All life can be found at Dettori towers. The outside looks forbiddingly formal – a huge new-build mansion, propped up by grandiose pillars, near the Suffolk racing town of Newmarket. Inside, it’s a different story. Frankie Dettori’s wife, Catherine, is chopping up chicken for the cats, dogs, kids and Dettori. Chilli, the alsatian, is mooching around, chewed-up Frisbee in his mouth, begging for a game of catch. Blue, a friend’s 16-week-old working cocker spaniel, is tearing chunks out of Ricky, a Romanian rescue dog three times her size, while the dachshunds Lettie and Possum try to keep up.
In the fields outside, horses and miniature donkeys are grazing happily. Catherine’s mother pops over for a natter. Blue’s owner is chatting with Catherine, while Catherine is telling me how quiet it is now that three of the five kids have left home, their pet pig has gone to pig heaven and their emus have departed for distant shores.
But there is no sign of Dettori. It turns out that the jockey is still on his way back from London. He decided to visit their older son, Leo. “He turned up first thing in the morning, despite the fact that Leo was having a lie-in because he’d just done a late shift,” Catherine says. “If Frankie’s awake, he thinks everyone should be awake.”
The great thing about Catherine is you don’t really need Dettori here. She tells you everything about him and more, while stuffing you with coffee and doughnuts.
Dettori, who grew up in Milan, has been Britain’s most prominent jockey since Lester Piggott retired in 1995. In 2007, then 36, he told me he had four years left in racing. He had just won the Derby after 20 years of trying. He had been champion jockey (winner of the most races over a season) three times and had made history at 25 by becoming the first (and still only) jockey to achieve the Magnificent Seven – winning all seven races on the card at Ascot in 1996. Dettori was the Robin Hood of racing, the people’s champion who broke the bookies by pulling off the near-impossible. He had won pretty much everything of note in the flat-race calendar, survived a plane crash that killed the pilot, established himself in television on A Question of Sport and become a wealthy man. He was happy with his lot and preparing to quit while he was ahead.
Only it didn’t work out like that. He is now 50, still at the peak of his powers, and has enjoyed some of his greatest triumphs in recent years. All this, when it looked as if his career would end in ignominy after his 2012 ban for taking cocaine.
Dettori has written a memoir, Leap of Faith, a reference to his flying dismount. I ask Catherine if she has read it. She gives me a look. “Erm, no. Is it good?” Why would she read it, she asks. “I know the story. Anything I don’t know, he’s telling lies or has forgotten.” So, Frankie in a nutshell, she says – easily bored, impatient, crotchety. It’s obvious that she adores him. “On his gravestone, they’re going to put: ‘I’m not waiting.’ This all started when we went skiing. We’d get to the top of the slopes and the kids were snowboarding and he’d say: ‘I’m not waiting.’ He gets so bored.”
Then there is his daily life – the diet of chicken and water to keep his weight down (he is 5ft 4in, or 1.63m, and weighs about 8st 7lb, or 54kg), the injuries, the risks, the misery when not winning. So, it’s easy being married to a jockey? “Yes! They don’t want you to cook anything.” She laughs. As it happens, Dettori is the one who likes cooking.
By mid-afternoon, he is back home. It’s hard not to do a double-take when you see him in the flesh. He is so tiny. It’s not his height; it’s the Action Man build – conker-sized bottom and a chest like a 9V battery. He marches us to his “office”, the gym where he sweats off all the weight. Dettori changes into his favourite colours – the ones he wore when winning so many races recently on Enable, the filly known as the Queen of Racing. By the window is a photo of his father with Pope John Paul II.
Gianfranco Dettori, a successful jockey in Italy, sent Frankie to England at 15 with 1m lire (the equivalent of a few hundred pounds) and nothing else, to toughen him up. No matter what he did, nothing impressed his father. They would fall out and not talk for years. Now, they get on well. Dettori says he wouldn’t have made it without his father’s tough love. “I was a softie, a weak person. I didn’t want confrontation, I didn’t really have ambition. I was happy to stay in the middle of the pack.”
He was so tiny, so young – and a ripe subject for ridicule. “I arrived as a stable lad and I was getting peanuts. I didn’t speak any English. There weren’t many people from abroad coming in those days, so I was a bit bullied.”
Racing was, and remains, insular. Even now, there are hardly any jockeys of colour. Why does he thinks that is? He shakes his head. “I have no idea. But look, 20 years ago, you hardly saw a woman ride. Now, you have a lot. So, it’s changing, and that’s good.”
