Two decades on from my first visit to Ascot, nothing I have experienced or witnessed at any sporting venue is ever likely to match what unfolded after I first walked through the gates as an eighteen-year-old on the afternoon of Saturday 28th September 1996. I have been privileged to return many times since, in both a personal and professional capacity, and it always provides thrilling memories. Only once, though, has it produced a miracle.
Like a significant proportion of the generous crowd at Ascot that day, my father and I had headed there to watch what promised to be one of the greatest mile races ever staged in Britain. Nobody could have believed that it would become a footnote to one of the most famous sporting achievements of the modern age. Simply put, when Frankie Dettori woke up that morning he was one of racing’s most successful jockeys and famous faces. By the time he eventually went to sleep in the evening he had become a household name.
Dettori had ridden the first two winners, both in the colours of his principal employers, Godolpin, by the time he donned the royal blue silks again for the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Wall Street was favourite for the first and had been expected to win but Diffident’s narrow win at 12/1 in the second race was less straightforward. His followers, ranging from obsessive form students all the way through to first-time racegoers who just knew his name, were already in profit and high spirits, but the buzz around the course remained all about the next event, which had been labelled as the race of the season.
The seven-runner field for the contest that would decide Europe’s champion miler overflowed with class. Three of them were Guineas winners, including Dettori’s mount, Mark Of Esteem, three more were Group 1 winners and the other, Charnwood Forest, had won at Royal Ascot over a mile a few months earlier.
In the end, Dettori and Mark Of Esteem fought off the spirited challenge of the star filly Bosra Sham and her rider Pat Eddery, with the two horses finishing clear of the rest. The drama and significance of the result was heightened by the fact that Mark Of Esteem and Bosra Sham had once been stablemates in the care of Henry Cecil, before a disagreement between the trainer and Godolphin founder Sheikh Mohammed led to Mark Of Esteem and 40 horses being dramatically removed from Cecil’s Warren Place yard the previous autumn.
This had been the story that the racing press and the majority of the crowd, including my father and I, had come to see, with space in the sports sections of the following day’s newspapers already reserved for the race and its fallout. But within a couple of hours, editors on Fleet Street and in newsrooms across the country were being forced to tear up their plans and start again.
Mark Of Esteem had given Dettori three wins from three, including victory for his owners in arguably the biggest race of the season, and he has admitted since that if his run had ended there it would still have been one of his most memorable days in the saddle. But by the time he guided Fujiyama Crest to win a seventh race out of seven, Dettori had achieved racing immortality.
Up in the stands in the build-up to that last race, finding someone who had their money on a different horse was impossible. Nobody wanted a different result and as Dettori passed the winning post, on the horse that he would later adopt as a family pet, it felt like we were all standing in the centre of the universe.
So just how impossible was the impossible? Riding even one winner at a race meeting means overcoming a huge number of imponderable factors. Even the best jockeys in the world taste defeat far more often than victory, losing, in an exceptional year, around 75% of the races they ride in. At those select few meetings throughout the season that are considered the pinnacle of the sport, the increased competition makes those percentages even less forgiving.
Sensationalism and sport are attached to each other far too readily and far too often, but this was a day when cold hard numbers were as much a part of the story as the gleefully-drafted puns and the pandemonium on the course: the betting industry had lost an estimated £40m in one afternoon, thanks to one man who had won every single race at cumulative odds of 25,095/1.
That man’s life was changed forever. Comfortable in front of the camera and blessed with a rare natural charisma that few jockeys possess, Dettori became the poster boy for his sport. His rise to superstardom came in those last few years before the internet and the explosion of digital TV channels diluted the power of terrestrial television – on which racing was a Saturday staple - to influence the masses.
Ascot has been a British sporting institution for more than 300 years. Over three centuries the greatest horses, jockeys and trainers have played starring roles on occasions that have become part of racing folklore, and tens of millions have passed through its gates. Despite the competition, no single day has ever made more headlines across the world than Frankie’s day. “I was there…” never gets old. Even if sometimes it still feels a bit surreal.