Day of reckoning for Dettori after positive drugs test

Tue, Nov 20, 2012, 00:00

Frankie Dettori has enjoyed some of his greatest triumphs in Paris but is widely expected to endure a career nadir today when facing a disciplinary hearing at France Galop’s HQ into a positive drugs test.

Although the substance involved has not been officially declared, Dettori’s lawyer has already stated it is not “performance enhancing” and it has been widely reported to be cocaine.

If that is confirmed, the world’s most famous jockey faces a six-month worldwide ban.

That will be a major blow to the 41-year-old Italian star and already there has been speculation about Dettori possibly choosing not to return from such a prolonged lay-off.

Certainly the impact of a drugs ban will reverberate far beyond racing as Dettori easily remains the sport’s best-known figure with a huge public profile comparable in modern times only to Lester Piggott who famously returned to race-riding after retirement and a prison sentence for tax evasion.

The ebullient Dettori could hardly present a more contrasting image to “Old Stoneface” Piggott.

It is 16 years since the triple champion jockey burst into the wider public consciousness with a famous seven-out-of-seven at Ascot.

Since then he has become the face of racing, and not just in Britain.

Just a week before providing the positive test at Longchamp’s ‘Arc Trials’ meeting in September, Dettori secured a fifth victory in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on board Snow Fairy.

It was a hugely popular success, just the latest for the jockey in this country where he has won almost every top-flight race including seven classic victories.

Dettori’s Leopardstown’s celebrations were typically flamboyant but Snow Fairy’s win also proved how his big-race temperament remains intact. Behind the flash, there is a talent and determination that still makes him, for many, the world’s outstanding jockey.

It is that grit and hard-nosed professionalism that is sometimes forgotten when dealing with ‘Brand Dettori’, the public face that is associated with pizza restaurants, popular yoghurts and his trademark flying dismount.

In 1993, cocaine was at the centre of a police caution for possession that briefly looked like seeing an outrageous natural talent going off the rails.

Dettori’s response was to win a first jockeys championship the following year.

In 2000 only the quick-thinking of his then colleague, and now agent, Ray Cochrane saw him survive a plane crash that claimed the life of the pilot. Cochrane pulled Dettori from the wreckage just before the light plane exploded.

Long after the cuts, bruises and other physical injuries healed, there were psychological issues that produced doubts about whether or not the Italian wanted to continue as a jockey. But they were overcome. Seven years later the full set of British classics was completed when that elusive Epsom Derby success was secured on Authorized.

Those who doubt Dettori’s resolve have ample evidence to the contrary.

That is not to say he is immune to making poor decisions. The cliché is to attribute Dettori’s flamboyance to a certain Mediterranean flakiness. And there’s little doubt the jockey is capable of playing up to the stereotype. But there is also the reality of his occupation to reckon with.

Jockeys facing the rigours of maintaining a low weight on a daily basis often operate on hair-trigger temperaments, judgment skewed by rumbling stomachs and hectic schedules.

The day before his positive test, Dettori had watched Encke win the St Leger under young Frenchman Mickael Barzalona whose growing influence within Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation had sidelined the older jockey to an ever growing extent during 2012.

It’s not difficult to imagine how Dettori would have been far from his usual exuberant self just 24 hours later at Longchamp.

Last month Dettori effectively ended his 18 year link-up with Godolphin by taking the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe ride on Camelot for racing’s other big superpower, Coolmore.

Such a move would have been unthinkable just a year before and it confirmed how wide the abyss between employer and employee had grown. But it also confirmed how in-demand Dettori is. Coolmore didn’t hesitate to snap him up when they needed a rider for their most prized asset.

It is unclear what Coolmore and other big bloodstock players would do should Dettori get hit with a six month suspension and elect to then return to race-riding during the middle of the 2013 season.

By the start of next summer the rides on the best horses will have been firmly secured by Dettori’s rivals. That will leave only pickings from the big-race table. For an individual used to winning at the very highest level for over two decades, that will be hard to swallow.

But those reckoning on Dettori not being prepared to knuckle down and hit the road for run-of-the-mill meetings underestimate the professional pride underpinning the flamboyance.

The evidence suggests that despite everything he will eventually hang up his boots on his own terms.

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