Horse of a lifetime: Frankie Dettori and Sylvia

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  • “I was a lunatic boy rider,” says the charismatic Italian with a face-splitting grin. “I look back and feel ashamed.”His palomino, called Sylvia, with four white socks and a Percheron’s neck, became the centre of an extraordinary short story. She was bought by Frankie’s father out of fear caused by one reason and, later, the pony would engender fear in the son, for yet another.

    She was of unknown breeding and of indeterminate age but she was to have a powerful effect on her young rider, who says she achieved more than his father, Gianfranco Dettori, ever could, in encouraging him to pursue a racing career. At the same time, she painfully underlined his terrible loneliness as a child.

    Frankie¨s father was Italy’s champion jockey and a double 2000 Guineas winner in England, while his mother Maria was a trapeze artist. From one, he inherited riding skills and, from the other, the ability to leap exuberantly from a horse after celebrated wins, a habit which has endeared him to many but aroused distaste in some.

    “He never used to meet me from school but, one day, he picked me up in a horsebox and drove me to a stud, which had three ponies in a field, two brown ones and a palomino. He asked which I wanted and I chose Sylvia because I thought she was beautiful.”

    The most tuition his father gave him was to attach reins to the well outside their Milan home and show him how to change the whip from hand to hand.

    “I had no instruction, so I had to teach myself, and I learned a lot. Every day with Sylvia was a challenge. I developed my own style of riding, which was no style at all,” he laughs.

    Frankie had no interest in following in a racing career until he shortened the stirrups, rested his knees on Sylvia’s neck and galloped her for the first time.

    “For six months I had the better of her and after that she used to bolt into the stable and go straight to the manger. She was clever too. She could scramble under rails in the field, usually with me on her back. I fell off thousands of times.”

    Frankie Dettori’s premiere race was on Sylvia at Milan’s San Silo track during a June charity day.

    He joined other boys for a two-furlong dash between a couple of fences. “Sylvia and I were the smallest competitors,” he recalls. “I was so nervous, I missed the break, kept my head down all the way and pushed on well past the post. She got five yards in front of a fence, dug her toes in and catapulted me over the other side, watched by 20,000 people.”

    It was a humiliating moment after which Frankie Dettori could have been lost to the annals of racing, but he persevered on farmland.

    “I liked to rev her up and go flat out,” he says. “I did not like jumping, just going fast.”

    Frankie was 10, and had owned Sylvia for only two years, when he lost interest in her. “To be honest,” he admits, “I was a bit scared of her. She was like an older sister; bossy, a strong character and totally in charge of me. It is no fun when you are not in control of a horse.”Dettori senior sold the pony to a riding school in Monza, and Dettori junior quit the saddle for a year. At 13, however, he was having his first professional race and discovering there was no difference between a Thoroughbred on the track and Sylvia on farmland.

    The race was one and a half times round the course, and Frankie Dettori did six circuits before he could pull up.”I remember three main things about Sylvia,” chuckles the irrepressible jockey. “She inspired me to be a jockey, she taught me a lot, and, for a pony her size, she pooed a lot!”

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