Frankie Dettori, the king of Royal Ascot, paused just moments after he won the opening race of the week and then, rightly, he lifted his left hand to pat the gleaming neck of his imperious horse. Palace Pier, the hot favourite, had not needed to prove why he is one of the highest rated horses in the world, as he cruised home to win the Queen Anne Stakes by a length and a half. But there was still a thrill in seeing a great horse, with his old master in the saddle, race so serenely across the sunlit turf as a semblance of normality returned to racing.
Dettori then brought the same hand to his lips and blew a kiss in celebration of his 74th winner at Royal Ascot. He wagged a finger and then gently touched the neck of Palace Pier again. The finger went back to his mouth and he tapped his pursed lips twice as he sent a couple more kisses into the languid summer air. Dettori had moved one victory ahead of his old rival, Pat Eddery, the 11-times champion jockey who died in 2015 at the age of 63.
It was another reminder of the extraordinary longevity of the 50-year-old Dettori, who is now second in the list of all-time winning jockeys at Royal Ascot. Only Lester Piggott, who recorded a scarcely credible 116 victories, is way out in the distance. Piggott, the definitive Old Stoneface, and Dettori, his flamboyant successor, have always seemed so different when these contrasting eras of racing are compared. But the core truth is that Dettori’s insatiable thirst for Grade One glory has always resembled Piggott’s relentless ambition.
This slice of Royal Ascot history unfolded in front of a relatively muted crowd of 12,000 as racing stepped back towards the old way of life and with the meeting being used as a test event for sporting events beneath the shadow of Covid. Next month the last weekend of Wimbledon will host capacity crowds, while both the semi-finals and the final of Euro 2020 will be watched by 45,000 fans at Wembley. The latter, in particular, will be more riotous than the low hum that only occasionally broke out into a real bellow on Tuesday.
The top hats and fascinators, the champagne flutes and picnic baskets, were in full view. But Ascot felt spacious. Usually it is crammed with 45,000 racegoers and it is hard to move. With a quarter of the normal crowd allowed, it felt a little surreal.
Dettori is such a compelling figure he still ensured Royal Ascot began with an accomplished bang as he maintained his rich vein of form in the Group One races that are now his primary focus. His victory on Palace Pier meant he has won four Group Ones in the past 45 days. It is an impressive strike rate – especially as it includes winning the Oaks on Snowfall by 16 lengths earlier this month.
He now believes Palace Pier could outstrip even Dubai Millennium as the best horse he has ever ridden over a mile. When he rode Palace Pier to yet another Group One win at the Lockinge Stakes last month, Dettori enthused: “He’s a beast. I love him.”
He was even more exultant at Ascot. “Wow, wow, what can I say? He has shown again he is the best miler around. You can rely on Palace Pier. It’s like getting one of the proper guys to take the first penalty and they will put it in the back of the net. He is one of the best horses in the world and everything went right.”
Despite an unfavourable draw, starting on the outside in a field of 11, Palace Pier settled into fourth place before he soon powered smoothly away from his outclassed rivals. “Palace Pier is the best miler in the world,” Dettori said. “He goes on any ground and does what you ask him to do. He comes from behind or he can be up there.”
In a fitting bookend to his 74 victories he matched his debut win at Royal Ascot in the very same race. “Thirty-one years ago I rode my first Royal Ascot winner on Markfofdistinction in the Queen Anne. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.”
Dettori has had some dark days – from being pulled out of the burning wreckage of a light aircraft by his fellow jockey Ray Cochrane 21 years ago to testing positive for cocaine and being banned from racing for six months in 2012. He looked to be in even deeper trouble earlier that year when his long association with Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin stable ended. Dettori felt he had been forced out by those who believed he was heading for the scrapheap of fallen jockeys. His resurgence has been remarkable.
The return of a crowd suited the Italian showman. He did his usual flying dismount from the back of Palace Pier and said: “You cannot imagine the colours, the people screaming. Royal Ascot with people is amazing and this meeting is a big part of my life. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Of course the voracious veteran will not settle for just one victory this week. He has set his sights on becoming the leading jockey at Royal Ascot for the third year in a row. “I am still getting the same kick and I am pretty relieved everything went smooth. I have a lot of big rides this week and it takes the pressure off.”
Assuming his 75th winner arrives later this week, the noise will almost certainly be more raucous as racing, and Royal Ascot, gets used to the clamour and commotion of a live crowd again.