Even while Frankie Dettori accepted his fancy watch as 2018 Longines World’s Best Jockey during the Hong Kong International Races festivities on Dec. 7, he was looking ahead to another stellar year in 2019 — and a few more years to come.
His love for the sport and horses keep him going.
“I find myself driving to the stable, just to give Enable some mints,” Dettori said. “It’s the sort of things kids do, and at 47, I’m still doing it. I find myself doing nothing and I drive to the stable. I don’t know why. I just do.”
Dettori landed the 2018 Longines World’s Best Jockey award for the second time despite seeing two of his top mounts endure somewhat scrambled campaigns — Enable with an injury and Cracksman with some tough defeats.
Through that, he rode the winners of eight of the world’s top 100 races as defined for the competition, aboard five different horses. Enable, despite her setback in the springtime, returned in the fall to win her second straight Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. It was Dettori’s sixth Arc win. Then, less than a month later, Enable became the first horse to win the Arc and the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf in the same year.
Cracksman won three top-level races against the best. Expert Eye, Without Parole, and Stradivarius also contributed, with Stradivarius emerging as Europe’s top stayer.
Dettori said the season peaked with Enable’s achievements.
“We tried the impossible,” he said of Enable’s late-season heroics. “To win two Arcs is really a big feather in my cap. And then, eight horses [had] failed to win the Arc and the Breeders’ Cup. It was always in the back of my mind — and I came close with Golden Horn. And, yes, she did the impossible.”
Now, he said, the star filly’s short 2018 season may turn out to be a plus as she prepares to run again as a 5-year-old.
“Hopefully that will stand in good stead for her, so she will have the hunger of racing and, hopefully, she will have low mileage on the clock so she will get to perhaps another Arc or Breeders’ Cup.”
He also looks forward to additional races from Stradivarius.
“Stradivarius, he’s staying. He’s like the furniture. He’ll be there for 50 years. The stayers’ stallion type is not exactly going to go for a hundred thousand in the breeders’ shed. They are there to race,” Dettori said. “Hopefully, we can try to win the Gold Cup. That would be great. He might as well take his clothes out of the suitcase, because he’s not going anywhere.
“He could travel,” Dettori added. “The owner is very keen. It could be here [at the Hong Kong International Races] next year. It could be in the Vase. It could be in the Cup. It could be the Melbourne Cup.”
Dettori’s enthusiasm as he looks ahead belies his long career. Born in Milan, Italy, he won his first race at age 16 in Turin. Since then, he has won all the British classics, including the Investec Derby twice. He has been England’s top rider three times. He has 14 Breeders’ Cup victories, including two at Churchill Downs in 2018. His trademark “flying dismount” after key victories has become a hallmark of the sport.
At different times, rumors of impending retirement have swirled around Dettori, who will turn 48 on Dec. 15. And while he hasn’t called it a day yet on his remarkable career, that doesn’t mean encroaching age hasn’t had some effect.
“In 24 months, I’ll be 50,” he said. “That’s not long. So, hopefully I can squeeze out three to five years. But at my age, when you fall, you break. Not because I want to break. The bones are hard. You don’t bounce as good as you do when you were 20.
“I used to ride 1,000 races a year. Now, I ride 250 to 300 — cuts the risk of getting hurt. And I’ve got a good boss with [trainer] John [Gosden] that he knows I’m not as good on a Monday as I am on a Saturday. He says to me, ‘I rather you don’t go and put in 70 percent. I’ll put somebody else up.”
As he concentrates on the bigger races, Dettori said, he also feels the pressure they bring.
“I’m probably more nervous now than when I was in my 30s for the simple reason that I’ve been doing it for over 30 years and now you really understand the magnitude of the task ahead. When you are in your 30s, you shrug your shoulders and get on with it. At my age, you realize, ‘Wow, I have a champion on my hands,’ and you know how big a Breeders’ Cup or an Arc is, and there’s thousands of people watching you.
“I don’t think I slept a wink a week before the Arc. Then when it comes off, I get this amazing emotion that, it makes you want to come back.”
And even more than the races themselves, Dettori said the entirety of racing has him in its thrall.
“I love it. I love the whole thing. I talk with John. I go to the barn. I rode her [Enable] every morning. I was there in the afternoon. You get into the atmosphere of things. It means a lot. The lads. The grooms. The riders. We all live together. When it comes off; no better feeling.”
As he keeps doing it at the championship level, what does he do with all the presentation watches?
“I’ve only got one,” he said, “because the kids take all the others.”—Bob Kieckhefer