Simon Caldwell on the astonishing fortunes of Catholic jockey Frankie Dettori
Frankie: The Autobiography of Frankie Dettori with Jonathan Powell, HarperCollins Willow £18.99 For a Catholic, death is not just an inevitability but must represent one of the most profound of all religious experiences, the point at which a soul departs time for eternity. An unexpected glimpse into the void is often enough to make people cry out to their creator even if they have previously shown no obvious religious instinct. An experience of pure joy can likewise have the effect of raising one’s eyes to the heavens.
Such a religious instinct is near the surface in the case of Frankie Dettori, who, by the time the turf season ends on November 6, will have become Britain's champion flat jockey for the third time in his career.
His autobiography, published at the age of 33, is principally aimed at the punters who have followed the rise of this remarkable sportsman, who began as a stable lad under Luca Cumani to become, in the words of the Evening Standard, the “most recognised man on a horse since John Wayne”.
As a result, the book focuses deliberately on racing and takes the reader through a blow-by-blow account of his victories at the expense of insight into the private individual. Dettori, however, is sometimes like the race horses he describes struggling to control: brimming with enthusiasm, he is far too effusive to be restrained by discretion, and his personality jumps at the reader from every page.
He is at his most honest when he recounts the extremes of triumph and disaster. This, of course, includes the plane crash of June 2000, when he was pulled from a burning aircraft in Newmarket by Ray Cochrane, a fellow jockey. Dettori suffered a badly broken ankle and, partially blinded by blood in his eyes, begged Cochrane to drag him clear before the plane exploded. Patrick Mackey, the pilot, was not so lucky. “The last image I have of this incredible rescue attempt was of Ray taking off his jacket and trying to use it to beat out the flames, then collapsing in tears of rage, overcome with guilt at not being able to save Patrick, before crawling over to comfort me,” writes Dettori.
“Then I began to realise that God had save me. I was going to die and he spared me. Why? Obviously it wasn’t my time.” Dettori deals with the subject of religion early in the book in a characteristically light-hearted fashion, declaring his belief in God and describing how his father, Gianfranco, Italy’s most successful jockey, once took him into the mountains near Livorno to pray to the Madonna di Montenaro and to ask for “safe passage through the new season”. He tells how he visited the church again, while training as an apprentice, to “collect a medallion to protect me racing”. Soon, he had “so many bits and pieces round my neck and in my boots it was getting silly”. Now he relies simply on a single crucifix.
It would be wrong, however, to dismiss Dettori as a superstitious Catholic. He makes sense of his faith no differently from the many young Christians who continually sin and repent as they labour along the road to perfection. Indeed, he talks candidly of gambling away his wages as a stable boy, of losing his virginity to a prostitute in Naples at the age of 16 and of drinking heavily. He also confesses to stealing Steve Cauthen’s red sponge ankle pads from a jockey’s room at Milan, though this was to catch up with him four years later when the American jockey spotted him wearing them at a race meeting in England. “Those are mine, you thieving little Italian b ,” said Cauthen. “Give them back.” Dettori’s passion for the good life meant that his behaviour inevitably deteriorated before it improved. But he was wise enough to be able to learn from his mistakes. As he does not hint at a Pauline conversion, this might simply have been the result of growing up; yet it is clear that eventually he came to identify some of his early professional misfortunes with his human failings, his sins.
Early 1993 was a particular moment of crisis for the hell-raiser, then 22 years old. He was sacked by his boss; denied permission to race in Hong Kong, and was caught with a wrap of cocaine only a day after he posed in his silks with the Queen after riding one of her horses to victory at Newbury. Dettori, in danger of fading from the racing scene, instead cleaned up his act. He dropped the playboy lifestyle altogether on meeting his future wife, Catherine Allen, “an attractive young filly”, at Haydock Park. He trained so hard over the Christmas of 1993 that by the start of the new season he was at his peak. It was no surprise then that in 1994 he became champion jockey for the first time, a feat he repeated the following year.
By that time Dettori was a household name, helped by his trademark flying dismounts.
It is at this point that Dettori returns to the subject of his religion, although this time his instincts are activated by gratitude rather than danger.
The most gripping part of the book is his detailed account of the Ascot meeting in September 1996, when he won all seven races on the card. He takes the reader through each of them, building up to his climactic win on Fujiyama Crest, a horse shaped “like a dinosaur” which up to then had been useless and has not performed since.
Dettori, who now owns the mount as a pet, said he probably would have lost if he had ridden it earlier in the meeting: he won, he explains, through the psychological advantage of having six consecutive winners.
The morning after, he visited the Church of Our Lady Immaculate and St Etheldreda in Newmarket to “thank the Lord for my fantastic day”. Dettori does not say if he regularly attends Mass. Certainly he returned to the church the following July to marry Catherine and they have both been back to have their children christened there: among the photographs selected to illustrate the book is one of Fr Paul Hypher, the parish priest, baptising Ella, the second of the couple’s four children.
The fact that Dettori’s faith matters to him is conveyed by his outlook on life. The book crackles with humour and bursts with anecdotes of his encounters with people as diverse as the Queen and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vinnie Jones and John Major. But he seldom has anything negative to say about anyone other than himself. His autobiography is marked by humble acknowledgements of his limitations. He comes across as a man who not only loves horses but very much loves people. Dettori may not be a saint, but he is certainly a Christian.