Horse racing, as in life, rarely follows the script. There are simply too many facets out of your control: the split-second window when an opening appears in a wall of horses, the fickleness of the elements and, indeed, the willpower of a one-tonne animal striding beneath you. Sport is a cruel mistress at the best of times, but jockeys suffer more hardship than most. When the starting gates open, it can feel like you’re grasping onto fate just as tightly as the reins; the outcome is never certain, no matter the talent of your equine companion.

So when Frankie Dettori announced his farewell tour in December 2022, one final season to drink in the adulation of the racing crowd before retirement beckoned, it could so easily have turned from a heroic swansong into a funeral march. But Dettori, arguably the sport’s greatest ever entertainer, had no intentions of going gently into that good night. Instead, over a rip-roaring final few months, the legendary 52-year-old jockey has been at his swashbuckling best winning some of the biggest and toughest races the country has to offer as he brings down the curtain on his marvellous career.

In 1985, Lanfranco ‘Frankie’ Dettori arrived on British shores at the age of 14 to work as a stable lad for formidable racehorse trainer Luca Cumani. Great things were expected of the son of Italian champion jockey Gianfranco Dettori, but the horseman has surpassed every conceivable expectation and rose to become the face of the sport – not just for his talents in the saddle, but for his larger-than-life persona, typified by his trademark flying dismount.

The British public came to know him as Frankie and marked him as one of their own, especially after his exploits at Ascot on Saturday 28 September 1996. On that fateful day, Dettori completed a historic feat of winning every single race on the card – the Magnificent Seven as it has been dubbed – with a combined odds of 25,000/1. It propelled the jockey into a level of public recognition previously only bestowed upon the late great Lester Piggott, and while horse racing regrettably continues its slow decline from a place of national interest, it’s Dettori alone who commands the wider public’s attention.

“I always wanted to be famous, to be well known, and to be recognised as a good rider,” Dettori tells me at his home in Newmarket, “but I think things developed in my life out of my control, basically.”

Jockey Frankie Dettori talks about his storied career
Jockey Frankie Dettori talks about his storied career

In a career that has spanned 36 years, the Italian has notched up more than 3,350 winners, amassing a staggering 289 Group One victories including 23 British Classic successes, and partnered some of the greatest horses and trainers ever to step foot onto a racecourse. He will deservedly be remembered as one of the greatest jockeys of all time.

But the highs have been accompanied with profound lows. On 1 June 2000, Dettori was involved in a harrowing crash on board a light aircraft in which he was dragged from the burning wreckage by friend and former jockey Ray Cochrane. The pilot lost his life, but the Italian escaped with a broken ankle and a damaged thumb – down, but not out. And then came the controversy. In 2012, Dettori experienced an acrimonious split from his employers of the past 18 years, Godolphin Racing, only to test positive for cocaine just a few months later and find himself on the receiving end of a six-month suspension from the British Horseracing Authority. It left the jockey contemplating whether his time in the saddle was drawing to a close.

“Look, nobody’s had a perfect life; we all make mistakes and you just have to learn from them. You’ve got to bounce back,” he says. The mark of a man is not that he should stumble, but that he should pick himself up and try again. And Frankie bounced back with a vengeance. The fact that his greatest triumphs should follow his most public failure speaks of a character with remarkable resilience and an unsinkable desire to win.

The wily trainer John Gosden saw in Dettori a man whose fire burned ever brighter and employed his services following his drugs suspension. It would prove to be a historic decision for both parties. Two years later, Dettori would steer Gosden’s Golden Horn to victory in The Derby in 2015. In the intervening years, the pair have grown into one of the great forces in horse racing, teaming up with the likes of the mighty stayer Stradivarius, the powerful middle-distance runner Cracksman, and the queen of the turf and two-time Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Enable. Each, in some way, tells a story of Dettori’s main characteristics: endurance, flair, and persistence, respectively. And that’s not to mention the jockey’s final Classic winner, Soul Sister, who romped home to victory in The Oaks at Epsom Downs this May.

I’m going to miss the public… the chants of “Go on, Frankie!” from the grandstand

We meet on the verge of the Italian’s final start in the UK, a date that has been penned in the diary for almost a year: 21 October, Champions Day at Ascot. “I’ll try not break down – before racing, at least,” he tells me.

Good to his word, there are no tears, instead a 30,000-strong chorus roars Dettori across the line as he triumphs in his very last race, with King of Steel winning the Champion Stakes – Dettori’s final Group One in this country on his last ride.

Really, it’s only fitting that the man with a movie-worthy story should get his Hollywood ending. But is this really the final curtain? Well, it wouldn’t be very Frankie if there wasn’t one final twist in the tale…

Square Mile: When you announced this big farewell tour, did you realise the kind of pressure you were going to be putting on yourself? You could have just quietly ridden out this year and then announced after everything was over…

Frankie Dettori: You know what? It gave me more time to say goodbye to everyone and it’s very hard just to stop [he snaps his fingers] like that, so I wanted to give myself plenty of time to say my last goodbyes everywhere.

