Royal Ascot 2023 will be fabulous Frankie Dettori’s final Royal Meeting – marking the end of an extraordinary racing era.
FRANKIE’S FINAL ROYAL MEETING
It’s 34 years since an unknown 18-year-old Italian rode Rain Burst to finish fifth in the 1989 Coronation Stakes. 12,422 days later, on the Saturday of Royal Ascot 2023, there will be one name on everyone’s lips.
One face everyone wants to glimpse. One jockey the world is willing to win. Frankie Dettori.
In an exclusive interview for Ascot ahead of his final Royal Meeting, the exuberant Italian – the man who has captured the heart of every racing fan at some point over the last four decades – saw no point in putting on a brave face.
“Walking into Royal Ascot now, it will be tough. It’s going to hit me the last day. My family is going to be there, and I will know it’s the end. For sure I will cry. I’m not even going to pretend that I’m not going to! I’ve loved every second of it. It’s not going to be easy; my heart doesn’t want to stop but my brain says it’s the right time,” says the man who has ridden more Royal Ascot winners than any current jockey.
And while Frankie is going to be missed across the global racing landscape, it’s clear there’s one meeting he places above all others.
“Royal Ascot is the best we can offer, it’s our Olympics. On top of that we have the tradition. It’s everything for the breeders, the owners, the trainers and us. It’s been very fruitful. We have the best thoroughbreds, the best track. You start the season thinking ‘which horses are we going to aim at Royal Ascot’, because that’s what the owners want, that’s what the public wants, that’s what we want.”
Frankie’s face has become synonymous with Royal Ascot, entering the Winners’ Enclosure 77 times along the way – only the late, great Lester Piggott has been successful more at the Royal Meeting.
There was an era when Dettori was utterly dominant over these five days, with 15 victories from 1997 to 1999 – but even that lives in the shadow of his Magnificent Seven which came around the same time in September 1996, where he won every race on the card.
He says of those big days, “The atmosphere, the occasion… it elevates you to be a better jockey, you’re more alert, more adrenaline is kicking in… to be leading rider at Royal Ascot is a real honour and I managed it seven times. But the Magnificent Seven was my biggest achievement. It was a freak thing. Up to this day, I don’t know how it happened.”
The millennium brought tragedy, with Dettori surviving a plane crash which killed the pilot, Patrick Mackey – Frankie was pulled from the wreckage by fellow jockey Ray Cochrane and managed to escape with just a fractured right ankle. The seriousness of the incident took a while to sink in for the normally jovial jockey, and on the track he had to pass up a dream Royal Ascot ride on one of the best horses in history – Dubai Millennium. But he wasn’t going to miss the meeting. Not a chance.
“I did a week in hospital with Ray, who was in the plane crash with me. You’re full of morphine, you don’t see anyone, then I came out of hospital and realised what I went through. I was sitting at home depressed, the shock, then I pulled myself together and said ‘that’s it, I’m getting up and doing something’ – so I got my top hat and tails on and went to watch Dubai Millennium win. That was maybe two weeks after the plane crash, I was on crutches, hobbling towards the paddock and everybody started clapping, I thought ‘The Queen must be here’ so I got out the way and looked round, they were all clapping me!”
The Gold Cup sits at the mid-point of Royal Ascot, the feature race on the Thursday, a test of staying power and a testament to the resolution of both horse and jockey. Dettori tasted plenty of success in the race, with his second and third ever victories at the Royal Meeting coming in the blue riband event aboard Drum Taps. Most recently, his relationship with Stradivarius was intrinsic in showcasing both their talents at what he calls the pinnacle of the sport.
“I was lucky enough to win eight Gold Cups… it’s a great honour when you see your picture on the front page of the newspaper on the Friday morning collecting your trophy from The Queen… it can’t get any better than that.”
As you might expect, Frankie has plenty of memorabilia to commemorate his long list of victories. With the Dettori family in the process of moving, plenty of those trophies and artifacts have been packed up – but the ‘red room’ remains. It’s a truly stunning visage, packed wall-to-wall with photographs and memories. That includes tabloid coverage of his marriage to Catherine in 1997 – Frankie has never just been back-page news. But nothing can replace the feeling of actually living those moments.
“I’ve never been a material person,” he says. “It’s a nice object to have but the memories are more important. People come here and look at it like ‘wow’, like it’s some sort of museum display, but it’s all past. The memories to me are what make me prouder than having a trophy. I’m looking for the next buzz, I’m looking for the next big win.”
There might be more big wins for him here in June – Dettori says he’s determined to get three more to reach a nice, round 80. And no doubt his agent will be fielding calls about his availability for every race – after all, who wouldn’t want to be the person to send Frankie out on a high? But that high – that buzz – is going to be mighty difficult to replace for a man who has given his heart and soul to racing for the last 34 years and received floods of adulation in return.
“It’s very hard to let go when you’ve been doing this for thirty-odd years. I have to prepare myself for it.”
Looking at his face, it’s clear deep down he doesn’t want it to end. And deep down, neither do we.
Photographs by Rachel Groom.
Karen can usually be found glued to her computer or at the stables. Having edited several national magazines she co-founded Eclipse Magazine in 2008 after realising that many of her friends were nervous about going racing due to lack of information – what to wear, how to bet etc.
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