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Italian Maestro

  • Story Highlights
  • Superstar jockey Frankie Dettori rode first public race on "Sylvia", aged 10
  • Father sent him to Britain to work as an apprentice for trainers Luca Cumani
  • Famed sealed with "Magnificent 7" victory at Ascot, September 1996
  • Fought back after plane crash to win all major races, including Derby in 2007
  • Next Article in World Business »
By Hilary Whiteman
CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- "She was lovely, her name was Sylvia, and that's how the dream started."

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At the age of ten, Frankie Dettori rides his first public race on the back of Sylvia: "She was lovely."

Sylvia was the beloved, blonde-maned pony who carried a young Frankie Dettori past the post in his first public race.

Her picture is now carefully filed away in the vast library of Dettori family photos.

The date's embossed on the leather album cover: June 17, 1981. He was ten. They came last.

Frankie Dettori has come a long way since following the pack as a schoolboy in a bright yellow and blue helmet and a red striped shirt at home in Sardinia.

He has won every major racing title. His new home in Newmarket -- near the famous British racetrack -- is crammed with trophies from almost three thousand wins.

Now in the twilight of his career, Dettori could be forgiven for bathing in the shimmering light of the hundreds of shiny silver trophies lined up in a row of glass-fronted cabinets. But this jockey has his eyes firmly forward.

"When I look at this it's the past, and I'm looking at the future," he says, "This is what I've managed to accumulate in my life and it might mean something to me when I retire but right now I'm just looking to put some more things in."

At the starting gates

Frankie Dettori was just 14 when his father, a successful jockey himself, sent his only son to Britain to learn the art of racing. He became an apprentice to Ray Cochrane, a stable jockey to Luca Cumani, one of Britain's leading trainers.

"He arrived, a scruffy kid who couldn't speak a great deal of English, with a big pair of wellies and we've been friends ever since," Cochrane remembers.

Frankie Dettori learnt quickly and eventually took Cochrane's job, "he didn't take it, I vacated that position so he could have it," corrects Cochrane.

His former boss is now Dettori's agent. "It's a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. We get enquiries from all over the world," he says.

"He doesn't want to be riding every day because there's so much old tosh running every day -- he doesn't need to be involved in that."

At the races

Dettori's first big win came in 1989 on the back of "Mark of Distinction," but it wasn't until 1996 that his name leapt from the racing pages to headlines around the world.

On one day in September, he won seven races from seven starts against odds of 25,095 to one. "It's something that I'm proud of because I'm the first man to do it," Dettori says. read more about Frankie's magnificent seven

Until June 2, 2007, only one major title had eluded the irrepressible jockey. "It took me 15 years to win the Derby." Dettori says, of the race that's considered one of the highlights of the British racing calendar.

"I was so nervous and excited and I would like to go back and win it again to enjoy it more," he adds.Video Nick Smith of Ascot talks about the day Frankie won the Derby »

A crashing halt

Almost to the day, seven years earlier, Frankie Dettori came close to losing it all. He and Ray Cochrane were the only passengers in a light plane when it crashed shortly after takeoff near the Newmarket racecourse on June 1, 2000. The pilot, Patrick Mackey, died.

"The only thing I remember is opening my eyes and staring at the engines on fire. Was this the other side? I couldn't figure it out," Dettori recalls.

Ray Cochrane pulled him from the plane seconds before it exploded. "It was all crashed in on top of Frankie and he was all covered in blood," Cochrane remembers.

"I just pushed the back door open and got him out of that there... It was a horrendous day. It would have been nice if everyone had got out but unfortunately they didn't."

Dettori underwent surgery for a broken ankle and returned to the track just ten weeks later. Rather than make him more reticent in the saddle, the accident made him more determined to win.

"I enjoy life to the full, every moment, occasion," Dettori says. "Friends, family, jobs, I try to live it like it's my last time."

Off the track

Away from the racecourse, Frankie Dettori likes to spend as much time as he can with his wife Catherine and children Leo, Ella, Mia, Tallulah and Rocco.

"When I sometimes take the kids to school, or when I take them anywhere, and I realize I've got five children, I really say to myself 'what have I done?'"

"You have good days and bad days in life and when you come home to five lovely children and they've all got a story to tell you, I think 'this is what life is all about.'"

Frankie's other love is food. It's an obsession borne of his Italian heritage and the constant pressure to meet the strict weight targets demanded by his profession.

Catherine is accustomed to living with her husband's mood swings when he's surviving on one meal a day and exercising in plastic suits to lose the pounds.

It's a process they call "wasting." "It's on his mind every day all day. He weighs himself in the middle of the night and I hear the scales tick," she says. Catherine Dettori tells Revealed about life with the jockey Video

Frankie's manager Ray Cochrane knows how hard the experience can be."You can imagine being on a diet for eleven months of the year. After you've lost the first stone and a half, then you've got to drop another ten pounds. Maybe lose about four or five pounds daily."

It's especially hard for a man who admits he has a sweet tooth -- "I might nick the children's chocolate or a cup of tea" -- and often succumbs to temptation. "I am victim of a slice of pizza from time to time. I really like it."

Dettori likes it so much that he teamed up with Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Marco Pierre White to open a chain of family-friendly Italian restaurants.

"Frankie's" first opened its doors in Knightsbridge, London in September, 2004. Now there are six worldwide, in London, Shanghai and Dubai. "What's important about Frankie is that firstly he loves food, and second he loves that world, that environment," says Marco Pierre White.

"As a young boy, Frankie gave himself two choices: jockey or chef. He chose to be a jockey because he felt he was too small to be a chef, but it's a natural environment to be involved in."

For now, Frankie Dettori's ambitions still lie on the racecourse. "First and foremost I'm a jockey and that's what I do best," he says.

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"When I perhaps stop my racing career then I can pursue this business a little bit further but at this stage I need to concentrate on my racing because that's what I'm good at."

Few could argue with that. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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