16 May 2013

When Frankie Dettori met Clare Balding

His confidence was shattered but he’s ready to come back – what Clare Balding makes of her exclusive interview with Britain’s most famous jockey, Frankie Dettori, in which he admits taking cocaine.

Frankie Dettori admits his shame over cocaine use (C4)

Speaking exclusively to Clare Balding for Channel 4 News, Britain’s most famous jockey admitted for the first time that he took cocaine in 2012. He was caught, and banned from horse racing for six months.

Now, as he prepares to return to the sport he loves, he spoke to Clare Balding – who has known the jockey for his entire career – about his shame, his nerves, and what’s next. Below, she talks about her impressions of the jockey in their frank and revealing encounter.

What was your impression of Frankie Dettori in the interview?

I thought he was very revealing in the interview – not just in what he said, but in the way he was with his body language. You can tell his confidence has been really shattered by this and he’s worried about coming back, about the reception he’ll get from the public, about how the rest of racing will treat him.

I personally think that he’ll be pretty quickly back into the swing of things. You know, the Derby is only two weeks away, Royal Ascot is pretty soon after that, and once he’s into and riding lots of horses every day, he won’t have time to think about it.

How do you feel he coped with the break?

He’s had six months to do nothing but think about when he’s coming back and I think he feels – and he was very good at expressing this – I think he feels ashamed and he feels that he’s let down a lot of people, most of all his family. And this kind of complete break from racing – he hasn’t had this much time off, ever.

He had a horrible plane crash a few years back and he had a couple of months off recovering from injuries after that.

When Clare Balding met Frankie Dettori (C4)

How big an impact do you think this has had on him?

Frankie’s had a very dramatic life and this is the latest extraordinary chapter that I would not have ever predicted, and I’ve known Frankie since the early 90s, when he was in his early 20s. He’s exactly the same age as I am, his career – I mean, I covered his magnificent seven for radio – for the whole time I’ve been presenting racing, Frankie has been the biggest name and the biggest face in it.

I know him really well, and I’ve never seen him like this.

So I’ll be interested to see how it goes. I like Frankie and a lot of people in racing like Frankie enormously and he’s very, very good for the sport and it’s important for the sport that he’s back in it, more so now than ever actually.

It sounds weird to say it, but one day I think he’ll, I think, look back on this and think leaving Godolphin, testing positive for cocaine, admitting that’s what he took, being honest with everybody and having six months out of the sport was actually a catalyst for a fantastic closing period of his riding life. He says he’s only got eight more years – he thinks he’s got until he’s 50.

Did anything shock you in the interview?

I wasn’t expecting him to admit it was cocaine, he never had done until this stage. And actually, just sensing his nervousness, his insecurity. That’s where a TV interview reveals so much more, I think, because you see the little looks away from camera, you see his physical nervousness.

He’s a very expressive person and I felt – you can see the smile, but sometimes he’s smiling because he thinks I must smile now. I think that is very telling, and I think it’s very real. He had not rehearsed his answers, it wasn’t like Lance Armstrong with Oprah.

And Lance Armstrong with Oprah – he still wouldn’t answer a whole load of questions, and Frankie will and I think he understands as well his responsibility to the sport of horse racing, he knew he had to do this, and much as it was going to pain him, he did it with good grace. And he was as honest as you would expect anyone to be. I think it’s really revealing, really fascinating, compelling television, but I also think it will be very good for Frankie to have done it because he’s done it now – it can’t get any worse than this.

Frankie Dettori showed his nerves in the interview, says Clare Balding (C4)

What did you think of his take on the Godolphin scandal?

He said he wouldn’t be able to tell whether a horse was on steroids or not, but I know he was always a bit circumspect about [Godolphin trainer] Mahmood al-Zarooni.

Saeed bin Suroor is a completely different kind of trainer, a sympathetic, very gentle trainer, and a guy I think Frankie understood very well and worked with very well. Mahmood was a much more aggressive trainer with his horses, so taking away the steroids issue, I think there were a lot of people in racing who questioned Mahmood’s sensitivity to a horse, whether he ran them too often or trained them too hard. And I think personally – Frankie doesn’t admit it here – but I think he might have questioned that a fair bit and that’s why Mahmood brought in other jockeys, which obviously brought about the split with Godolphin.

The ironic thing is if Frankie had held on, if he’d been able to get through another six months, he would have been back in favour because now Mahmood’s gone. And he said to me…what he should have done was left a year and a half earlier, and he hung on hoping it would get better and it didn’t, and I think he let himself get to a place emotionally that he could have avoided if he had cut the ties sooner, but it’s difficult.

What’s next?

Frankie could end up riding for Aidan O’Brien [a rival trainer] in the Derby. Sport is all about personalities, it’s about making people care, creating a dramatic scene in which things occur, and that is what I hope is happening, you could say on the plus side, for racing. A lot of people are talking about it, a lot of people want to know what’s going to happen, and that is ultimately a good thing.