeks before we met he pocketed £530,000 for winning his fourth Dubai World Cup.
‘I have five kids and school fees takes the money,’ he says. ‘Although I might actually have to get a new couch. We have a German Shepherd at home. It f****** eats everything and it got at the couch. My wife and me had months of debate about what couch can replace it. It arrived today and just now, before you come in, she says it is uncomfortable.’
From that tangent, he drifts back to racing and what was versus what is. He always was scripted for the top, from when he first arrived from Milan on instruction from his old man to sink or swim, and by 1990 he had become the first teenager since Piggott to ride 100 winners in a season. He was so flash back then, or in his words ‘a bit of a d***head’, losing himself among women, drugs and hangers-on.
Frankie Dettori’s legendary flying dismount after landing another winner at Epsom last week
Now he can laugh about it through the prism of an elder statesman watching ambitious young jockeys coming up on the rail. ‘I try to help the kids out but they know it all,’ he says. ‘When I was a kid I was made to ask the older jockeys how to do stuff. Now they are bigger than me so I might get a slap if I say the wrong thing!
‘But actually I was probably the same.’
It takes his mind to an encounter with Piggott, who was 35 years his senior. It dates to the early Nineties when the elder was making a comeback aged 55.
‘Lester was not as intimidating to me as he was for my other colleagues because I grew up in Italy so I didn’t know how powerful he was,’ he says. ‘I actually raced for him when he was a trainer and I used to take the mickey, call him an old fart, tell him he would be stuffed and put in a museum.
A tribute to the Queen at Epsom last Saturday on the date of her Platinum Jubilee
‘Then he started racing again and we raced at Goodwood. We had just gone around a turn where there is a blind spot between cameras. He reached over, grabbed my balls and gave them a big squeeze. Aaarrrrggh. He looks at me and says, “That is a lesson”.
‘It tells you something — the old boys always know a bit more.’
The young boy is now the old boy. He has been through the lot, from wins to the wilderness of a cocaine ban in 2012, and everything in between, including the plane crash 21 years ago that killed his pilot, Patrick Mackey, and almost took Dettori. His forehead still carries a big scar.
He has had his knocks, but Dettori is still bouncing up again each morning at his Newmarket home. ‘You fall harder as you get older,’ he says. ‘Your bones break more.’ He counted recently and he has done 10 and had five surgeries, which he reckons is ‘mid-range’ for the gig.
The Italian aboard Stradivarius who will have one final crack at the Gold Cup at Ascot
‘The harder bit now is the weight. I do an hour in the gym every day.’ But he is still winning and still chasing. He does not go in for the smaller meets these days and sees himself mainly as a big-game player in his senior years. Which takes us back to Ascot, where he stands second on the all-time list. ‘I’ll never catch Lester,’ he says. ‘But if I can get to 77 that would be nice. And then 78…’
With his statue long mounted on these grounds, Dettori’s legacy is already secured. What he really wants next is a good send-off for Stradivarius, that magnificent thoroughbred on his final crack at the Gold Cup. With three wins, Stradivarius stands one shy of the mark set by Yeats. ‘I will cry for sure when the race is done,’ says Dettori.
It is a sentiment that would seem to apply for both man and horse. ‘I just don’t want it to stop,’ he says, and for a second time the smile disappears. He points to the bench by the door.
‘I wish I could go back to that bottom peg and start over again,’ he says. ‘I’d give all 3,000 wins to do it again, to have all that fun.’
You do not doubt it.
Frankie Dettori is an ambassador for Peroni Nastro Azzurro, official beer of Ascot Racecourse