Our interview with Frankie Dettori
Four-time winner of the Dubai World Cup and the living legend of horseracing tells us about his love for Italy and Dubai
Frankie Dettori is a living legend of horseracing, one of the world’s most celebrated jockeys. He has ridden the winners of over three thousand races and has won dozens of million euros in prize money. On March 26, 2022, he won for the fourth time the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race day ($ 12 million) and one of the most prestigious races introduced in 1996 by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai. He rode the winner Country Grammer (a very fast, five-year-old horse trained by the famous Bob Baffert), in the new Meydan Grandstand racecourse, a marvel in architecture featuring a grandstand over a mile in length, a navigable channel sailed through by yachts connected to the city’s center, stables, restaurants, gardens and luxury services, including an 18-hole golf course and an exclusive five-star hotel with suite rooms overlooking the racecourse.
Dettori was born in Milan, Italy, 52 years ago, but he has been living in England since the age of 15. His father Gianfranco, a famous Sardinia-born jockey himself, wanted Dettori to cut his teeth in the home of horseracing, Newmarket, a few hours-drive from London, entrusting him to the care of the famous trainer Luca Cumani. His career took off from here and, in fact, he was the first teenager since Lester Piggott to ride 100 winners in one season. He is married to Catherine, the daughter of William Allen, the world’s most famous horse veterinarian and a well-known professor of the nearby University of Cambridge. The couple, who now lives in a lovely cottage in Newmarket, has five children. Frankie, the English abbreviation of his Italian name, Lanfranco, has the Four Moors, the symbol of Sardinia, tattooed on his right shoulder, and on the left one the writing ‘Italy’ and five stars, one for each child: Leo, Ella, Mia, Tallula, Rocco. He is known and loved across the United Kingdom as no other Italian before or since. A dear friend of the Royal Family, he late Queen Elizabeth II horses for thirty years, rewarding her with 50 victories. And the Queen rewarded him in 2016 by appointing him Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Dettori is a great champion used to setting records. He is the six-time winner of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Europe’s most important horserace, and seven-time winner of the King George race in Aston, the world’s temple of horseracing. During his over thirty-year career, the Italian jockey has been on the team of many other major racing stables: he was a member of the Godolphin team, owned by Sheikh Mohammed, for 18 years. The long relationship brought an astonishing number of victories to the racing stable of Sheikh Mohammed. The relationship came suddenly to an end in 2012 when the Italian jockey was suspended from riding for 6 months. When he was ready to make his racing comeback in 2013 and take part in his fourth Arc de Triomphe race, an accident a few days before the event changed all his plans. It was a very hard time for Dettori, perhaps the worst. Someone believed he was done for good, but not only horses can be purebred: talent made the difference. The rest is the story of his comeback and of further wins, all achieved between 45 and 52 years of age. And he keeps going. In 2021, Frankie Dettori published his autobiography Leap Of Faith, in which he tells about his victories, his defeats and even his weaknesses. The book is a good chance to learn more about the world’s greatest jockey.
A few months ago, Dubai’s sky lit up with the Italian flag. Your first victory in the Emirates dates back to 2000 with Dubai Millennium. And again in 2003 with Moon Ballad and in 2006 with Electrocultionist. What was it like to win this year for the fourth time the Dubai World Cup?
The World Cup is one of the most special nights of the year and very competitive as well. Hence you get international competition and interest and that is what the Dubai Royal family wanted when they created it. What a night!
You have raced and won in at least 24 countries across the world, but your relationship with Dubai, from 1994 to 2012, has been special. How did it begin?
I was very lucky when Sheikh Mohammed formed Godolphin and trusted me to be at the front of that fledgling operation. Dubai was starting to mushroom, so it was a hand-in-glove relationship. I always love to be in Dubai.
What do you love about Dubai and what are your favorite places?
I’ve genuinely seen Dubai emerge from the desert and witnessed Sheikh Mohammed’s vision. I’m a modern international man and just love the way the country constantly changes and evolves. I love Dubai Marina, but the highway has always fascinated me combined with the old souks.
Your father was such a good jockey. Was he a role model for you?
My father was as famous and good as any other jockey of his generation. He worked his way up from being a humble stable lad to winning classic races in England and was champion in Italy for so many years. I’m so proud of him.
Do you remember your very first horse and first ride?
Of course, but really the start of my career was for Luca (Cumani, editor’s note) in England when I won on Lizzie Hare at Goodwood in 1987. Thank goodness the winners continued from there!
Your father sent you to Newmarket at the age of 15. England gave you glory and honours in addition to a large family. So how do you feel about Italy and how much of the ‘Italian style’ remains embedded in you?
I am Italian at heart and my coffee habits and love of Italy will never change. I am grateful to England which gave me so much, first of all, my five children, but my spirit will always be Italian.
You are known to be a good friend of the British Royal Family, you rode late Queen Elizabeth II horses. Could you tell us something about the late Queen?
The late Queen was a great horseracing fan. She loved horses and I rode her horses for thirty years. I met with her many times and she always made me feel at ease.
What do you wish for the new King Charles III?
I adored the late Queen Elizabeth II and he is an amazing man who will be a fantastic King. The entire family are wonderful and have been very kind to the world of horseracing. He will be brilliant.
Your figures: how many wins and in how many different countries?
I don’t know, but it’s in the thousands and I’m very grateful for having lived a wonderful life so far.
Mr. Dettori, what is the real secret behind your legendary career?
The horse runs for me and I understand pace in a race. Plus I’m so grateful for all of the support that I have had.