The damage was not quite as bad as the bookmakers might have anticipated. But it was bad enough. More than 300,000 bets were taken on Frankie Dettori's mount, Golden Horn, on the day which cost William Hill alone £1million. Since the retirement of Lester Piggott, there has been no other jockey in the firmament who could command the attention and the pockets of the non-racing public so obviously. But then, for better and worse, Dettori has carried racing's public image on his slender shoulders, ever since he turned a big day at Ascot in 1996 into his personal plaything by completing his magnificent seven winners. He did so again yesterday, even with the memory of the dark days when he tested positive for cocaine and was banned for six months, still painfully vivid. It was hard not to warm to a man who wears his joy and his despair so readily on his sleeve.
It was fitting that the message that most heartened Dettori as his nerves began to take hold through the morning of the Investec Derby, came from Piggott. There could not be two more different characters in the history of racing than the undemonstrative nine-time Derby winner and the ebullient Italian, but when Lester suggested that he would like to be riding Golden Horn, Dettori's pulse was stilled. If Lester wanted his mount, he must be on the right horse.
Dettori could have hidden yesterday. He could have accused us all of writing him off in the aftermath of his ban and the 2013 season which brought just 16 winners in total, 217 fewer than his total in 1994 when he was at the height of his powers. He was down, out, sliding, mentally and physically, and, in the brutal way that racing has, being choked out of the sport. But racing also has a peculiar way of offering redemption to those with talent, and Dettori's talent was never in doubt. It was just his state of mind that seemed questionable. An out-of-sorts Dettori is no use on a racehorse.
When William Buick left John Gosden to take up the lucrative retainer with Godolphin, Dettori's old employers, in the winter Gosden picked up the phone to his old stable jockey. Though the rift with Sheikh Mohammed has been healed, Dettori says, it would still be a source of satisfaction that the blue colours were relegated to second place behind him at Epsom. But Gosden has proved to be the redeemer, Gosden, into whose arms Dettori leapt in the winners' enclosure after Golden Horn's three-and-a-half length victory over Jack Hobbs. "He was a father figure 20 years ago, now he's more of a friend," said Dettori of Gosden.
"I can't believe how smoothly it all went. He [Golden Horn] was a bit lit up in the first two or three furlongs. It took me three furlongs to put him to sleep, but then the job was done." Few jockeys in the world can speak with such authority. But Dettori, even at the age of 44, is one of them. On the morning of the 2007 Derby when the pressure was building because he had never won the world's biggest race, Dettori was a bundle of nerves. Authorized duly carried him to victory that afternoon and all was right in Dettori's world, but no jockey has had Dettori's ability to instil absolute confidence in his horse, a skill that reached impossible heights when Fujiyama Crest, a horse with too little ability and too much weight, completed Dettori's seventh win at Ascot against all form and logic. Golden Horn needed no such inspiration yesterday. But Dettori's skill in switching off a highly strung three-year-old during the first, decisive moments from the start, all but decided the race.
"When you're young you do it and you don't appreciate the importance of these things," he said. "Now you understand the meaning of the Derby and pressures. During the last 50 yards I was numb. I could not believe everything had gone so smoothly and I was thinking of all the people I needed to thank. My family, the stable, John Gosden, the owner. In the morning I was excited by the big job ahead, but it went like clockwork. I've led a colourful life and its not finished yet."
Dettori had not been offered a Derby ride for four years, not since his ban. He had taken 15 attempts to win his first Derby, but it has taken a heap more courage and tenacity to win his second. In 2013, at his lowest ebb, Dettori was on the verge of retirement. As he cavorted about the winners' enclosure in the Epsom sunshine, kissing cameras, startled trainers, owners and presenters, he returned to the heart of the sport where he has wanted to be all along.
Even the bookmakers mustered a smile or two.
Excerpt from Sunday Times UK / Andrew Longmore
IB Times/Racing Diary (p)