By Gerard Mulvihill
Standing on the balcony of the hospitality building at Killarney Racecourse yesterday evening, Frankie Dettori addressed the gathered media and punters with the charisma and panache that has endeared him to the public since moving to England in 1985.
Then he was a talented young gun chasing a dream. Now Dettori is racing royalty.
His presence is arresting, his personality larger than the McGillicuddy Reeks that form the backdrop to the picturesque racecourse.
Despite decades of success, his love for racing remains as pure today as at the outset.
“I do things like this (coming to Killarney) to keep my mind fresh, I enjoy new challenges,” he said. “Now I’ve been doing it for 32 years, I know when I have to peak and when not so I ride a lot less, that’s what keeps me hungry.
“If I do it every day, I begin to lose focus.”
Dettori’s arrival came just a month after his unprecedented four timer at Royal Ascot, witnessed by racing photographer Pat Healy, whose pictures grace this newspaper on a daily basis.
“That half an hour between the fourth and fifth race was simply electric, I have never experienced an atmosphere like it,” Healy said.
Chauffeur to his good friend for the day, Healy described Dettori as “box-office”, adding “he’s great fun to be out with, no matter where he is people are drawn to him”.
Leading jockey and Killarney native Oisin Murphy quickly expressed his delight at Dettori’s visit.
“Frankie is the best rider in the world at the moment. It’s great to see him making the trip,” said Murphy.
“I keep reminding him of his age but he has convinced himself he’s about 20 years younger than he is.’’
Fozzy Stack was one of three trainers to leg-up Dettori on the evening.
“He rode a couple for my father, he has a wealth of experience,’’ he said of the rider denied by a short head.
It was the second coming of Dettori in Kerry. In August 1998, he partnered the John Oxx-trained Allotrope to victory at Tralee.
His flying dismount on that occasion was photographed by current raceday commentator, Jerry Hannon, then a Healy Racing employee.
During the course of their respective careers in the saddle, Dettori and former Ballydoyle jockey Johnny Murtagh had many battles.
“He was tough when he was riding, he wouldn’t give you an inch,” Murtagh recalled.
However, last evening they pooled their talents, Dettori taking the mount aboard Murtagh-trained Finding Nero in the penultimate contest.
“I stay with Johnny when I’m at the Curragh and Johnny with me when he’s in Newmarket,” Dettori said.
“With the horses he has got, he is doing very well. With the likes of Aidan O’Brien, Dermot Weld, Ger Lyons, and John Oxx, it’s a very tough school here in Ireland.”
Dettori’s first ride yesterday saw him don the famed Juddmonte silks, evoking memories of Frankel and present-day superstar Enable, who Dettori partnered to victory in the Coral-Eclipse earlier this month.
“I love her so much,” Dettori said of the dual Arc heroine.
“I rode her this morning and she’s in good form, with 10 days to go to the King George. (Of those I’ve ridden) her CV is probably the best, as she has been around for so long, she has won at 12 different tracks, on good ground and soft ground, in different countries. For her class and consistency, she’s amazing.”
Dettori’s presence gave racegoers a glimpse of a master practicing his craft and enabled younger members of the weighroom to pit their wits against a legend of their profession.
Tom Madden spoke of his excitement prior to racing.
“To ride against him will be a great thrill. He’ll get a good welcome both at and in the races.”
Considering that Madden foiled Dettori by half-a-length in the second race, the irony is hard to ignore.
Although there was no trip to the winners’ enclosure for Dettori on the evening, his visit to the Kingdom placed Kerry under the media spotlight, leaving Kerry County Council head of tourism Joan McCarthy optimistic of future benefit for the county.
“To have a racing icon like Frankie Dettori visit Killarney is a major coup for horse racing in Kerry and can only attract even greater interest into the future. No doubt he will want to visit again and again.”