Special Frankie Dettori is better than ever and right to continue, says legendary trainer

Luca Cumani backs jockey's U-turn on retirement and tells The National what makes him unique

Frankie Dettori reacts after winning Group 1 Dubai Turf over 1800m at the Meydan racecourse in Dubai earlier this year. AP
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When Frankie Dettori announced a dramatic U-turn on his plans to retire as a jockey, it came as no surprise to Luca Cumani.

Cumani has long been a close confidante of the brilliant rider who had previously insisted that the 2023 season would be his swansong.

This Saturday is Champions Day at Ascot, the glittering showpiece finale to the Flat racing season in England, and was supposed to be a key part of Dettori's long goodbye ahead of a planned final outing at November's Breeders' Cup.

But earlier this month, the 52-year-old confirmed rumours that he will indeed race on, spending the next few years competing in America and at major races in Japan, Australia and the Middle East.

He does, however, maintain that Saturday will be his last race in England – fittingly at his beloved Ascot – but many sceptics feel that one day he will be back.

“I have known that he was going to carry on and go to California since early summer,” said Cumani, who has long been a father figure to the mercurial Dettori.

“I just couldn’t say so! I’m calling him Frankie Sinatra because he has decided to make a comeback.

“He said he thought life in California would suit him very well. There would be no travel, it’s easier to get out of your house and get in your car and in 10 minutes you are at the racecourse. And generally speaking there are good horses and great prize money.”

In fact, Cumani probably had an impact on that decision not to quit.

“I was very disappointed when he first announced that he was retiring because he has been riding so well," added the 74-year-old Cumani, trainer of seven winners in the Classics.

“In the spring whenever he was winning a big race, I would always text him saying, ‘What the hell are you doing retiring? You’re better than ever'.“

The two men have been close from the moment Dettori arrived in Britain as a 14-year-old in 1985, a kid who could barely speak English and had never ridden a racehorse. Love, mutual respect and emotion lie at the heart of their enduring relationship.

It was the Italian connection which linked them. Dettori’s father Gianfranco was stable jockey for Cumani’s father, a trainer in Milan.

Cumani himself had moved to England in 1972 and quickly established himself as one of the leading trainers in Newmarket. His own children have followed him into the sport. His son Matt has his own successful yard in Australia while Francesca, his daughter, is a major racing television personality.

When asked what would have prompted Dettori’s change of heart, Cumani said: “He has had such a fantastic year, he is riding as well as ever, age hasn’t caught up with him. Of the two choices, being a freelance in England or California, it is much better to be in California.

“As long as he continues to ride as well as he is, I think he has many years ahead of him. The number of good horses he’s been offered to ride and doing so well he’s thought why stop?

”California will suit Frankie. He needs to be in warm weather. He hates the cold and he hates the rain. That is first priority for him to live in an environment where he is happy. As long as he is furnished with decent horses in decent races he will be as happy as Larry.”

Cumani recalled fondly the impact Dettori had at his Bedford House yard.

“He was a very fast learner. To begin with, he probably fell off four times in a week, then down to twice, and then none and never fell off again.

“He developed so quickly. Normally it takes a normal 15-year-old two or three years to get to that stage, it took Frankie just one. He was a cheeky so and so!

“We all liked him but he was always up to mischief. He had everyone wrapped around his little finger. Everybody loved Frankie, nobody was ever jealous. That was testament to him that he made such rapid progress and nobody was jealous of it. “

What does he think made Dettori stand out as one of the all-time greats?

“When Frankie wants to win, the horse will win. The great thing about him has always been the will to win he can transmit to a horse through the reins. He is a confidence rider. When he is up, he is the best rider in the world. You can see his enthusiasm transmit to the horse like no other jockey.

“Horses have a way of communicating with humans and with Frankie, he was able to transmit that will to win. The horse can feel the urge of wanting to beat the other horse. “

Cumani agreed that Dettori’s profile has been vital in helping to promote the sport.

“It is easier to sell a picture and a story about Frankie jumping off a horse than it is Ryan Moore coming in with a long face,” he said. “It is his natural way of being always exuberant and outgoing.

“With Frankie it is sheer enthusiasm. He engages with the crowd. He is a showman. We are always pleased when he wins a big race and is in a happy place. If you follow racing, you follow Frankie. Racing is not tribal like football. You don’t follow Godolphin or Coolmore. You follow Frankie.”

Is he irreplaceable? “How can you manufacture another one? You cannot,” Cumani said. “Who else would get away with hugging Sheikh Mohammed and kissing Ryan Moore.

“He is one of the very best that has ever lived,” Cumani continued. “ When he is in form, there is no better jockey on earth and there never has been, he is on par with a top-class Lester Piggott and a top-class Ryan Moore, there aren’t any better that I can think of. When he is on song, if I was a jockey against him, I would tear my hair out thinking how the hell do I beat him?”

So have we really seen the last of Dettori in England? Would the attraction of Royal Ascot, his favourite meeting, lure him back even if only for one more time next summer?

“If he is asked for a special ride or a really good horse I am pretty sure he would,” said Cumani, who himself retired as a trainer five years ago. He and his wife now run a successful stud and breeding operation.

“If Max Verstappen gets injured and Red Bull ask you to drive in the next Grand Prix you would come back from anywhere wouldn’t you?”

Updated: October 20, 2023, 11:55 AM