Triumph and despair both featured in our first extract from Frankie Dettori’s very racy new autobiography, Leap Of Faith, on Saturday, as he won a ‘Magnificent Seven’ races one day but then saw his reputation destroyed by a drugs bust. Today he recalls a terrifying brush with death…
Thursday, June 1, 2000, was a horrible day, blustery and grey, the kind of day when anyone sensible would huddle under a duvet at home and watch an old movie on TV.
I was flying to Goodwood from Newmarket, along with my friend and fellow jockey Ray Cochrane. Our usual plane was being serviced so we had a rented Piper Seneca.
‘When are we getting our normal one back?’ I asked Patrick Mackey, the pilot.
‘As soon as possible, I hope,’ he said. ‘I don’t like this one.’
That’s not what I wanted to hear. Patrick was an experienced pilot and a level-headed guy. If he didn’t like it there must be a reason. But not enough of a reason not to fly, and in any case we had to get to Goodwood in time for our races.
I was flying to Goodwood from Newmarket, along with my friend and fellow jockey Ray Cochrane. Our usual plane was being serviced so we had a rented Piper Seneca, writes Frankie Dettori
‘Look,’ said Patrick as he did pre-flight checks, ‘it’s windy and it’s going to be hairy, so buckle up.’
He wasn’t wrong. We bumped and bounced as we accelerated down the runway, the wind buffeting us. The left wing lifted a bit, tipping the plane to the right, and I heard a bang as we kept going.
Ray and I looked at each other. This wasn’t right.
Low over the Newmarket railings, 100ft up, there was smoke coming out of the right engine. I could see the first flickering of flames and the propeller looked damaged. The bang we heard must have been it hitting the ground as the plane lurched to the side.
We tilted suddenly, hard over to the right at a crazy angle. I braced myself in my seat.
Patrick was fighting at the controls to keep us airborne, but it was mission impossible. We were being pulled down to the ground.
We’re going to die. We’re going to die. We’re going to die.
It seemed so stupid. I was in perfect health, I was one of the best in the world at what I did, I’d just won the Gold Cup, and most of all I had a wife and baby boy I loved. All about to be wiped out so close to home I could practically see my front door.
I didn’t even have the strength to scream or cry. What I felt most, even beyond fear, was disappointment. My life wasn’t flashing in front of my eyes like it is said to at times like these. I just thought Why? Why take me now?
As we cartwheeled into the ground, the impact was thunder and lightning all in one, a ghastly nightmare sound of metal scraping and voices screaming. The world went black, a brief moment of unconsciousness, and then I came round.
My leg was in agony, and I felt something warm and sticky on my face. Blood.
Ray and I were still strapped in our seats and Patrick was slumped motionless, his head against the instrument panel, while flames billowed from the engines.
Ray’s voice was loud in the sudden silence. ‘Get out! Frankie, get out! The plane’s full of fuel.’
A ball of fire the size of a tree spiralled up, knocking him back with the force of the explosion. He ripped off his jacket and beat at the flames raging all around him, but to no avail. The cockpit was on fire and there was no way that anyone, short of a fully equipped fire brigade, was getting in there
The tiny door used to stow baggage just behind my seat was ajar. Ray kicked it open, dragged me backwards and pushed me out of the narrow opening before disappearing back inside to get Patrick. The smell of kerosene, overpowering and dangerous. I was right next to a machine that was on fire and going to explode at any moment, and I couldn’t move.
‘Ray! Ray!’ I screamed. ‘Help me!’ Jagged shards of pain forked through me every time I moved. There was so much blood that I couldn’t see out of one eye. I wondered if I’d lost that eye. Maybe I’d be half-blind for ever.
I thought Ray hadn’t heard me, but then his face appeared at the broken hatch. He grabbed my arms, dragged me 20 or 30 metres away, and headed back towards the wreckage.
A ball of fire the size of a tree spiralled up, knocking him back with the force of the explosion. He ripped off his jacket and beat at the flames raging all around him, but to no avail. The cockpit was on fire and there was no way that anyone, short of a fully equipped fire brigade, was getting in there.
Patrick had gone. Ray realised and went ballistic, hammering on the plane and screaming at the heavens before collapsing in hot tears of rage and frustration.
He crawled over and hugged me, and that’s how we stayed for a while, huddled together in shock like two small woodland animals.
The Army arrived. I don’t know if they were nearby or what, but a plane going down near a racecourse with flames and smoke everywhere is hard to miss, I guess.
Soon the paramedics were there, the soldiers loaded us into a helicopter and we were flown the ten miles to Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge.
There they operated on my leg and took skin for plastic surgery to my face. Ray had third-degree burns on his hands, and elsewhere, and he was all smashed up. But we were discharged in time for Patrick’s funeral a week later.
I couldn’t shake off the feeling I’d had since the crash: why did he die when I didn’t? He was such a good guy, and 52 is no age to go. I remembered a promise I made to myself as a little boy, to own a Ferrari before I turned 30. I was 29 then, and the crash had shown me life was all about seizing the day.
What the hell am I waiting for? I thought. I went to the dealership and bought a 360 Modena.
I couldn’t sit around too much after the crash, it drove me mad. So, three weeks later, I got into my morning suit and went to watch Dubai Millennium, the horse I’d won the Dubai World Cup on earlier that year, run in the Prince of Wales Stakes at Ascot.
Walking through the parade ring, I heard cheering and clapping. The Queen’s here, I thought, but she was nowhere in sight, and gradually I realised the applause was for me. I was touched, and tried to show it without breaking down. Racing fans really are the best.
