By Ellie Kelly
LONDON (Reuters) – When Frankie Dettori’s life flashed before his eyes during a plane crash 19 years ago, one of his major regrets was that he would die without winning The Derby.
“I should have been dead. I remember everything but I try not to,” Dettori told Reuters when reflecting on a life and career that nearly ended prematurely.
He was dragged from the burning wreckage of the crash near Newmarket in 2000, which killed the pilot and injured Ray Cochrane forcing the former Derby winning jockey to retire from racing.
“When the plane was crashing, I had already accepted that I was going to die. I wasn’t screaming. I didn’t fear death. I was just disappointed, thinking ‘I’m 29 and it’s all finished. Not now. I’m not ready. I haven’t won The Derby,’” Dettori added.
He recovered and went on to win Britain’s greatest flat race twice, in 2007 and 2015. This week Dettori will ride in his 24th Derby Festival, sponsored by specialist bank and asset manager Investec on May 31 and June 1.
The 48-year-old has won every major turf race multiple times and in 1990 became the first teenager since Lester Pigott to ride 100 winners in a season. In 1996 he won all seven races at Champions Day, a performance yet unrivalled.
However, as a child growing up in Milan, The Derby was the race he yearned to win, spurned on by his father Gianfranco, himself a prolific jockey in Italy.
“Dad had this Piaget Watch which he used to dangle in front of me as a kid and say ‘One day son, when you win the Derby, you can have this.’ True to his word, he gave it to me but I had to dream about this bloody watch for 30 years,” he said.
The first of two Derby wins came with Authorized on Dettori’s 15th attempt. While the horse had won his preparation race by a long margin, the Italian could not relax.
“I had won everything but I had let myself believe the Derby was something I would never win. Even though Authorized was the best chance I had ever had in the Derby, I didn’t sleep for 10 days before.
“I ran that race in my head probably a thousand times a day. I was very superstitious. I had all my lucky charms laid out, my lucky suit and tie and a St Christopher in my boot. I asked for every bit of help I could get – just for the Derby.”
It was another eight years before he was to win again, this time with Golden Horn.
‘ADDICTED TO WINNING’
Dettori, known for his bright personality, revealed that he struggled at school and was sent to Britain at the age of 14 by his father to pursue life as a jockey.
He was meant to stay for six months but has never left. “I love England. My life has been a roller coaster but I didn’t set out to be like this. I was about 17 when I realized I was good,” he said.
“Before that I was happy to be a middle of the range jockey, ride my 50 winners a year and make a little living from it. My racing got out of control and I became addicted to winning.”
The Arsenal fan lives in Suffolk with his wife and five children and has even opened up a chain of restaurants in London.
However, with around 3500 wins to his name, Dettori has no plans to retire just yet.
“I’ll be 50 soon but I’d love to stay another five years. I am not as supple as I used to be but I haven’t felt limited.
“When I was younger I rode 1200 races a year and now I ride 300. Although I can’t see a thing. I have to wear glasses to read the race card, otherwise I can’t see where I am drawn,” he laughs.
“I would like to win all the big ones again. I think I love it more now than I did before, because I know I am coming towards the twilight of my career. It’s not going to last forever so I am trying to enjoy it as much as I can.”
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)