Whether it was fast horses or fast cars, jockey Frankie Dettori admits he was into everything as a youngster and always “jumped the f***ing straight – with two feet”.
The Italian racing supremo confessed that even when he was 15, he was going to pubs and chasing girls, and was on a path that led to a cocaine bust at age 22.
Now a 50-year-old veteran politician from the weighing room and a doting father of five kids, Frankie remembers a particularly crazy day that could have derailed his illustrious career before he could barely walk.
It was April 18, 1993, and his beloved Arsenal was playing Sheffield Wednesday in the Coca-Cola Cup final at Wembley.
With his face painted red and white, he leaves Newmarket Racing, headquartered in Suffolk, with a gang of friends in a minibus with cases of beer.
Along the way, Frankie says he got “some speed”, or amphetamines, from a guy at the service station.
The jockey, whose autobiography Leap of Faith is published today, says: “Then I went to football and got even more PD.”
But instead of returning home to Newmarket after Arsenal’s 3-1 win, Frankie and two friends decided to celebrate in London by buying some cocaine in the toilet of a nightclub near Oxford Street.
He says: “I thought it was a good idea to take it to an alley outside the club.
“I must have been caught on camera, because before I knew it, a police car came, searched me and arrested me.”
The day before he had ridden a champ for the queen. Now she feared to be his guest in one of his prisons.
Although Frankie was released with caution, it cost him a £200,000 racing contract in Hong Kong. Born Lanfranco Dettori in 1970 in Milan, he is the younger of two children.
Dad Gianfranco was a champion jockey from Italy and mother Iris Maria was a circus trapeze performer who could stand on two horses at once, one leg on each.
Young Frankie dreamed of becoming a petrol pump attendant, then a footballer, before following his father into racing.
Famous for his trademark flying dismount, he is now reportedly worth £14 million.
But at the age of 14, he arrived at Luton Airport with £366 in his pocket and no English. Homesick, he cried himself to sleep every night after taking his first job with Newmarket trainer Luca Kamani.
The other stable boys found Lanfranco to be too blunt, after which he was nicknamed Frankie. He stayed at a B&B in town, where his first meal was ravioli, to make him feel at home.
He recalls: “It was tinned ravioli. He had tried his best but it was terrible.
He was paid £87 a week, waking up every morning at 5 a.m. to pull three horses.
Away from the watchful eyes of his parents, Frankie throws himself into the social life of Newmarket. And because jockeys are small, it wasn’t difficult for a 14-year-old to be served in a pub.
He remembers: “We went out as a group because we worked in the same stables. We were like a family.
“We didn’t care in the world, but we were getting our wages on Friday and had to go out on Friday and Saturday nights. I grew up very quickly. Hormones started at 15, and I was going to pubs and chasing girls.
A natural horseman, Frankie rode his first champ at age 15 and was champion apprentice by 18.
In 1990 he became the first teenager since the great Lester Piggott to ride 100 winners in a season. He went on to become Kamani’s coveted stable jockey, but now admits he was too young to face success.
He says: “It was too much, too small for me to handle. By the time I was 19,20, I had a blue Mercedes with blacked out windows and spoilers, stereo flat out.
We didn’t care in the world but we were getting our wages on Friday and had to go out on Friday and Saturday nights.
“I had a crew and my own flat. I was this. I was the man. I wish my success would come later. It came a little quicker and went through my mind.”
When Lester Pigott returned to prison for tax fraud in 1990 at the age of 55, he tried to bring the young Italian down to earth.
A smiling Frankie says: “When Lester came back everyone was so scared of him, because they remembered how ruthless he was.
“And I used to tear him to pieces, drinking him all the time, saying he was an old man and should be in a museum.”
The pair were running at Goodwood and were farthest from the stand when Lester got his back from the saddle.
Frankie says: “He grabbed my b***ks and gave them a good squeeze. That was payback.”
After the cocaine bust, his father and stepmother Christine come to live with Frankie in an effort to keep Frankie straight and narrow.
He was then offered a retainer to ride for the Godolphin Racing operation of the principal owner, Sheikh Mohammed. He was the first champion jockey in 1994, then repeated the feat a year later.
His place in sporting immortality was secured in 1996, when he overcame bookies for £40 million with seven wins in one day at Ascot. His fame extended far beyond the Sport of Kings.
A year earlier, he had met classics student Katherine, the daughter of a New Zealand veterinary professor, when she was leading a horse he rode in haddock. Catherine recalls: “I knew I liked her from the start. He was cocky and cheeky and overconfident. “
Frankie asked him to go out to the cinema, followed by a meal at Pizza Express, and Katherine says: “He kept talking about himself for four hours, which was fine, because his life was pretty interesting.”
They married in 1997, with Ronnie Wood playing guitar at Rolling Stone’s wedding, and they have children Leo, Ella, Mia, Talula, and Rocco.
Yet despite all his wealth and popularity, Frankie knows very well how easily luck can snatch it all away.
On 1 June 2000, a Piper Seneca light aircraft with Frankie and fellow jockey Ray Cochrane crashed on take-off from Newmarket.
Today Frankie says that as the plane plummeted toward Earth, he thought: “I was just disappointed that I was about to die. I was married, I had a six-month-old son, Leo, and I was riding the Dubai Millennium, the best horse in the world.
“I was doing great. I thought, ‘Why are you taking me away now?’”
After impact, Ray pulled a bloodied Frankie out of the burning plane, but was unable to rescue pilot Patrick McKay before it exploded in flames.
Frankie says: “I shouldn’t be here. I was lucky twice. I was lucky with the accident, and I was lucky that Ray got me out of there.
“It goes without saying that it was a traumatic experience. I was obviously very sorry that I lost my partner, Patrick. I didn’t feel like I was on my own for the next three years. My family helped me recover from this.” helped.”
Frankie remained in the hospital for weeks and the accident changed his life. He stopped riding seven days a week and chose his mountains more carefully. Nevertheless, his career reached even greater heights. He was champion jockey again in 2004 and in 2007 he won his first cherished Epsom Derby at Authorized.
Yet her life took another downward spiral. Although he was the Godolphins’ top jockey, younger rivals were often given plum rides.
Frankie says: “It’s like having Ronaldo and putting him on the bench. I felt humiliated.”
It was 2012, and feeling disheartened and dejected, he invited friends over for a night of fun at his house.
He snorted a line of drunk cocaine through a 20-pound note, followed by “another and another and another”.
Frankie split from Godolphin shortly thereafter – then returned a positive cocaine test while riding at a French race course.
This landed him a six-month ban leaving him at Rock Bottom. When he resumed riding in May 2013, he went from 50 rides to a full month without a winner.
Wife Katherine – his “rock” – gave him “a real kick up the ass” and it was the carry-up call he needed.
Frankie renewed his working relationship with trainer John Gosden and won the Derby and Arc de Triomphe at the Golden Horn in 2015.
Then Flying Enable gave him perhaps the brightest moment of his career with two successes of Ark.
Despite several bad falls, 5ft 4in Frankie can’t believe he is in the final stages of his career. He added: “I’m still absolutely loving it. I’m going to turn 51 soon and I’m not done yet.”
He now wants to win the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most famous race – and it’s unwise to bet against this jockey with nine lives.
- Leap of Faith, by Frankie Dettori (HarperCollins, £20) is out today.