Frankie Dettori joins Santa Anita jockey colony as track opens new meeting
The plot was hatched in June when Aidan Butler, the soon-to-be chief executive of the Stronach Group, owner of Santa Anita racetrack, sidled up to Europe’s most recognizable and accomplished jockey and suggested that spending a winter in Southern California might be a good idea.
“I guess it resonated,” Butler said. “Now, it’s all part of a bigger tale.”
It took a couple of months to bring everything together, but Lanfranco Dettori, better known as Frankie, will be riding five horses on Monday’s opening day of Santa Anita’s signature six-month meeting. Dettori plans to be a regular fixture in Arcadia, at least until the Santa Anita Derby on April 8, or perhaps longer if he has the right 3-year-old horse to ride.
“The first Saturday in May is a long way away,” Dettori said of the Kentucky Derby. “No point to speculate too much. Right now, it’s all about Boxing Day, [Dec. 26], and having a good start.”
Dettori, 52, surprised the racing world earlier this month when he announced that 2023 would be his last, culminating with the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 3-4 at Santa Anita.
“I don’t want to find myself at 53 or 54 and not have the good horses to go around,” Dettori said. “I want to be physically good enough to give my horses and owners 100% of my ability. Time catches up with everyone. I want to finish on top.”
On top is where the Italian rider has spent most of his career. He has won more than 500 graded stakes race and was elected to the British Champions Series Hall of Fame. He has 14 Breeders’ Cup wins but has only run in the Kentucky Derby once.
He lives in Stetchworth, England, near the historic Newmarket Racecourse. Dettori has five grown children and his wife, Catherine, will join him in Southern California in February.
“They don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore,” Dettori said about spending the holidays apart from his family. “They are more interested in my bank account.”
Before the deal to bring Dettori to Santa Anita, and an opportunity to ride the best horses in America, there was one other piece to the puzzle.
“He told me, ‘If I come out, I’ve got to have a good agent,’” Butler said. “And then I got a call a few months ago that Ron Anderson was able to rep him. That’s what really sealed the deal.”
If racing has such a thing as a superagent, Anderson would be on the short list. He has been the broker for Hall of Famers Chris Antley, Jerry Bailey, Garrett Gomez and Gary Stevens. He is currently the agent for John Velazquez and Joel Rosario, but an agent can only represent two jockeys in a California circuit. When Rosario decided to ride the winter at Gulfstream Park in Florida, Anderson had an opening for one of his California spots.
Dettori is no stranger to Anderson, whom he has known since he was 15.
“I was working for [jockey] Fernando Toro and Fernando was doing business with [trainer] Richard Cross, who was stabled at Hollywood Park,” Anderson said. “One morning at Hollywood Park, Richard is going out with a set [of horses to exercise], and I casually say to him, ‘Who’s this loud-mouthed little bastard kid?’
“Richard said, ‘You better be nice to him. He’s going to be famous. His father is the most famous Italian rider,’ and now all this has happened.”
Gianfranco Dettori, 81, was a 13-time champion jockey in Italy. He still watches his son ride on television.
Dettori’s original plan was to come to Santa Anita in February, but Anderson had a better thought.
“My advice was to come in on opening day,” Anderson said. “I called the powers that be at Santa Anita to bring him in right away. Santa Anita kicked everything around and said, ‘You’re right, we’d like him for opening day.’”
Butler said the Stronach Group, now known as 1st Racing, gave no financial incentives to bring in Dettori.
“I promised him Christmas dinner,” Butler said. “But even that didn’t happen because I’m in Florida.”
Anderson said trainers are lining up for the jockey’s services. Dettori said Bob Baffert and Simon Callaghan had been encouraging him to come over for years. He‘ll ride a horse for each of them on Monday.
Dettori’s big mount on opening day is Country Grammer in the Grade 2 $200,000 San Gabriel Stakes, one of six graded races on the card. He rode the 5-year-old to a win in the Dubai World Cup.
“I’m super excited to ride Country Grammer again,” Dettori said. “Then if all goes well and the owner agrees, we’ll go on to the Saudi Cup and World Cup.”
Another big race on Monday’s 11-race card is the Grade 1 $300,000 Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds going seven furlongs. The favorite is Taiba, who is looking to be the only 3-year-old to win three Grade 1 races, which could be a ticket to an Eclipse Award. Both Country Grammer and Taiba are owned, in part, by Amr Zedan and trained by Baffert. Mike Smith is the jockey for Taiba.
With the addition of Dettori, Butler believes Santa Anita will have a jockey colony that is “about as good as it gets.”
Competing for the best horses will be a veteran all-star lineup of Joe Bravo, Kent Desormeaux, Victor Espinoza, Flavien Prat, Smith and Velazquez, along with several up-and-coming riders.
“It’s certainly the most experienced lineup of jockeys,” Dettori said. “They are all competitors like me. They are not going to give you a free ride. I have to be eyes wide open on what I’m trying to do.”
All of that starts Monday when he climbs aboard Secret Treasure in the fifth race, a maiden special.
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