Evergreen Dettori still revelling in the big occasion
Frankie Dettori freely admits that, at 50 years old and in the 34th season of his career, the humdrum days no longer get his juices flowing. But it is very different when he is on his stage.
The Italian has ridden winners around the world, but the place where he comes alive is on a lush green strip of turf in Berkshire.
The speculation is always rife when a seasoned professional with a glittering career behind him might be ready for the pipe and carpet slippers. Just ask six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady, who will be 44 when the season starts – ancient in NFL terms.
Yet certain things get you up in the morning. The aches and pains are lessened by the soothing balm of enthusiasm for the biggest days.
Dettori comes alive in the spotlight. He may have lived in Flat racing’s HQ of Newmarket since arriving in this country from his homeland, but it is Ascot which is his professional home and the Royal meeting, in particular, is the time and place for a clutch of Dettori’s command performances.
And in Stradivarius, he will have a chance of another milestone at the showpiece fixture, after the seven-year-old came through his prep in the Longines Sagaro Stakes on Wednesday with flying colours, beating Ocean Wind by an easy length.
It was Dettori’s fifth Sagaro Stakes success, although the last winner of the race to go on to land the Gold Cup was Estimate in 2013. Dettori is now seeking a ninth Gold Cup triumph, and a fourth consecutive one with the Bjorn Nielsen-owned Stradivarius, who has the chance to equal Yeats’ four-timer between 2006-2009.
Dettori said: “Horses like Stradivarius are what you get up for. He had been a progressive three-year-old the season before his first Gold Cup when he had improved as the summer had gone on. We knew he had strengthened up over the winter and we genuinely thought we had a real Gold Cup contender on our hands.
“And he has just been so consistent ever since.”
Much like his partner, who is as addicted to the adrenaline kick of a big winner as much he ever was. Probably more so.
Dettori and his trainer, John Gosden, realised that in Stradivarius, a chestnut with distinctive white socks on his legs, they had a rare commodity – a stayer with a turn of foot.
Dettori said: “The ground was against him on his last two runs last year, but he’s been in great form at home and he has the same old enthusiasm he has always had. He has shown us all the right signs throughout the winter.
“Bjorn was a little worried that he may not have the enthusiasm, but he has always had that and he’s shown me no signs that he has lost that. John has been very happy with him and he has the ability to win over shorter trips than the Gold Cup.
“Today, I wanted to be closer to the pace and didn’t want them to get away from me, but he has got a turn of foot and when I asked him to quicken, he got there too soon.
“He is an incredible horse and he has that extra burst.”
Dettori shows no signs of calling it a day just yet. He admitted: “Riding horses like those obviously gives you a spring in your step. I feel like a teenager when the season starts, and I still can’t wait to get going. I am as fit as I have ever been, spending time in the gym, and I look after myself, but I also must be realistic.
You never know what is around the corner, but horses like Stradivarius are what it is all about
“I am very lucky to have a boss like John. He understands me. He’d rather have me up for the weekends and the big days, fresh and hungry, rather than slogging around the country chasing smaller prizes that just don’t motivate me anymore.
“There was a time when I wanted to win every race. I’d have driven miles for a winner, even if it was just a seller. But it is impossible to maintain that level of motivation.
“You never know what is around the corner, but horses like Stradivarius are what it is all about.”
And rather like Stradivarius at the end of his races, Dettori’s stride is not shortening. He is looking forwards. There will be plenty of time for reflection.
He said: “Yeats won four Gold Cup and people said that would never be done again, but for us, the dream is still alive!”
There is a statue of Yeats in the parade ring at Ascot. “Let’s hope they will have to make space for one of Stradivarius,” he added.