At 5’3” Frankie Dettori could probably sneak into the Nad Al Sheba paddocks without too much fuss, and possibly without even being noticed. Yet, despite being an S-fit man, his XL personality (X= eXtrovert and L = Lovable) means the Italian is just as hard to get close to off the track as he is when racing one of his famed horses on it.
Standing trackside two days before the biggest meeting of the Dubai Racing Club calendar, the $6 million (Dh22m) World Cup, Dettori – under the sweltering Arabian sun – is mobbed by fans, media and racing officials. Yet in his Diesel jeans, brown leather shoes and Tommy Hilfiger shirt (accessorised with a chunky Prada belt and Ray-Ban aviators) he looks as relaxed as if he were stepping out for a family dinner in the middle of Milano.
The Mediterranean motormouth, whose “vita” appears perennially “dolce”, has opted to ride Jalil in a bid to win the world’s richest horse race for the fourth time.
With Horse of the Year, Curlin, in fine form going into the race, few would expect anyone but the thoroughbred favourite to be first past the post. But Dettori is a winner. You can never rule him out.
“The wait is the hardest part,” he says, flashing his Hollywood smile. “Just waiting for the big day, then it’s all guns blazing.
“Preparation is going smoothly. [Jalil] is three from three at Nad Al Sheba, he loves this track. We keep on raising the bar for him and he keeps on delivering the goods. [Tomorrow] is going to be the biggest challenge of his life; he’s got the heavyweight champion, Curlin, to beat, but we’re going to give it a go,” says the Dubai World Cup winner.
Dettori’s “giving it a go” is not what his racing rivals want to hear. The Italian winning has become as close to a sure thing as possible. In September 1996, the Italian made history by riding all seven winners on the day’s card at Ascot.
More than a decade and some 2,500 winners later, his confident nature is none more evident than in his signature manoeuvre: the mid-canter bound off his horse (one to regularly unnerve his insurers no doubt) as he heads (invariably) for the winner’s enclosure.
The stats do not lie. Dettori has won the St Leger four times, the Dubai World Cup, the Oaks and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe three times each, the 1,000 Guineas and 2,000 Guineas twice each, four Irish Classics and the Breeders’ Cup mile among numerous other titles.
Last December, when he won the Hong Kong Cup, he earned his owner £749,000 (Dh5.5m) – not bad for two minutes’ work. Tomorrow’s meeting, which has a $21.25 million (Dh80m) total purse, Dettori is confirmed to ride in six of the seven races, and the Italian says he is feeling the pressure – possibly because, at Godolphin, his boss is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
“I ride for the Ferrari team of horse-riding,” he says. “Godolphin is obviously a Dubai operation so this is our hometown, it carries a lot of pressure; we have to deliver.”
Dettori was born in Milan, in 1970, to Sardinian parents (his father was notable jockey Gianfranco, his mother Mara, to add splash to an already technicolour backdrop, was a circus contortionist). At eight years old, young Lanfranco (his given name) was adept at riding his pet Palomino pony, but it was only when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to grow much over five foot that his father decided he should follow in the family trade. At 14 he was duly despatched to the school of hard knocks: England.
These were undoubtedly tough times. “I went to Newmarket not knowing anyone and not having a single word of English. I was like a little asylum-seeker,” says Dettori sighing. He begged his father to return home, but there was no respite (“My dad was a cold and intimidating figure – it was like meeting Roy Keane in the kitchen on a bad day”). At the expense of their relationship, which has never been fully mended, Gianfranco’s plan paid off. After Frankie’s first win at 15, the victories started mounting. In 1990 he became the first teenager since Lester Piggott to ride 100 winners in a season... and not nearly so dourly.
In recent times Dettori’s effervescent persona has been peddled to great popular gain. The Italian has opened four branches of “Frankie’s Bar & Grill” in London and one in Shanghai, and in Dubai, where Dettori lives for three months of the year and has done for the past 14, the newest franchise has been greeted with widespread approval.
Dettori says the restaurant, which opened in November and is located in the Marina, is so consistently busy that even he struggles to get a seat. “It more or less has a week-long waiting list – I can’t even get in myself,” he jokes. “But you know what it’s like in Dubai – a new place is the hottest ticket in town. I just hope it continues.”
And if it doesn’t, Dettori won’t have to wait too long until he’s riding another wave: he’s already planning to open a Frankie’s branch next year in Abu Dhabi. “I’m surprised because I didn’t know how Dubai would take it, but it’s been a tremendous success, so hopefully next year I’ll add Abu Dhabi and I have more in the pipeline.”
While not living out of a suitcase in a Dubai hotel (he plans to have a “serious think” about investing in the new Meydan project in the future) Dettori seems to have it all: a gorgeous wife in Catherine, the sumptuous Suffolk spread and the Italian idyllic chaos of a horde of five children (Leo, Ella, Mia, Tallulah and Rocco) tearing around it. (“I haven’t changed one nappy,” he winks, triumphantly. “I am old-fashioned”). In the garage sits a Ferrari and in the paddock roams his favourite horse, the retired Fujiyama Crest, the seventh of his winners that day at Ascot.
A couple of years ago burglars broke in and made off with much of his silverware, including his honorary MBE. But the 37-year-old is working hard to refill his trophy cabinet and shows no signs of preparing to hang up his whip just yet.
“After [tomorrow] I’ll take a little break with my family because they’re here for Easter for a week. Then I get back and off we go again for the new season: the Guineas, the Derby, the Royal Ascot, so on and so forth.”
And while some would tire of a life of constant travelling, Dettori has no complaints. He admits his dedication to racing means he can’t explore as many business opportunities as perhaps he would like, but quickly adds there’s plenty of time for that in the future.
“I’ve seen [signature developments involving] Michael Schumacher, Boris Becker and Niki Lauda, but they have retired and have plenty of time to do those kind of things. I’m still fairly active and it’s quite hard to do two things at once and do them well. Maybe in the future we’ll talk about it, but for now I’m just happy riding horses.”
Frankie’s ready to strike