Frankie Dettori’s retirement backflip: America’s gain is Britain’s big loss

Frankie Dettori’s relocation to California will leave the sport in Britain without the only mainstream recognisable personality it has.

Frankie Dettori's trademark star jump is making its way to America. (Photo by Alex Pantling)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Frankie Dettori, ever the showman, chose the BBC’s flagship breakfast show to break the news that he will not retire at the end of the year: it had to be the mainstream outlet for him, Britain’s prime ‘channel 1,’ not the niche, backwater racing channels, or a couple of column inches squeezed into the sports pages. Thames River-side, in London, during a British Champions Day promo, he told the BBC, “I’ll give you an exclusive, I don’t feel ready to stop at the moment, so I will move my tack to the US next year.”

The Italian, for so long the face of British racing, will up sticks and move full-time to Los Angeles where he will continue to ride as a fully-licensed jockey for as long as he feels he is up to it. This on the back of a season of success that, he admitted, he had not expected when he made the initial retirement announcement last December.


The news that he would ride in the US after his planned ‘farewell’ to Hong Kong two months from now was not altogether a shock, given the whispers in recent days, but the fact that he will ride for, as he put it, “three months or three years, I don’t know,” certainly was. No one outside of his immediate circle could have envisaged Dettori moving full-time to California and continuing his career as a US-based jockey indefinitely.

He talked to the BBC about getting “it out of my system.” One might argue that he has had 10 months to do that, but the Italian has been competing at the top for 35 years; like any champion sports star, he knows the incomparable buzz of elation that comes from a big win, and he knows it with an intimacy few others ever will. And he knows, too, that when finally he hangs up his saddle, he will never feel that buzz again.

Dettori must have been content with that when he made public his retirement plan last winter, but the more big wins he had this season – eight Group 1s including two English Classics and the Gold Cup at Ascot – the more disbelief there was among fans, pundits and participants that he would end it all with British Champions Day; sure enough, a last fling in Hong Kong was added, and then rumours of a winter contract in California to cap things off.

Frankie Dettori celebrates after winning the 2023 Gold Cup on Courage Mon Ami at Royal Ascot. (Photo by Tom Dulat)

He’s not the first top jockey to announce their retirement and then backtrack, and he won’t be the last, but most do try the retired life before the insatiable desire to compete convinces them to return and give it one more go. The great Lester Piggott did that – including a spell at Her Majesty’s pleasure thrown in for tax evasion – and his return in 1990, with that epic Breeders’ Cup win on Royal Academy, coincided with Dettori’s rise.

Piggot was 55 then and Dettori was 19. Piggott had been a teenage sensation himself, and went on to become the most famous jockey of his era, at a time when horse racing was still prominent in British popular culture, so much so that he was known as “the housewives’ favourite.”

The first half of Dettori’s storied career caught the last streaks of that era’s afterglow, and his ‘Magnificent Seven’ wins at Ascot in 1996 took his personality from the racing pages to the celebrity spotlight: he has made prominent prime time TV appearances, on chat shows and game shows; he has had a restaurant, and his own line of food products. Ask any ‘man on the street’ under the age of 50 in Britain now to name a jockey and they will either look at you blankly or say “Frankie Dettori.”

Frankie Dettori's fame has transcended horse racing in Britain. (Photo by Fred Duval)

And therein lies the problem with Dettori’s U-turn. It is not a problem that Dettori should have to worry about, he is free to make any decision he likes for the benefit of himself and his family, he has already given much to the sport, but it is a problem – one of many – for British horse racing.

Dettori is an all-time great jockey, but he is also the only figure in the sport in Britain with cross-over appeal to the mainstream and his departure will leave a gaping void at an inopportune time.

British racing is in decline: the sport’s general popularity continues to wane in a society for the most part apathetic to its traditional charms; there is little connection for most people, and too many of those that do attend the racecourse rarely get beyond a once-a-year drunken jolly; the funding model is failing; its prize money is depressingly low; it is under attack from publicity-grabbing animal rights groups; and it is threatened by the dreaded ‘affordability checks’ to punters that critics say could drive more to the illegal markets or out of the game completely.

If ever the sport needed a high profile, camera-friendly personality to give it a lift, it is now. There are some excellent jockeys in the top echelon, but none has Dettori’s electric way on camera when he flicks into media mode. Even in retirement he might have been a positive figure for the sport as a media personality. But maybe that PR miracle is beyond even Dettori.   

His loss to the United States is perhaps a fitting conclusion, if that’s what it turns out to be. It was back in his apprentice days in the late 1980s when Dettori headed out to sunny wintertime California to develop his low crouching style, and, while he was there, he was taught how to do Angel Cordero’s flying dismount, and adopted it as his unmistakable trademark.

Frankie Dettori with then Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger after winning the 2008 Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Raven's Pass. (Photo by Christian Petersen)

Piggott’s last ride was on his 59th birthday, Dettori is approaching ‘only’ 53; and it was interesting to hear Japan’s great jockey Yutaka Take, age 54, say earlier this year to Asian Racing Report that he could not understand why the Italian would choose to retire yet.

Well, he has had second thoughts, and who can blame him. He told the BBC that while race-riding in the US is his future, he will stick to his word and Ascot for British Champions Day will be his last race day in Britain. Time will tell: Royal Ascot is still eight months away.




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