I was back racing two months after the crash, notching up a couple of winners at Newmarket. That was the start of a recovery which saw me start the 2003 season winning the Dubai World Cup again, on Moon Ballad. The richest day’s racing in the world, £500,000 in two hours, thank you very much.
In 2004, I became champion jockey for the third time but one prize still eluded me, the race I dreamed of winning as a young kid on a pony back in Milan.
Back then, Italian TV showed only four races from abroad: the Grand National, the Epsom Derby, the King George and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was the Derby that got me: the crowds, the horses, the colours.
I still remember telling my dad, the most famous jockey in Italy, I wanted to win the Derby. He showed me his 1960s white-gold Piaget watch. A rich owner gave it to him for winning a race. He treasured it like it was the Crown Jewels of the Queen of England.
‘If you win the Epsom Derby,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you this.’
By 2007, I’d ridden in the Derby 14 times and the story of whether I could win had captured people’s imagination. So when I was due to ride Authorized, the best horse in that year’s race, everybody was wishing me luck.
I screamed as I crossed the line. Not a scream of triumph, but one containing the anguish of hopes extinguished year after year.
After the race, Dad told me he had something for me. I recognised the box even before he gave it to me. I lifted the watch out as though it was the Koh-i-Noor diamond — and saw he’d had it engraved with my name and the race details.
I hugged him. It was a symbol of so much. It was not just a reward for winning a race or a marker of growing up. It reminded me where I came from and what I had. And, although I didn’t know it then, what I was soon to risk losing.
The coming years saw an increasingly difficult relationship between me and Godolphin, the racing outfit owned by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai. I joined them in 1994 and since 1996 I’d been their stable jockey on a handsome retainer and was given the pick of rides. But for the 2012 season they employed two extra retained jockeys, Frenchman Mickaël Barzalona and the Brazilian Silvestre de Sousa.
‘The three jockeys will get equal opportunities,’ Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford told the Press. ‘Frankie has to share the cake and he understands that.’
I understood all right. I was officially no longer number one and I didn’t like it, not one little bit.
That year, I watched the Oaks from the weighing room at Epsom. On Derby day, I wasn’t even on the course. I was at Haydock where I rode three races and finished fifth, eighth and last. People looked at me with curiosity and pity.
I felt frustrated and even when I won the Irish Champion Stakes in Leopardstown that September it didn’t improve my mood.
When I got home from Ireland, I had a few people round. The booze was flowing and I wanted to blot out all the rubbish that was going on in my head and my life.
When someone started chopping up a few lines of coke, I knew I shouldn’t be tempted. Jockeys get randomly tested and cocaine shows up like any other drug but how unlucky would I be to get pinged?
Also, it was late. I was drunk, my career was on the skids and fundamentally I didn’t care.
I took a rolled-up £20 note, bent my head to the table and snorted a line. Then another, and another, and another.
It was 9am the next day before I got to bed, and when I woke, I’d got the fear big time. What was I doing? It wasn’t just a single line I took, either: I got really stuck in.
Cocaine remains in your system for about a week so I drank pints of water to try to flush it out. Eight days later, I rode in trials for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at the Longchamp racecourse in Paris.
Four races. No wins. And one drug test.
I worked out the timeline as I peed into the bottle. It was just over a week since taking the cocaine. It would be touch and go. And I had a bad feeling about it.
Every day after that test I walked on eggshells. And every morning that the post came and there was no letter from France I let myself relax a bit until the next morning.
While all this was going on, I’d decided that I’d finally had enough of being sidelined by Godolphin and we agreed that, after 18 years, my retainer would not be renewed at the end of the season.
A few days after we’d issued statements to the Press, a letter arrived from France. My eyes went immediately to the key phrases. ‘Failed a drugs test.’ ‘Positive for metabolites of cocaine.’ That was it. Busted. Only a year previously I’d had a great job and a great career. Now I had no job and, when this came out, no career.
I only had myself to blame. I did the wrong thing at the wrong time, and I got tested. If you play with fire you’re going to get burned.
I was due to race in the Breeders’ Cup in Santa Anita, California, then to fly to Australia for the Melbourne Cup, and I asked my wife Catherine to come with me.
‘I can’t do them myself,’ I told her. ‘Not now.’
Five thousand miles in a plane to America with all that guilt on my shoulders. No matter how far I went, I couldn’t outrun it. I didn’t win anything there or in Australia and even if I had I wouldn’t have felt like celebrating — me, who normally loved the roar of the crowd and the champagne sprays in the winners’ enclosure.
At the end of each day I locked myself in my hotel room until it was time to do it all over again the next day. Thank God I had Catherine with me, or who knows what I might have done.
After returning home, I flew to Paris to appear before the French equivalent of the British Horseracing Authority. I was smuggled in the back way to avoid the Press. I told the truth. I did it because I was tired, angry and frustrated but that decision was entirely on me.
They suspended me for six months, the minimum. The ban was set to end the following May, meaning I would miss the 1000 and 2000 Guineas but would be free to ride the Derby in early June and at Royal Ascot a few weeks later.
That depended on whether anyone would have me and, as I will describe in tomorrow’s Mail, the coming years would leave me feeling like a character in a Dick Francis novel, the washed-up ex-jockey who had it all and blew it.
n Adapted from Leap Of Faith by Frankie Dettori, published by HarperCollins on October 28 at £20. © Frankie Dettori 2021
To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until November 6, 2021; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.