It all kicked off last year in America after I announced my retirement in December, which is great because that’s where I started as a teenager. I didn’t know what to expect, but it went much better than I thought. I loved it. And I guess that started the snowball effect for when I came back to Europe. I won the 2000 Guineas in May and many other special victories. It’s been phenomenal.

SM: It has been a season of goodbyes. Lots of racetracks have honoured your final visit. Do you have any words for the fans?

FD: It’s been amazing, overwhelming. That’s one thing that I’m going to miss. I’m going to miss the public, this amazing fan base that has supported me for more than 30 years. The chants of “Go on, Frankie!” from the grandstand. They’re memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life and I’m forever grateful for everyone’s support.

Frankie Dettori, Royal Ascot, Gold Cup, Courage Mon Ami

SM: Do you remember your first ever winner on British soil?

FD: Of course I do. It was Lizzy Hare in 1987. Lizzy Hare was bred by Luca Cumani – and he named her after the secretary that used to ride out and who worked in the office. Actually it was Lizzy Hare herself that drove me to Goodwood before the race to ride the horse that was named after her.

The horse won and I chewed Lizzy’s ear off for four hours on the way back telling her every detail about the race. I think I was still talking about it after a week!

SM: So, why now? Why retire? You’ve won a couple of Classics this year and are clearly still at the top of your game.

FD: Why now? Well, because I will be 53 in December. A lot of things are changing in racing. All these new trainers are coming up, new owners… Basically, I wanted to stop when I’m at the top. You know, watching the World Cup last year, I saw Ronaldo – one of the best players of his generation – not playing in the starting 11 for Portugal; he was on the bench. It got me thinking that it could easily happen to me. So while things are going good, John Gosden is still at the height of his powers, we’ve got lots of good owners and I still have plenty of good horses to ride, I thought, “Yeah, this is the right time for me.” I didn’t expect it to go so well, but it was beautiful. Perfect.

SM: It’s been a real whirlwind. Has the time just flown by since the announcement?

FD: It’s quite bizarre because everywhere I go, it’s my last time riding there, so it’s all quite surreal. When I left the weighing room at the Curragh and I signed my peg, I was thinking, “Well, I’m never going to walk in here again…” It’s quite strange to think like that. But I will be emotional on 21 October because Ascot is my favourite track and my family’s going to be there, so it will be difficult, but I’ll try not to break down before racing anyway.

If I stay one more year and it goes tits up then you think, “I should have stuck to my word.”

SM: Have you had any moments this year where you’ve reconsidered retiring?

FD: I’ll be honest with you, there’s two superpower jobs in flat racing. There’s Coolmore and Godolphin; I can’t get either of those positions. I’ve had them at different times during my career, but it’s not my time anymore. So I think I’m doing the right thing. I’ve achieved everything I wanted to achieve, and yes, it’s just the right moment. Sometimes, you’ve got to know when to stop. If I stay one more year and it goes tits up then you think, “I should have stuck to my word.”

SM: Let’s go back to 2012 when you parted ways with Godolphin. When you reflect on that period of uncertainty, the shot to your confidence, did you think that you had another ten years in you at that point?

FD: No. I knew I had ten years in me physically, but I didn’t know I was going to be more successful than before, because I had been successful with Godolphin. But somehow my career after Godolphin was even more successful. I managed to land on Golden Horn, Stradivarius, Cracksman, and about 20 other incredible horses, I mean… amazing. I am so thankful to John Gosden and his owners that they stood by me and they provided me with some incredible ammunition.

And even the Enable journey was sensational. Four years of pure enjoyment and the most emotional four years that I ever had. Everyone knows I never loved a horse as much as Enable. To have a horse that good for so long, it was a dream. The more we won, the more I got attached to her. She was part of my life and when she retired I cried for two days because I was so sad. She’s the one who really touched my heart. And she’s just one chapter of my story. So it’s been phenomenal, to be honest with you. Phenomenal.

SM: I was there in Paris for her last Arc de Triomphe and, God, I wish it hadn’t rained so much, just for one week. Do you have moments where you think like that?

FD: You know what, I believe in pluses and minuses. I’ve had a lot of pluses. You can’t just win all the time. So with a plus comes a minus, sometimes you balls up or you don’t get the luck, but in general it works itself out so I can’t complain too much.

Jockey Frankie Dettori outside of his Newmarket home
Jockey Frankie Dettori outside of his Newmarket home

SM: Speaking of pluses and minuses, do you feel that same sentiment is true in your personal life when things went against you?

