Thursday, February 22, 2024

Dettori takes center stage in Riyadh ahead of Saudi Cup

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The Frankie Dettori farewell tour has hit Riyadh, and the storied jockey garnered huge attention as he met the media at King Abdulaziz Equestrian Field on the eve of the Saudi Cup 2023 weekend.

The Italian jockey looked suitably bronzed and fresh having flown in from California, where he has ridden 19 winners since commencing his stint at Santa Anita at Christmas.

Dettori is looking forward to taking part in the International Jockeys Challenge on Friday and takes the reins on four strong chances on Saturday: Havnameltdown in the Saudi Derby, Elite Power in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint, Trawlerman in the Red Sea Turf Handicap and Country Grammer in the $20 million Saudi Cup.

“It has been overwhelming. I did not expect to do so well,” he remarked on his current form in Los Angeles. “There are some great riders at Santa Anita, but I am really enjoying it and I am getting lots of support from a variety of trainers, so it’s going well.”

Dettori is better placed than most to appraise the growth of racing in Saudi Arabia and was glowing in his assessment of its progress in recent times.

“I have been coming here for 30 years, so I am part of the furniture and I know most of the trainers,” he said. “Back in the day, we used to race in the track in the city centre. This track is here about 15 or 20 years and it’s not the first time I have said it, but it’s the best dirt track I have ever ridden. It is kinder than other dirt tracks I have ridden throughout the world.

“For example, we saw Mishriff, a turf horse, winning The Saudi Cup two years ago, so it does open things up a bit for grass horses. I really enjoy riding here, the track is getting bigger and better and The Saudi Cup has found a good slot in international racing.”

Looking forward to Country Grammer in the climax to the weekend, Dettori ventured: “He’s very solid, he never runs a bad race. He was second last year and he is very experienced. I would be foolish to say I am confident, but he has a very solid chance. He skipped the Breeders’ Cup Classic so this race and Dubai have always been the aim, and he felt as good as ever when he won the San Antonio Stakes (G2) in December.”

Reflecting on his decision to retire at the end of the year, Dettori is determined to bow out at the top and the elongated departure befits his status as the most internationally recognizable figure in the sport.

“I have given myself a year to do my last farewell. I went to Santa Anita because I was asked to go instead of spending winter in Dubai. Then I move onto the European program, and Royal Ascot should be my last one. Then the Breeders’ Cup should be my last meeting,” he said.

“I don’t know, maybe the Melbourne Cup could materialize, but basically this year will be my last. I will be 53 in December, and hopefully I will finish at the top. It’s very hard to choose the right moment, but I want to have another life after racing.

“It’s been 36 years and I’ve really enjoyed myself on some champion horses, so I have been very lucky.”

Is there any chance he will change his mind if he enjoys a tremendously successful year? Will it be too hard to just walk away?

“At the moment, the plan is to stop at the end of the season. I am sure I will be asked a million times again, but that is the plan,” he smiled.

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