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Frankie goes to the Breeders’ Cup: It’s been a rollercoaster ride

By Tom Thurgood@tdthurgood
Tue 2 Nov 2021

Frankie Dettori has ridden at a remarkable 28 Breeders’ Cups and ridden horses who have earned $25m in race prize money. That is a sum only bettered by US legends John Velazquez and Mike Smith, and ranks him as one of the great jockeys in the history of the event.

Yet Dettori’s great American adventure got off to a humble start.

He first went to America at the age of 16, urged by his multiple champion father Gianfranco to hone his race-riding craft.

The young rider went to Santa Anita in the era of some legendary riders gracing the circuit, including Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr.

Dettori didn’t have the legal status to work because of his young age, and while the three-month holiday visa and a one-week track pass did the trick initially he soon had to improvise.

Hiding under the seats in the car – before exploring the boot once that ruse was discovered – Dettori tried various different gates to get into the track before eventually having to head to Hollywood Park. He was a marked man at Santa Anita!

Bursting through with Barathea

Such incognito tactics have long since become unnecessary for Dettori, who landed his breakthrough Breeders' Cup success in 1994 – the fifth time he rode at the fixture – aboard Barathea in the Mile for Luca Cumani in the colours of Sheikh Mohammed.

Dettori’s celebrations after the line underscored the Italian’s big-race euphoria – while his spontaneous post-race celebration soon became his iconic trademark.

The now-famous ‘flying dismount’ was inspired by jockey Angel Cordero Jr, who used to fly into Santa Anita at weekends to ride for trainer Wayne Lukas. Dettori imitated the celebration at the end of work mornings, and to the usual amusement of the groom.

This act of humour for a small audience away from the big stage – American in its origins – readily translated to the big-time for a jockey destined for decades at the top.

The pain of Swain

 Dettori was tormented by his defeat on Swain
Dettori was tormented by his defeat on Swain

Dettori endured one of his career lows at the 1998 Breeders’ Cup, aboard Swain in the Classic for Saeed bin Suroor and Godolphin.

In a vintage field including Awesome Again – four from four that season and winner of the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga – Dettori had Swain in a nice spot on the turn into the stretch and came wide in his wish to avoid a close battle with the hardy Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm.

In the heat of the moment and consumed by the will to win, Dettori repeatedly flailed at Swain as his mount continually drifted from a true line to be beaten three quarters of a length and a neck into third.

Widely vilified after the race, Dettori said that he cried in his wife Catherine’s lap soon after. He said it took him six months to get over the agonising defeat.

Redemption in the Turf

Dettori bounced back the following year, responding to the widespread scorn of 12 months previously aboard Daylami in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

“Everybody tried to kill me last year,” Dettori said. “I made a mistake, but don’t judge me on one ride.

“I’m glad I put Swain’s ghost behind me. Daylami saved my year.”

 Dettori celebrates Breeders' Cup glory on Enable (Pic: Focusonracing)
Dettori celebrates Breeders' Cup glory on Enable (Pic: Focusonracing)

Dettori felt particularly vindicated on the 10-year anniversary of the incident when guiding Ravens Pass to victory in the headline Breeders’ Cup Classic. He remains the only European jockey to win the race.

“When I crossed the line, I didn’t really know if it was true or a dream, just that fake reality,” he said after the race. “But I realised straight away it as true, and I’m delighted.”

Only Mike Smith, John Velazquez and Jerry Bailey have ridden more than Dettori’s 14 Breeders’ Cup winners.

No less than 34 years after his first visit to Santa Anita – and after some euphoric highs and plummeting lows – there’s still time to improve the tally too for a jockey of brilliant talent and astonishing longevity.

Frankie Dettori’s Breeders’ Cup winners:

 Dettori's most recent Breeders Cup win was on Expert Eye (Focusonracing)
Dettori's most recent Breeders Cup win was on Expert Eye (Focusonracing)

Barathea - Mile (1994)

Daylami - Turf (1999)

Fantastic Light - Turf (2001)

Wilko - Juvenile (2004)

Ouija Board - Filly & Mare Turf (2006)

Red Rocks - Turf (2006)

Donativum - Juvenile Turf (2008)

Ravens Pass - Classic (2008)

Pounced - Juvenile Turf (2009)

Dangerous Midge – Turf (2010)

Hootenanny - Juvenile Turf (2014)

Queen’s Trust - Filly & Mare Turf (2016)

Enable – Turf (2018)

Expert Eye - Mile (2018)

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