FD: Yeah, absolutely. Look, nobody’s had a perfect life. We all make mistakes and you just have to learn from it. You’ve got to bounce back. And most of the time that I made a mistake or I did something wrong, whatever I did, I bounced back. I never doubted myself, I just came back stronger. And, like I said, nobody’s had a perfect life.

SM: A word on John Gosden; I know he’s a fierce friend and one of your biggest supporters, especially over the last decade. What does he mean for you?

FD: Well, he gave me a lifeline. We’ve been friends for 30 years, but we’ve just got this chemistry in our working relationship. I mean, I don’t know what it is: does he train horses to suit me or do I ride his horses to suit the training? I really don’t know, but it works; just look at the record. We have nothing in common: I go raving and he goes to the opera. It’s just completely crisscrossed in an everyday life, completely the opposite. But time and time and time again it’s worked for the last ten years. We’ve been an amazing team.

I guess you can compare it to Lester Piggott and Vincent O’Brien or Willie Carson and Dick Hern, I mean those kinds of relationships that stood the test of time. I think in my career that has become a relationship that I never had with any other trainer – and I’ve worked with some great trainers, obviously Saeed bin Suroor and Luca Cumani and so many other people that I worked for. But I would have to say that he has to be on the top of that pile.

Everyone knows I never loved a horse as much as Enable. To have a horse that good for so long, it was a dream

SM: And with that has come fame and glory. You really are the face of horse racing. What does that mean to you?

FD: Well, I always wanted to be famous, well known, and be known as a good rider, but I think things developed in my life out of my control basically. I mean, winning seven races in a row at Ascot in 1996 was the start, and then obviously I survived the plane crash, then I got done for the drugs. I was always in the limelight both good or bad, so I became a known name. People probably know me because of those things rather than really knowing me for my good riding. So it’s things that were slightly out of my control.

If I’m known by Joe Bloggs in the street, yes of course they know that I’m a jockey, but basically it’s because of all those things that I’ve just mentioned – I’ve been on TV or chat shows or reality TV. You know, Pat Eddery was an amazing jockey, but not even he was this well recognised. You have to go back to maybe Lester Piggott back in the day or maybe Willie Carson to people who were known outside of the sport. So for none of my fault – even if I was looking for it – it just happened that way.

SM: If you could write your own legacy, how would you like people to remember you?

FD: I’d like people to see me as an outstanding jockey, not because I jump off the horses or the reality shows, but because of what I’ve done on the track. That’s the legacy by which I’d like to be remembered.

SM: Is there something special about the way you ride a horse? What do you feel that people might not be able to see?

FD: Well listen, you start from scratch. My dad was a jockey; he was my first reference point. Then I went to America. So I was trying to combine the American style to the English style and formed my own designer style. I was very lucky that my mum worked in the circus, she was very supple and I inherited those genes which made me quite natural on a horse. I’m small, I’ve got long arms, so I’m perfectly designed to do the job. And then experience has come with it.

So all those things are what made me who I am, you’re not just born like this. There were a lot of teachers and a lot of trials and there was a lot of readjusting and then the race craft comes with the experience and self-confidence. It doesn’t just happen just like that. I feel like I can handle the pressure better because of spirit. It’s just as simple as that.

Jockey Frankie Dettori on his horse racing career

SM: Do you think you leave the sport in a better place than where you found it?

FD: If I’m honest, I think I’m leaving it in a worse state. If any young jockey was to ask me my advice, I would say to leave this country because glory doesn’t pay bills. The prize money is the same as it was when I started 36 years ago. Prize money is killing this sport in England. I mean, if you look at any other country in the world, we are so far behind. Look at Andrea Atzeni, a great jockey, he had to go to Hong Kong.

Here, if you don’t ride on good horses to make it pay, you just struggle all your life, and it’s a pity because we have people who love racing. You go to York on a Saturday, you get 35,000, you go to Royal Ascot, you get 70,000 people on Gold Cup day. So we have people going racing, but everybody’s taking from the sport and nothing is going back into it. There are six races worth more than £1m in England; you go to Australia or America, they have one every week. That’s the difference.

SM: What other advice would you give to the younger jockeys coming through now?

FD: I tell all young jockeys – I was in Budapest in September for a couple of races, and I had a meeting with the kids and I said – “The most important thing is you’ve got to have the love of the animal. You’ve got to love the horse. Technique, you learn from other people and you can practise, but if you start with a love of the horse, you get that understanding. I would say that’s 75% of your success. You’ve got to understand the horse and love him and get inside his brain and be a part of them. I think that’s the most important thing in my job.

SM: So what’s next for the great Frankie Dettori then? What do you go into?

FD: I’d like to spend some time with my family and regroup while I get used to it. Then obviously next year, I have some plans working on TV as a pundit, and we’ll see.

