Plans for a big party have had to be shelved but Frankie Dettori has just one huge birthday wish when he turns 50 on Tuesday — for life to get back to normal as soon as possible in 2021.
Racing behind closed doors to an eerily silent backdrop has been an alien to British sport’s favourite Italian. Despite a season that yielded nine Group One wins and the leading jockeys’ title at Royal Ascot, Dettori did not enjoy the 33rd campaign of his riding career.
Add that to the death of one of his best friends back home in Italy, fellow jockey Pat Smullen losing his long battle with cancer and travel issues preventing him from seeing his parents, and Dettori is happy to say good riddance to the last 12 months.
Frankie Dettori turns 50 next week and the jockey’s one huge wish is for life to return to normal
But racing need not panic. Dettori’s enthusiasm for the sport and life it brings him is not on the wane.
Its best-recognised face, thanks to appearances on programmes such as Celebrity Big Brother, a stint as a captain on A Question of Sport and, just last night, Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel, insists the sport still fills his heart.
Dettori said: ‘The party is off so I am going to take my family to London for dinner and pretend I am 49 again! I have not enjoyed 2020. It has been horrible. I was leading jockey at Royal Ascot but there was nobody there.
‘I had no one to celebrate it with and I am a people person, so I found it really hard.
‘The death of Pat Smullen knocked me for six and I also lost one of my best friends in Italy to cancer. Enable also retired so it has been a sad year all round. Despite having a good year on the track I also made around 75 per cent less in prizemoney than last year.
Dettori said the death of fellow jockey Pat Smullen (above) in September knocked him for six
‘The whole world has been surreal and I had to quarantine a lot after going to ride in France but at least we were working.
‘It has been difficult for everyone so I am not going to complain and racing has to give itself a pat on the back because it has done well to keep going.
‘Now we have the vaccine, the quicker we can get back to normal the better.’
Three-time champion Dettori paces himself these days. His 160 British rides this season was his lowest since his debut season as a fresh-faced 17-year-old in 1988. They still yielded 40 wins at a 25 per cent strike rate.
His tongue is not necessarily in his cheek when he says: ‘It was always my dream to have under 200 rides and I achieved it this year!’
But it is not just physical self-preservation which means Dettori rations his rides these days. Dettori, who expects to have the odd ride on the all-weather tracks from mid- January before heading out to compete in Bahrain at the end of that month, added: ‘I don’t sit around and do nothing, I train every day.
The jockey’s season yielded nine group one wins and a leading jockeys title at Royal Ascot
The Italian has had 160 British rides this season which is his lowest since his debut season
‘I work out a lot and look after myself. We used to have amazing midweek Festivals but racing has changed. Now it is all about Friday and Saturday. Monday to Thursday is lots of low-class races and the odd maiden. The quality is congested into the weekend.
‘Call me old-fashioned but I preferred the old way. It kept people more interested. There is far too much racing at the weekend and people can’t keep up. Also a lot of my stable’s horses are not rated low enough to run during the week.
‘It has changed my approach. In the old days I would not have been like this. But those days have gone. I don’t think it is change for the better. We have far too much racing going on.’
The prizemoney situation in British racing is also something Dettori finds confusing and troubling, something he fears could erode British racing’s status as the ‘best in the world’.
But Dettori adds: ‘It is too late for me to worry about the sport because I am almost out of it.’
Not for a while yet though. Not with horses such as St James’s Palace Stakes winner Palace Pier and three-time Ascot Gold Cup winner Stradivarius still to ride.
The 49-year-old said he keeps himself in a good physical condition by training every day
And the emerging talent bank at trainer John Gosden’s stable in Newmarket might help to fill the gap left by Dettori’s beloved dual Arc winner, Enable, after she was retired to stud.
There is only one concession to crossing the borders of another decade that Dettori admits to.
He added: ‘I look after myself. The only difference is I have to wear glasses to read the Racing Post. I usually ask [fellow jockey] Oisin [Murphy] or whoever is next to me where I am drawn if I forget my glasses and can’t read.
‘I have an amazing boss in John Gosden. The system works, I am not going to break it. Long may it continue. If you look at my record in black type races, I am still probably the best in Europe. That’s the only thing that matters to me at the moment.’
A film crew has been shadowing Dettori for the last few months with a film due in the autumn
In the past few months a film crew has been shadowing Dettori. It is the same team that produced the compelling film about Sir Anthony McCoy. That was a prelude to his retirement but Dettori insists that will not be the case with him.
‘Covid has delayed it. It’s not a swansong but it will give me something to watch when I am in my rocking chair.’
It should make more pleasant viewing than watching his favourite Arsenal. Especially after the recent derby loss to Tottenham.
‘Terrible,’ says Dettori. ‘I have just done a podcast with Harry Redknapp and he was reminding me how bad we are. I didn’t need reminding! When someone scores against them I turn over the TV and watch Bargain Hunt!’