Frankie Dettori lived the rock-and-roll lifestyle as a young jockey, with all the fast cars, fast drugs, partying and pitfalls that come with it.
Now aged 51, he may have been saddled with a wild boy reputation but the champion rider says he’s always been a nice guy at heart.
He tells Jane Graham about growing up around the circus, living two lives, the excesses of his success, and the best day of his life in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self.
My parents got divorced when I was six months old. And at first I lived with my mum, who comes from the circus. She was a trapeze artist, contortionist, standing on horses – she did all that. My mum, my uncle, my uncle’s brother, they were all in the circus.
I remember as a young kid, before I was five, going to see my relatives in the circus. This was in the early ’70s so they had lots of animals; four lions, six monkeys, an elephant, all chained up in cages. If you tell people that they say ‘how cruel you were’. But that was the way the world worked then.
I think I had a kind of a fairytale life for a while. But you know, the first thing I would love to change in my life is that I wish my parents had not divorced. Because after that I had to live two lives – one with my mum and one with my dad. That has always been difficult, up to this day. That’s one thing I would love to change, but unfortunately you can’t change the past.
I was put on a horse from day dot. When I was a toddler they took me to the stables, put me on a horse and held me there. I moved in with my stepmother and my father when I was five, and because my dad was champion jockey I was forced to ride.
I went to pony club in a place near the San Siro stadium [in Milan], and I remember going on winter nights after school, my hands so cold I couldn’t feel them, freezing to death. And I thought, fuck this, I don’t like this! I learned how to ride but I wasn’t good at it and not interested. But I loved going to the racing to see my dad ride.
There were lots of kids of other jockeys and we used to play football in the car park in between watching the races. And we used to put a bet, like 50p, on our dads. So I got addicted to the whole atmosphere. Then my dad bought me a pony and I was riding every day, wearing racing colours, and that was it. Now I wanted to race and I wanted to win.
I don’t really know my mum. I know her a bit now but I spent most of my life with my stepmother and my dad, then I left Italy and went to England [at 14, to be a stable jockey]. My mum has eternal love for me and I’ve got eternal love for her. But I’ve got no conversation with her, I can’t talk to her about racing because she doesn’t follow it. So it’s “how are you mum, how’s the weather?” She’s just proud of me. I kind of grew up with my stepmother but I’m not her son so she loves me but she doesn’t love me like my mum. And my dad is my dad, you know – old fashioned, always complaining and moaning.
My dad has always been a massive critic, but it was his way to try to make me good. He’s never happy, and he still bollocks me every day, but I can’t change that. He’s 80 years old. I accept that. He doesn’t really mean it, it’s just the way it is.
I’m completely the opposite with my children. I’m more like the older brother than the dad, I’m the easy pushover in the family. My wife, she’s the one they’re scared of. But they’ve turned out OK – we still have a laugh with each other, we can still tell each other everything. I think that’s the most important thing.
When I think of my dad now – I’m nearly 51 years old and I know you can’t change things in other people. I’m at peace with myself, I’m not angry with anyone, I’m just telling the story.
If you met the teenage me you’d think I was quite good. I was a hard worker. I was determined. I was confident, I was cheeky. You would have been impressed. I was obsessed with horse racing. I was learning, watching, racing-obsessed. I wanted to be the best and I was in a real good place. And then it all went tits up.
By the time I got to 18 I got too much too quick. Too much money, too much success, too many hangers on. I was single, I was living alone, I didn’t have any parents guiding me. By the time I got to 22 I had turned into a dickhead. I lost it, completely lost it. I loved the bright lights, loved the party and loved the drugs. I loved the women. I loved the entourage. I just completely fucking lost it. But that’s quite normal when you go from zero to success in such a short time.
When I look back at myself, I think I was a right prick. I had the Mercedes with black windows, the power stereo so loud you could hear it for miles. I always had 10 people around my house, boxes of pizzas everywhere. It was a fucking disaster, trust me.
Everything in my life changed after one day, when I went to the football to see Arsenal vs Sheffield Wednesday [the League Cup Final in April 1993]. I went with 10 friends and a case of beer. We stopped at services to have a pee and I scored some speed from this guy in the toilet. So then I was high on the way to the football. I carried on drinking, with a painted face, at the match. And then I ended up in London where I bought some cocaine from this guy in a club and I thought it was a good idea to go outside and snort it. I didn’t realise in London there were cameras everywhere so I got arrested. At first I thought maybe I’d got away with it, nobody knew.
Three weeks later I had to go to Marylebone police station, and there were three tiers of paparazzi on scaffolding. I thought, what the fuck, someone famous must be around. But they were actually there for me. Because at that time I was riding for the Queen. So I was on every front page. And that was it, the party was over. It was an absolute turning point. [He was given a caution, but it cost him a £200,000 racing contract in Hong Kong. His father and stepmother then came to live with him for a while.]
When I was at my lowest I think I reached for food for comfort. And god knows what goes on inside that skull of mine, but I thought it was a good idea to eat a lot then make myself sick. Looking back, I don’t know what started it or finished it. It was a period of my life and I’m not ashamed to say it, a lot of people go through this. And I’m no expert, so I don’t know if I was actually depressed or not.
I made a lot of mistakes but I don’t think I was ever nasty to anyone. I always apologised and I’ve always been frank and open, I never hid anything. I think maybe people respect me for that. You know, yes, I did fuck up a few times. But unfortunately for me, everything I do is magnified by 10 because I live in the public eye. Of course I’ve got regrets. But now I’m 51 and I can talk about it. Of course I’m still a little bit ashamed but I can’t change it now. It’s been a journey. It’s been a learning process.
If I could go back and recapture one day of my life it would be when I won seven races at Ascot in one day [on British Champions Day in 1996]. That day was like a flash. I was getting dragged everywhere by everyone. I didn’t have time to reflect on what was happening. I have watched it on TV but I still don’t remember it all. Race five I don’t remember anything of, it’s completely blank. I guess I was under shock. The last race was the best – the most dramatic, the most hard fought. I’d love to go back and actually enjoy that day when I really did something great in my life.
Dettori is out now in selected cinemas and on Blu-ray, DVD & Download-to-Own. Leap of Faith, the new autobiography, is also out now