Dettori not ready for elder statesman status just yet
Amidst all the headlines of Frankie's glorious swansong at Ascot this past weekend, little mention has been made of his age. In how many other high performance sports might one expect to see a 53 year old at the height of his powers?
Yet in this respect, Dettori, for all his other attributes, is anything but unique. The equestrian world bucks the trend for sportsmen to retire earlier as their net worth allows them to seek a less demanding lifestyle. It seems horsemen are like Duracell bunnies; they last longer.
We all know the life of a jockey is demanding: long hours, starting with or before the dawn, and with evening racing, finishing after dark. For any rider competing in the very top flight, there is regular overnight international travel. For mere mortals, travelling from Europe to the States requires some rest to reset the body clock to different time zones; but it's not unusual for a rider to compete at Belmont or Woodbine on Saturday, and be back in Europe for some Group I or other on Sunday. This type of wear and tear takes a toll over time, however much stress is alleviated by the niceties of first class travel or chauffeur-driven transport.
Super-fitness has been at the heart of all our top riders' success, but this in itself is no guarantee of success on a world stage. Raw talent, an inquisitive nature, and latterly, a good agent, have been at the centre of all our top riders' pursuit of international success, and more recently, a concentration on competing in the races that matter, at the expense of 5 rides in a lowly parish meeting at Wolverhampton, Redcar or Cagnes-sur-Mer.
This wear and tear has been well recognized by racing authorities worldwide in the design of their regulations for riders and the framing of their championships. We will never see a champion flat jockey in the UK running up over 200 winners again in a season under today's rules, which can only be a good thing.
But age appears absolutely no hindrance to enduring success as some of the examples beneath illustrate.
The late Lester Piggott, who remained as fit as a fiddle almost to his death in May 2022, enjoyed a riding career spanning 41 years in the saddle. He was an early starter in an era with fewer restrictions than now, winning his first race at the tender age of 12. He was a sallow 19 year old when winning the first of 11 Epsom Derbies in 1954 on Never Say Die, an apt parallel for his attitude to race-riding.
His 5,300 winners worldwide across 9 racing jurisdictions include a remarkable Breeders Cup Mile win in 1990 on Royal Academy on a return to race-riding after 5 years, following a nascent training career brought short by a spell at Her Majesty's pleasure courtesy of a tax fraud.
Despite a frame that would naturally have seen him weigh in at over 10st, Piggott's constitution showed no lasting damage from the abuse it received during his riding career. He was 86 when he died, but was 60 when he finally hung up his boots.
Currently the world's third most prolific winner, Pincay rode his last winner at the age of 57. The Panamanian - born rider cut his teeth in his home country before being spotted and switched to the more lucrative US scene, initially at Arlington Park, now sadly being developed for commercial use.
The nature of the US circuit allows riders to run up huge winning totals, both in stakes won and prize money earned. This, combined with racing seasons at a single track extending to 70 consecutive days, mean US - based riders feel no great imperative to travel extensively like their European counterparts, but it also extends their career lifespan too. At 76, Pincay is still very much in the land of the living despite a career
Vana is a legend, but sadly, one that extends little outside his home country of Czechia.
By comparison to Dettori and the examples above, his career appears short at 32 years, until you understand that Vana was a steeplechase jockey.
His first ride was also his first winner, in 1979, at Boskovice, but his reputation has really been built around Czechia's most famous race, the Velka Pardubicka, a 4 mile steeplechase in early October. He has won the race a remarkable 8 times as a rider, and 10 times as a trainer. Váňa's bare statistics of 183 winners from 631 races don't tell a true story of his enduring career in front of Czech and German spectators.
These long careers however are as much the exception as the rule. Racing can be a cruel mistress in terms of the toll it takes. The constant battle with the scales may be one reason why Ryan Moore appears so deadpan in contrast to the exuberant Dettori, and weight issues played a role in the early departure of Pat Eddery and Walter Swinburn, among others.
Ironically, the US lifestyle and reduction in travelling may well allow Dettori to enjoy a golden autumn without the stress of constant international riding commitments. For every year we see him on the track is a bonus in the colour and vivacity he brings to communicate the sport to new audiences. Age is as yet no barrier to his continued success.