He is the 44th-most successful rider in Britain this year and has not claimed the jockeys’ title since 2004, but there is still no one in the weighing room who can shift a market quite like Frankie Dettori.
Coronet, his surprise choice as a partner in Saturday’s St Leger, has been the only horse for money since the final field appeared with Dettori’s name against hers. She was a 10-1 chance a few minutes before the list of 11 runners appeared, but as short as 11-2 on Friday evening. It remains unlikely that Coronet will set off as the favourite on Town Moor, but when the nation’s punters, including 30,000 at the track, suddenly latch on to Frankie, anything is possible.
If Coronet comes home in front on Saturday afternoon, the Dettori legend will get another buff-and-polish. Coronet’s backers will congratulate themselves for trusting their money to Dettori’s judgment, and everyone else will kick themselves for ignoring such an obvious tip. You do not need too long a memory, though, to remember the last time a stable jockey had a difficult choice in the St Leger, and how it turned out.
Ryan Moore certainly does. Nine years ago, in his first year as stable jockey to Sir Michael Stoute and at a time when he was still in search of his first win in a British Classic, Moore had the choice of riding either Doctor Fremantle or Conduit in the St Leger. He went for Doctor Fremantle and finished eighth of 14 behind his stable companion. The lucky jockey who picked up the spare ride on Conduit was Frankie Dettori.
That was the last of Dettori’s five St Leger victories to date, only one of which, oddly, came in the royal blue colours of the Godolphin operation, which retained him as its No1 jockey for nearly two decades. Most memorably, perhaps, if only for its novelty value, he also landed the Classic in the colours of John Magnier, Godolphin’s arch-rival on the track and in the sales ring, aboard Scorpion in 2005. And it is a jockey who spends most of his time in Godolphin colours, James Doyle, who could do to Dettori on Saturday what Dettori did to Moore back in 2008.
Many punters assume that decisions like these must be 80-20 or 90-10 when, in all likelihood, it is closer to 51-49, though Dettori said on Friday that it had been an “obvious” choice. His thought process, he said, had been that Coronet “is strong and she’s been racing in Group Ones for most of the year” and could be better suited to the expected good-to-soft ground.
“[Doyle’s mount] Stradivarius has won over two miles,” Dettori added, “but all his best form is on top of the ground. There are showers forecast and it’s not going to really dry out, so Coronet was my obvious choice. It was very hard, though, and I left it until the last minute. Half the field can win it, probably even more.”
There were grey clouds over Town Moor for most of the afternoon on Friday, but the rain stayed away and the outstanding Doncaster turf, which drains as well as any track in the country, could easily be closer to good by 3.35 on Saturday afternoon.
The accuracy, or otherwise, of Dettori’s judgment is the obvious subplot in the Leger field, but far from the only one. The track itself will be keeping a nervous eye on the crowd figure after a 13% drop in the attendance 12 months ago, from 30,022 to 26,171, while Stoute will saddle Crystal Ocean, the likely favourite, in the hope of winning his first British Classic since Workforce took the Derby in 2010.
It would also be Stoute’s 16th British Classic since Fair Salinia took the Oaks in 1978, but even if the 71-year-old Stoute lands the Leger, he will not be the oldest trainer to send out a winner here this week after David Elsworth, 78 in December, took the Doncaster Cup with Desert Skyline. Elsworth is already one of just a handful of trainers to have won the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup over jumps as well as Classics and Group One races on the Flat, and he will aim to join an even more exclusive club next summer by adding Ascot’s Gold Cup to the list.
Desert Skyline, the only three-year-old in the field, needed plenty of encouragement from Silvestre de Sousa to go through the gears, but he eventually stayed on with real purpose to win by a length and a half in the style of a horse who will stay any trip.
“It’s not like driving a car around the M25,” Elsworth said. “You can’t just pull out and go. They’ve got to dig deep and work hard. There’s not a lot of him and it’s quite a big call to run a three-year-old over two-and-a-quarter miles, but he’s tough. You’ll hear more from him next year.”
Heartache, the Queen Mary winner at Royal Ascot, came out on top with something to spare in her duel with Havana Grey in the Flying Childers Stakes and could now have one more run this season in the Group One Cheveley Park Stakes.
“That’s very much on the cards,” Clive Cox, Heartache’s trainer, said. “We’ve got nothing to lose and the way she’s developed and grown, she’s an awfully nice filly for next year. She’d be a Commonwealth Cup filly if she gets six furlongs.”