At the moment, I am scaling down from Newmarket because all my five kids have left. We have this massive big house for just myself and my wife. So we decided to rent it out and we are possibly moving towards London where some of my children live. There’s a few changes happening in my life, so I’m pretty busy with that. I’m not just going to sit on the couch and feel sorry for myself that’s for sure.

Jockey Frankie Dettori on his horse racing career

As a young jockey, Dettori spent the winter of 1987/88 in California, working under the watchful eye of trainer Richard Cross as a work rider. It was here that the emerging talent began to develop a unique racing style that would later become his signature, combining the hands and intuitive feel of the American racers with the brawn and leg strength of the British and Irish jockeys. It was also during his Californian sojourn that Hall of Fame jockey Ángel Cordero Jr taught Dettori how to do the flying dismount – a celebration that, of course, would become a common sight to British racing fans over the years.

Dettori’s love affair with the States has been a long-distance romance ever since. And now, in a remarkable about-turn since our first interview, Dettori has announced he intends to continue his career in the USA, based out of Santa Anita racecourse in California.

“It could be three months, it could be three years,” Dettori tells me over the phone when I try to make sense of the reversal. “But I’ve got to get it out of my system.”

As it should happen, it’s been a decision that Dettori has been quietly mulling over since the summer successes first started rolling in – albeit one he has kept under wraps until his visa was approved.

So Frankie will indeed go to Hollywood this winter (or rather Santa Anita, 20 miles east) for an indefinite period of time. Here’s what the jockey had to say for himself…

Talking to my family, I’ve still got it in me. I’ve just got to get it out of my system

SM: When we last spoke, you were one hundred percent retiring, you were hanging up the saddle for good and looking forward to this quieter life in London, being closer to your daughters. What changed?

FD: Well, look, it’s been in the back of my mind for a little while now. What’s changed is the year that I’ve had, you know? It’s been amazing. When I announced my retirement, I thought things were going to fizzle down slowly, say my last goodbyes, and walk out of the back door from my sport and say thank you very much. But it’s been success after success, so much demand, and you know what? Talking to my family and my parents, I’ve still got it in me. I’ve just got to get it out of my system. If it wasn’t for the success that I’ve had, it was easily done, but fortunately, I’m in the position that I never thought I would be and I just can’t let it go.

I’ve committed to retiring in Europe but I’ve decided to give it a go in California where I had an amazing time last year, to go over there and carry on for a bit longer. It could be three months, it could be three years, I wouldn’t know. But I’ve got to get it out of my system.

SM: After every success that you had this year, were you going home and talking to your partner and saying, “I’m not sure I’m ready.” Or was there a specific moment where you went, “Right, I can’t retire just yet.”

FD: The moment was in the summer when I was winning consistently. Then we started thinking about the logistics. Well, the kids have all gone, we put the house up for rent and that’s been rented, so now we are free in a sense. We don’t have to do the school run anymore. I mean, if I had to go there by myself, it would have been a different story, but now that my wife can come it makes it a lot easier.

Then the next logistics was to apply for a visa. We did that in the summer and we have just heard we’ve been successful. That’s why the announcement was today. It took a while to get to this decision, but it’s really exciting. It’s a new challenge for me.

Frankie Dettori riding for His Majesty The King

SM: You’re going to be based out of Santa Anita. Have you had any assurances from the owners and trainers over there?

FD: Last year they were begging me to go back. I’ve secured a great agent called Ron Anderson who is one of the best out there. He took my book last year and he’s happy to take me on again. Like I said, it’s a new challenge for me, but it can go very wrong. I could be back in three months twiddling my thumbs, but I’m hopeful it goes well.

I’m looking forward to trying to find a horse for the Kentucky Derby and just fizzle out my career in the US and the international scene as well. The opportunities to go to Dubai, Saudi, or places like that.

SM: When we spoke last time, you talked about this fairytale year. Every opportunity where it could have gone wrong, it hasn’t. Are you worried that could change in the USA?

FD: I like a challenge. I’ve done England for 36 years. I’ve won everything I possibly could over here. Of course, it’s always a challenge to come back year after year and try to win the big races, the classics, but it gets repetitive.

Whereas the prospect of going to America, taking on the Americas in their own backyard, trying to find a Kentucky Derby horse. That’s what I need, because I’m the sort of person that gets stale very quickly. So it’s the perfect challenge for me.

SM: Did you feel in any way bound by the fact that you’d already announced your retirement in the UK?

FD: Not really. Ultimately, it’s my decision to make, I could have easily turned around and said “I’m going to do one more year in England,” but that just didn’t feel right for me. I’ve been on the road for 36 years, and I like the idea of being based out of Santa Anita.

The lifestyle in California suits me much better as a 52 year old than it does in England; the weather obviously ticks the box for me. When the opportunity arose, it just seemed like the right thing to do.

Frankie Dettori is an ambassador for global insurance broker and Ascot Racecourse partner, Howden; visit