Thoroughbred Daily News

By John Berry

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Jockey Frankie Dettori (Photo Credit: New Theatre Royal Portsmouth)

The life of a jockey is an attritional one, and star apprentices come and go as regularly as champion two-year-olds. Just as most Dewhurst Stakes winners aren’t Frankel, it takes a special champion apprentice not merely to graduate to champion jockey, but still to be dominating as the Big Five-Oh looms.

Sustained excellence over an extended period is what marks out the true greats in any field.

This year’s Royal Ascot, which Frankie Dettori ended as leading jockey once again with a total of seven winners (supplied by five different trainers) under his belt, has left us in no doubt that the world’s most famous jockey, who will turn 50 next year, occupies a very special place in the pantheon.

Destined to be a jockey

Frankie Dettori’s father Gianfranco was a multiple champion jockey in Italy, riding many big winners for Luca Cumani’s father Sergio. When Luca started training in Newmarket in 1976, many of his owners were Italians, and Gianfranco often flew over from Italy to ride the horses.

He was on board Luca’s first winner (the subsequent NZ-based stallion Three Legs (GB) (Petingo {GB}) in the G3 Duke Of York S. at York in May 1976) and rode Classic place-getters for him in each of his first two years training. When Gianfranco’s son Lanfranco was aged 14, he sent the boy over to England (notwithstanding that he didn’t speak a word of English) to learn his trade in Cumani’s stable.

Aged 15, Lanfranco Dettori (who had been dubbed ‘Frankie’ by his colleagues in Cumani’s Bedford House Stables, as that was easier for anglophones to get their tongues around) used to fly back to Italy to ride in races. He became eligible for a British apprentice’s license on turning 16 in December 1976, and began race-riding in England the following spring. (There was no Flat racing in the winter in those days). He was immediately successful.

Britain’s Champion Apprentice

Frankie Dettori was still only aged 18 when crowned Britain’s Champion Apprentice of 1989. He ended that season with 71 winners, the highest total posted by an apprentice since Pat Eddery had claimed the apprentices’ crown with the same tally in 1971. The following year he took the transition from champion apprentice to big-race jockey in his stride.

At Ascot’s September Meeting, then dubbed ‘The Festival of British Racing’ and trumpeted as a special occasion in the same way that its October fixture is currently known as ‘QIPCO British Champions’ Day’, he rode two Group 1 winners on the same afternoon, both trained by Cumani: Gerald Leigh’s Markofdistinction (GB) (Known Fact {USA}) in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II S. and Sheikh Mohammed’s Shamshir (GB) (Kris {GB}) in the G1 Brent Walker Fillies’ Mile S. (The same day six years later, incidentally, saw him complete his ‘Magnificent Seven’, riding all seven winners on this Group 1 race-day at the racecourse which has become most synonymous with Frankie’s flair).

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