Frankie Dettori and King of Steel victorious in the Champion Stakes (JTW Equine Images)
By JTW Equine Images
It was written in the stars, wasn’t it?
The build up. The timeline. The drama. The culmination of a career that spanned over 30 years with one final victory at the top level, on the final race of his career.
If Hollywood did horse racing, the plot would be based on the career of one Lanfranco Dettori, a flamboyant Italian who never fails to deliver the script for a blockbuster of a day, and one who racing will forever remember with fond memories.
Today certainly lived up to the billing set before it.
And that was even before the owners, who are not afraid of tough decisions having ditched Kevin Stott from the ride earlier in the season at short notice, adding to the cauldron bubbling away on the hearth that is fate, throwing in the final ingredients for a recipe for the ages. A true masterpiece in the making.
Oh, how days like this are fondly remembered. Especially when it could be the plot to a blockbuster.
On a blustery, grey, typical Autumnal day in Berkshire, it was the grey, strapping colt that is King Of Steel who mastered the soft underfoot conditions to collar the brave Via Sistina in the shadows of the post.
The likeable, huge colt has already worked his way into the hearts of racing fans, having almost pulled off a 66/1 shock in the Derby before victory in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot. If that was not enough, a gallant effort with a third in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes before an unlucky fourth in the Irish Champion Stakes have weaved him into the spirit of many, who ultimately would have been roaring him forward and celebrating when he finally gained his elusive Group 1 victory.
In the process, he brought the curtain down on his illustrious partner’s career in the finest way possible, and how fitting it was that it was at his favourite racecourse. It is the equivalent of Marcus Rashford scoring the goal at Old Trafford that wins his beloved Manchester United the league title, or Patrick Mahomes throwing the winning pass in a Super Bowl for Kansas City Chiefs.
Sport has a knack, a talent, a joie de vivre for creating unforgettable moments, and it once again prevailed today by gifting racing with a story that will live in the ages for those who watched the race, and those who saw it with their own eyes at the Berkshire venue.
The story however did not start as well as planned for the 3/1 Favourite, who was not travelling as fluently as his backers had hoped for during the early stages of the ten furlong, one and a quarter mile contest. Frankie had to get him into a rhythm as the field went along, and he was effectively last as the field swung into the straight, and the bell tolled the approach for home.
Horizon Dore, the French raider, went to the front and was grabbed by Oisin Murphy and Via Sistina, who went into a lead and looked set for an unlikely but heroic success.
However the spectators eye was drawn to the dashing grey in the rear of the field, who had pulled to the outside of the field and began to bear down on the leader, the pair settling down to slug out the finish in typical Ascot fashion.
If it made a difference on any other day, the roar of the crowd that went up was akin to several jet engines spooling up, with the roar produced as King Of Steel and Frankie ever so slowly eroded Via Sistina’s lead enough to raise the hairs on the back of the neck.
This clamour was like thunder, and it galvanised the son of Wooton Bassett to maintain his ferocious charge. Time seemed to slow, and both horse and rider were in full flow and cry, but the furore was enough to inspire the duo to lead inside the last few strides and deny their rival when it mattered most.
The moment was scripted in the minds of those who dared to dream and believe that it could be possible. But hardly anyone would have thought it could come true.
If anyone was going to do it however, it was going to be Frankie. The salute to the crowd, the emotion of his celebration, it showcased everything that was excellent about the day, the moment, and the culmination of an emphatic career.
The emotion was still there afterwards, when Frankie was speaking to assembled media, to a background symphony of cheers, plaudits, and the odd football style chant that has become illustrious with his success.
“Is this real?” he asked, his voice quaking and wavering with disbelief. “I don’t know what to feel!”
“My emotions are all over the place, the crowd got this horse over the line. The scream I got, it was incredible!”
“It’s a fairytale ending!”
The emotion was clearly visible, as he felt the crowd was the final ingredient his perfect finale needed, at a course he fondly called “home”.
He very well needed the crowd, he reflected afterwards, as he openly admitted to feeling he was struggling from the get go.
“He was stumbling, and when they ( his rivals ahead of him ) kicked for home, they left me a little bit”.
But this horse, adored by many, never seems to know when to give up, and he gave his rider a flicker of hope for a placing as he filled his lungs and went to mount a challenge.
“I gave him a slap at 2 furlongs out and he went. That got me thinking maybe I will be placed now”.
However, it was a furlong out that made Frankie think that the biggest dream of his career might actually come true, not far akin to his first Group success.
“The euphoria hits you, you just feel numb”.
On the subject of feeling, Frankie was extremely quick to showcase how much this day meant to him, especially with the rapturous crowd beckoning him to his final glory on UK shores before his American adventure begins.
“This can’t be real! This isn’t real!”
I’m too happy to cry, but I didn’t expect this!”
“The chanting of ‘oh, Frankie Dettori’ was special, and I will miss it”.
Aside from the blur and sensation surrounding the winning rider and the emotion of the event, the winning trainer and owner must not be left out of basking in what was the culmination of a career in the finest way possible.
Trainer Roger Varian said his mount had “a big heart and a big set of lungs” on him, and also commented on his “engine” after what was a hardy performance for him, in a deserving manner that befits the class of the colt.
Ironically, his first run of the year ended up with him being collared in the final half furlong of the Derby, whilst if it turns out to be his final race of the season ( or career? ), he collared a rival in the final half furlong to take the glory. It’s funny how fate and life pans out, and this would have tasted sweet to connections after several brave but luckless efforts.
Owner Kai Joorabchian has not ruled out taking his charge to the Breeders Cup in a fortnight’s time, or indeed if the horse will stay in training, leaving those decisions to a later date and choosing to bask in the moment that is the victory of the colt and his peerless, enigmatic rider.
Not since the days of Frankel has Ascot seen any sorts of celebrations in this manner, from everyone assembled at the course. Media, paying punters, the chefs, waiting staff, bookmakers and security. All seemed to be flocking to the winners’ enclosure to salute a stalwart of racing in their most glorious of hours. A champion defined, a hero celebrated, a talisman vindicated.
Racing will not see his like for many years. The history books and sands of time close on his career in the UK, and leave us with memories of his accolades and attributes like the sagas of Vikings in times gone by.
Thank you for everything you gave to Racing and every one of us. For as much as we are richer for the experiences seen today, we will be poorer for you not being able to perform one last magic show for us.
Magician, Talisman, Stalwart. Whatever his name, he was some rider. A true talent, a once in a generation professor of his craft. The peerless devotion to a career and a sport for nearly 4 decades that has seen him rise to the top, crash to the bottom, and then rise like a phoenix from the ashes of despair to the very top again. All without losing his faithful supporters and a sense of loyalty to them and the industry.
He now heads to Santa Anita, to begin the American adventure. To take stock of the situation, reflect on his achievements and build anew on a different kind of challenge.
But will anything top his career on these shores, or even this year alone?
2023 has been special to Frankie. 2000 Guineas, Oaks, Ascot Gold Cup, Juddmonte International, Ebor. And now Champion Stakes. As far as farewell tours go, this was a pretty good one, and one that any rider would dedicate a whole career to achieving.
If this is the fond farewell we all hoped for, racing certainly delivered. In a sport where nothing is a certainty, today showed that daring to dream does pay dividends. Especially when there is so much at stake, or the potential is so much to bear.
Nothing could have prepared those who dared to dream. No more so than the enigmatic Italian himself. And certainly not the fireworks afterwards, once the dreams became a reality.
Happy Retirement Frankie, the Racing Hall Of Fame is your Valhalla now.