When Dettori started racing, he was shy, but then he started winning. “You get addicted to it. You get more confident and then you’re chasing your next winner. Then your character changes.” He became an extrovert and his loudness became a shield and a brand. “I saw a gap in the market when I was young. I thought: everyone is so serious and boring. I’m Italian, Latin, got a bit of a character. So, I used the platform to sell myself. When I go to races, I’m like an actor going on stage. I have painted myself with this thing that I’m happy and flamboyant – and have to carry on even if some days I don’t feel like talking to anybody.” Most of the time, he says, he loves being fun-time Frankie.
The young Dettori went straight from bashful to bumptious. “I was Jack-the-lad aged 19, champion apprentice. I was full of myself and giving Lester plenty of shit. I was in the weighing room with him, saying: ‘I’m going to put you in a museum and stuff you.’ Everyone else was petrified of him, but it meant nothing to me. I’d come from Italy, I’d never met the guy, and I used to take the piss out of him all the time.” Piggott got his revenge one day in a race at Goodwood. “From behind, he grabs my bollocks and squeezes as hard as he can. I’m like: ‘Ow! You fucker!’ ‘That’ll teach you to be cocky, you little shit,’ he said. Then we got on well till he retired.”
He tells this anecdote in Leap of Faith. I tell him I liked the book. “Did you?” He looks pleased. “I haven’t read it. Is it good?” The book is ghosted by Boris Starling. “It’s not boring, is it?” he asks, anxiously. For Dettori, nothing is worse than boring. I tell him about what Catherine said about his gravestone. He laughs. “She says I’ve got the concentration span of a flea. ‘I’m not waiting!’” He giggles. “That’s it. OK, What else d’you want to know?”
He loves his Piggott stories. “We were queueing for an ice-cream in Germany and this guy comes up to him and says: ‘Can I have your autograph?’ He turns around and looks at me and goes: ‘I want £20,’ and the guy gave him 20 quid and he pocketed it. I went: ‘You have some cheek, you have!’ But that was him.” Was it greed? “No, he got a kick out of it. He did it all his life.”
Piggott, who went to prison for tax evasion in 1987, was the Queen’s favourite jockey. Dettori has often ridden her horses and has a good relationship with her. There is a wonderful photograph of her with her arms stretched and him laughing his head off. It looks as if she is telling a filthy joke. But he still can’t compete with Piggott. “I won my fourth King George on Doyen, so I see the Queen and I bow and I say: ‘That was my fourth King George, Ma’am.’ And she says: ‘Lester won seven.’”
Time to move. He heads for the stables, singing, and I try to keep up. In 2012, Dettori was banned for six months for drug use. He had hit a low, after other jockeys had been promoted ahead of him at Godolphin Racing, the world-famous stables owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. Before that, he had always been their No 1. It took him three years to come back after the ban, he says. “For 18 months, I thought I was a leper. I just couldn’t get a ride.”
Did it change him? “God, yes. I was massively depressed and I became bulimic.” Had he been bulimic before? “At times, yes, but not as bad as then. It’s common for a jockey, obviously, but I was looking at food as a comfort. I felt I was being finished without my own control and that’s a very scary thing when you’re a sportsman. I was thinking: if this goes on, I might have to finish by the end of the season.” He pauses. “I was once told, if you’re a sportsman, you die twice: once when you retire and once when you really die.”
But he did come back – and how. He left Godolphin, went freelance, reunited with the trainer extraordinaire John Gosden and won his second Derby, on Golden Horn, in 2015. “It’s the best thrill I’ve had in horse racing. It meant everything. It was my comeback, my kids were old enough to understand, I never thought I’d have a horse like that again. Everyone likes a comeback story, don’t they?” He grins.
Golden Horn’s racing career lasted just 367 days, but he won seven of his nine races. “When I got Golden Horn, I thought God paid me back 10 times more after getting done for the drugs and losing my job.” After Golden Horn went to stud, Dettori was given another wonder horse, again trained by Gosden. Enable won 15 of her 19 races (including three King George VIs and two Arcs) before retiring last year.
What has been his favourite horse? “Enable,” he answers, instantly. “For two days, I cried when she left.” Does Catherine ever get jealous of his relationship with horses? “Not now. I think she enjoys me when I love a horse. She’s an animal lover. Thing is, you get so attached to them you just can’t help it.” Fujiyama Crest, the final horse he raced on the day he won the Magnificent Seven, lived with them for 15 years after being retired.
Was he shocked when footage emerged earlier this year of the jockey Rob James laughing while joke-riding a dead horse? He winces. “I was. It was horrible. What was going through his mind?”
