Jockeys of a certain age reach crisis point
Frankie Dettori is not the first to put his future on the line, says Ian McClean
It's been a bad spell for jockeys. The late news that Eddie Ahern is being refused a licence to take up a lucrative retainer this winter in India, because the BHA has indicated to the Bangalore Turf Club that he is likely to be charged in the coming weeks as part of a corruption investigation, does little to dignify the profession.
It comes hot on the heels of the unearthing of individual peccadillos committed by the poster-boys of jockeyship's trade in both global
hemispheres – Frankie Dettori and Damien Oliver. Thirty-four-year-old Eddie Ahern may not be quite box office in spite of partnering more than 1,000 winners since his move to Britain, but nationally and internationally jockey profiles don't come much more A-list than Dettori and Oliver.
In a toilsome career not renowned for its glamour, both Dettori and Oliver have become fabulously-rewarded champions, reached every major milestone in their métier, created commercial interests outside their sport, and achieved worldwide recognition.
Yet, in spite of achieving more than most in their profession could ever even imagine, not just inside the sport but beyond it, both superstars have recently chosen to transgress the rules and risk not just their future, but their glowing reputation. The nature of the transgressions differ. In Dettori's case, he is facing a worldwide ban having tested positive for a prohibited substance (suggested by the Racing Post to be cocaine) on September 16 in France; while Oliver (a racing Hall of Fame member who won the Melbourne Cup on Dermot Weld's Media Puzzle) has incurred a 10-month ban in Australia for placing a $10,000 bet on a rival horse in a race where he was riding at Moonee Valley in 2010.
It appears from the outside that the common thread was one of pressure from their prevailing personal circumstances at the time. "It was the only time I have ever placed a bet on a rival horse," Damien Oliver said. "It was during the worst period of my life." During that time his marriage was in turmoil. His wife Trish had taken their three children from the marital home. He had resorted to alcohol, feeling depressed and alone. He was facing a huge legal bill and confessed that the bet was a "spur-of-the-moment decision".
The horse he backed – favourite Miss Octopussy – duly won and netted the jockey $23,000. That amount is pocket change when compared to the legal bill and loss of earnings (estimated at $400,000) he will incur. The cost of the stain on his character, though, is incalculable.
Frankie Dettori has had a particularly challenging year – in a different way. His tenure with his long-term employer began to be undermined when Godolphin retained the services of Silvestre De Sousa and Mickael Barzalona. In an already fallow year for the Boys in Blue, rations were even more restricted when required to be divided in three. Dettori, accustomed to the whole cake, was having to find comfort in crumbs. He managed just 51 domestic wins for the season and finished 28th in the 2012 jockeys' table, sandwiched between Pat Dobbs and Ted Durcan. His strike rate was just 13%, despite having never dipped below 17% during the last 20 years. Finally – and it is unclear the overlapping timelines and the relationship with the substance offence – his retainer with Godolphin was, perhaps inevitably, terminated.
Dettori has been caught with cocaine before. But that was back in 1993. The circumstances and the driving forces for the offence back then were in contrast to those prevailing today. He was quoted in a subsequent newspaper interview: "That was for fun. Like I said, I was a stupid, cocky, arrogant kid. I was riding, I was winning, I was a kid who'd gone from earning £12 a week to getting big money. Too much money. It stopped being about racing and it became all about this lifestyle: fast cars, fast people, fast everything. I was a single guy, I thought this was fun."
Perhaps it's an age thing: a world-renowned jockey's mid-life crisis. Dettori is 41. Damien Oliver has just turned 40. Kieren Fallon was 41 when he first tested positive for a banned substance in France (funny it's always the French that catch it – but that's for another day).
The hackneyed themes are once having it all and being threatened with losing it. That, and human frailty. It is another stage in the Hero's Journey. Warren Buffett once said, "It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you'll do things differently." Thinking about it is the hard thing.
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