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  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

Racing's conundrum: what follows Dettori

Like every sport, racing needs heroes that capture the public imagination, participants that raise the profile of the sport beyond the finite numbers of aficionados and die-hard fans to those that see horseracing as a social activity. This is even more important in racing jurisdictions where racing isn't cutting it in mainstream media.

In Britain & Ireland, there remains a consistent public visibility for racing, partly engendered by a strong betting lobby group spending large sums of money on media of all sorts. However, as any racegoer north of the English Channel will tell you, editorial coverage has moved away from mainstream media and is largely the domain of pay-wall betting sites, with the notable exceptions of national broadcaster ITV and the subscription channels of Racing TV and Attheraces. Scion of daily newspapers The Times barely sets any space for editorial coverage of racing nowadays, and its approach is the norm.

The situation in the rest of Europe makes Britain seem a nirvana by comparison. In a role working for Hoppegarten Racecourse in Berlin, I noted that the preamble to one of Germany's most important Group I contests in front of a big crowd merited barely a paragraph on the inner back pages of the Berliner Zeitung. The optimum route to winning coverage was hats.

In France, TV coverage of racing is minimal and the provincial nature of newspapers does not lend itself to national coverage of the sport. Still further afield, race meetings are too irregular to stimulate any significant coverage.

And this coverage challenge is why those athletes - human and equine - who grace our sport, are so important in conveying the sheer joie de vivre that accompanies a horse race. These past 30 years, we have been blessed with an unofficial ambassador for the sport, whose fame extends well beyond the sport, and national boundaries. His name, of course, is Frankie Dettori.

The evident pleasure Frankie enjoys in winning translates to the crowds that watch him. The man who first burst on the British scene in 1987, becoming champion apprentice the following year with 100 winners, the most since another world-famous rider Lester Piggott, has ridden over 2,800 winners in the UK alone, and is the recognized face of horseracing the world over.

There are precious few important races Dettori has not won. He has ridden Group I winners in 23 separate countries across the globe, from Trinidad & Tobago to the White Turf of Switzerland, across Europe's mainstream racing jurisdictions, the Middle East, USA and Far East. An Epsom Derby finally came his way in 2007 and again in 2015. His 286 Group I winners mark him as a man for the big occasion.

Perhaps the biggest occasion of all was marked on September 28th 1996 when Dettori became the first and only jockey to ride through the card at Ascot with what is now colloquially known as the Magnificent Seven. Relative unknown Fujiyama Crest became a seventh winner of the day and the answer to thousands of obscure pub quizzes when completing the 7 timer - an event that catapulted Dettori to world fame.

Media training is a necessary part of becoming a headline sportsman, but Dettori needs none. He is a self-taught publicist, who enjoys creating and maintaining a fanbase for the sport that has generated his wealth and fame. Even at Ascot last week, with so many competing storylines among owners, trainers, riders and celebrities attending Britain's most iconic racing event, Dettori managed to upstage them all, even the King of England enjoying his first Ascot winner!

With 4 winners during the week including the feature Ascot Gold Cup on Courage Mon Ami, Dettori was able to lift the spirits of the crowd, not least with his signature flying dismount and a cheeky peck on the cheek of the new Queen. The achievement is no small feat; his career record of 81 Ascot winners is surpassed only by that other iconic ( and some would add, laconic) rider, the late Lester Piggott.

No surprise then that racecourses across the globe are lining up to be part of this Dettori farewell tour in his much - publicized final season. Which begs the question: what does racing have to replace the effervescent Italian?

It's a void that will take some filling. Sure, there are articulate men and women in the sport among owners, trainers, and riders, all proficient at their profession. No-one is doubting their skill in the preparation of horses for the big races, or their riding prowess. But Dettori's skill has been in not underplaying the achievement, and making it all sound so fun. After all, for every racing fan, the days' sport is a great day out, not some life-changing experience. He is the archetypal entertainer, a man that draws a smile.

Dettori has already extended his final season to take in the Melbourne Cup in Australia this November - an event in which European horses have grown to be a significant challenge. It would be a fitting send-off for racing's great showman to win the race that stops a nation.

For world racing however, another question sits as yet unanswered. Who is the heir to the role of racing's great entertainer?

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