In the pandemic, his oldest daughter took up racing and loved it. How would he feel if she decided to race professionally? Again, he winces. “Thank God, she’s at university, studying medicine.” Why thank God? “Safer,” he says. “Not just because of the injuries, but emotionally. I would hate to see one of my children as a jockey struggle to make any money. It is a tough life. It’s given me everything, but I am the lucky one.” The exception? “Yes, correct. What are the chances of one of my kids doing what I did? I was scared they wanted to do the same.”
Racing is a punishing career, with a terrible record of depression among jockeys. Last year, a 36-year-old former jockey, James Banks, killed himself after losing his home and going bankrupt, while the 2009 Grand National winner Liam Treadwell, 34, died after taking a combination of strong drugs. (The coroner could not be certain Treadwell had intended to take his own life.) “My daughter’s friend’s boyfriend killed himself,” Dettori says. “He was a stable lad.” He partly blames the poverty in racing on the bookmakers. “The bookmakers are fleecing my sport. It is ridiculous. They are a billion-pound industry; they make so much money out of racing and we still race for the same prize money as we did in the 80s. If the money doesn’t trickle down, by the time it gets to the bottom there’s fuck all there. That’s why the stable lads go around on bicycles and haven’t got any money.”
Dettori is having his photo taken. “Crack on,” he says to the Guardian’s photographer, Tom Jenkins. “I’ve got to get to the sales at Newmarket.” We head off towards the miniature donkeys.
“Frankie, leg over, please,” Jenkins says.
“I’ll try,” he says. “I don’t want to put too much weight on.” Dettori needn’t worry. The donkey flicks his head and throws him. He looks at Catherine and he is laughing – just about. “It’s your idea! I know it’s your idea!”
And he’s off. “I’m not waiting. I’m going to put my civilian clothes back on.” The birds are singing on a gorgeous autumn day. “When it’s like this, it’s the best place in the world,” he says. “I’ll tell you what, though, the winters are bleak.”
Back in the house, I ask how he has changed over the years. He looks at Catherine. “Grumpy!” he says.
“I think you are more grumpy,” she agrees.
He offers me a glass of water as if it’s the finest Dom Pérignon. You always look so happy, though. “When he’s at work, he generally is happy,” Catherine says.
And what is he like when he is grumpy, I ask.
“Shouty,” he shouts.
“He shouts and then, luckily, he just goes to his room,” Catherine says.
“I have three-days limit of staying at home, then I have to move. I just go,” he says. “You want to see my sulk room?” he says, enthusiastically.
He takes me to the darkened mausoleum to which he retires every evening. There is a huge TV, an even bigger trophy cabinet crammed with cups, and two giant sofas. “Da-dahhh!” he says, proudly. “This is my own room. No children, no women and no animals.” Nobody is allowed in? “Well, only my mates!’’
When I comment on the number of trophies, he laughs and says every drawer in the house is full of trophies. I open a few drawers. They are all rammed with trophies. It’s like a hoarder’s house – only this hoarder just collects trophies. I ask him which is his favourite. He shows me a tiny cup. “This was my first ever win. The Donkey Handicap.”
We are back at the kitchen table and he is marvelling at how lucky he has been. Last year, Dettori equalled Piggott’s record of seven King George VI wins. Has he had the opportunity – “To tell the Queen? No.” Does he think he could replace Piggott as her favourite jockey? Not a chance, he says. He tells me of a visit to Windsor Castle. “After the dinner, you go for drinks in the massive hall with all the paintings.” He says the Queen headed straight for him. “She grabs my arm and says: ‘Go get me Lester!’” He knows his place, he says.
He talks about what the Queen has done for his sport. “She just loves talking about racing. She’ll have her Racing Post on the desk and she watches all the races when she has runners, 100%.” She could have been a commentator? “Yes, she could have taken over from Peter O’Sullevan.” He giggles. “Listen, we are very lucky. She is head of state, loved by the world and has never put a foot wrong. To have her in my sport, to be so knowledgable about it, is incredible.” He pauses and sips his precious water. “Everybody in racing’s got the same fear now. What will happen when the Queen’s not there any more?” She is irreplaceable as an ambassador? “Absolutely.” He notes that she has barely ever missed Royal Ascot or the Derby. “So, where are you going to find a person like that?”
As for him, he has no plans to retire. I remind him that Piggott continued until he was 59. “In my case, I’ll either get out with an injury or because nobody will put me up. Not because I want to stop. They’ll say: ‘Fuck it, let’s get rid of the old bastard.’ Hahahaha!”
In the UK, the eating disorder charity Beat can be contacted on 0808 801 0677. In the US, the National Eating Disorders Association is on 800-931-2237. In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation is on 1800 33 4673. Other international helplines can be found at Eating Disorder Hope
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org
Leap of Faith by Frankie Dettori (HarperCollins, £20) is out on 28 October. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply