The first thing one learns in any decent journalism school is the first person singular pronoun, “I,” and its relative “me,” have no place in your work. The journalist is an observer, never a participant.
This is not a work of journalism.
Rather, it is a memoir of a place and of man known to millions around the world, a man who one afternoon in April 2009, interrupted his own work to do for me a kindness that changed my life for the better in ways even he cannot know.
In the spring of 2007, I received a telephone call—we had them in “those” days—offering a position to begin a program training journalists and communication professionals at The American University in Dubai.
Dubai wasn’t “a thing” then, not what it has become now.
Tempted by curiosity, wanderlust and a sense of adventure, I immediately accepted the opportunity. I read everything I could about Dubai.
I learned its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, was prime minister of the seven Emirates that make up the UAE.
I learned from a profile piece in the now-defunct magazine Portfolio that Sheikh Mo, as he is known to his close friends and business associates, was one of the foremost horsemen in the world. He loved Thoroughbred horses and racing, in part because of the widely accepted scientific evidence that the Thoroughbred descended genetically from just three Arabian stallions captured by British army officers during military forays in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Two of those stallions returned with their captors to England and are commonly known by those officers’ surnames: the Darley and the Godolphin (the third was the Byerley Turk).
Sheikh Mohammed takes great pride in his Arabian heritage and of the Arabian horse’s place in it. So much so, those foundational stallions’ names became the names of his breeding and racing operations.
Like many Americans raised in the city, I did have a “city kid’s” love of animals and even part-owned and rode an old barrel-racing Appaloosa (RIP “Shade”) while living in Nebraska.
But while I had a fondness of Thoroughbred racing, it was mostly restricted to its “stars” and their springtime Triple Crown exploits.
Thank God it’s Thursday
I instantly fell in love with my new job, my bright students and with Dubai. It was, at that time, perhaps the most exciting place in the world. A 21st-century city was being constructed around me by workers and expatriates making up 90 percent of all the residents of Dubai and operating 20 percent of the world’s construction cranes.
There was, however, one problem: Aside from work, the nearby Gulf-side beach and wandering the city, there was little to do. And I’m not a beachgoer.
In her foundational book about city life, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs explains culture and community are the lifeblood of urban life. But they are the last things to develop in a new city: “Okay, now I work and live here. Now I need something to do when I’m not working and people to do it with.”
While Dubai’s infrastructure was rising, cultural and community life was sparse.
In Muslim countries, Thursday is Friday, the last day of work before the weekend. Friday is the day of worship. All that was available for ex-pats on Friday was that darned beach and the lavish hotel brunches for which Dubai had become famous. I’m not a big eater.
But Thursday night was “raceday” at Nad al Sheba racecourse. That track has since been replaced by the magnificent Meydan Racecourse.
Nad al Sheba was envisioned and built by Sheikh Mohammed for—this is where legend and reality mingle—the sole purpose of attracting the great American Champion racehorse Cigar to the newly inaugurated Dubai World Cup.
The Dubai World Cup is actually a full day of Thoroughbred racing that begins, now at Meydan as then at Nad al Sheba, with a Pure Arabian race, a lasting tribute to the breed.
The Thursday night races were a big deal in Dubai. And a deal; entry was free. Poorly paid workers from South Asia, ex-pats from the UK and the States, wealthy businessmen, even horse owners and trainers would meet and talk a common language—horses.
I came to love racehorses and racing people. Born into a working class family, those Thursday nights and Dubai World Cup day were the greatest demonstrations of equality among all people I’ve experienced.
“Frankie! Frankie! Frankie!”
When people ask why I love Thoroughbreds and racing, I explain it’s because a race is all of life condensed into two minutes.
Racing is like a baseball game. A team is assembled, each with a specific role. The “players” have Spring Training. The actual “game” unwinds slowly. There are moments that are exhilarating, others that are disheartening. There is, as Jim McKay would say introducing ABC’s Wide World of Sports, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
Godolphin was the racing home team in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed its manager.
At Nad al Sheba, everyone could get pretty close to horses and horse people as they emerged from the stables and entered the paddock for the post parade before each race.
I recall a night at the races as having two memorable moments.
The first was at the start when Sheikh Mohammed, who never missed an evening, would enter—always stern-faced—leading one of his runners.
The crowd simply erupted with cheers and applause in appreciation of the man. It was genuine.
The second moment generally occurred during a race when, with a Godolphin horse contesting in the stretch run, the crowd focused on an easily recognizable jockey and cheered him on:
“Frankie! Frankie! Frankie!” they would scream, urging the rider clear to the often-successful finish, often to the point of, pardon the pun, hoarseness.
Lanfranco Dettori was the favorite player on the favorite team. An Italian born in Milan, Dettori was based in Britain after a successful riding career that began in late-1980s Italy.
The racing season in Dubai accommodates the desert weather. Peak season is the winter, January through late March, when the climate is like Southern California, breezy and pleasant in the evenings.
Dettori was the retained rider for Godolphin during those months. When April came, he would return to England to ride at Newmarket and throughout Europe.
He was an enormously successful jockey. His record includes over 500 group victories, three Dubai World Cup wins and a win on every one of the seven races on the card at Royal Ascot in 1996.
He was then and is now considered perhaps the best jockey in the world.
Join your school alumni society
I attended my first two Dubai World Cup days as a spectator, cheering on the great Curlin to victory in 2008 and the warrior horse Well Armed on a drizzly day in 2009.
Watching was not enough. I was after all a professional journalist, schooled and experienced. I had covered natural disasters, international trade disputes, even terrorism and war. Surely I could get media access to cover horseracing.
Not so fast, guy.
I learned my application to cover the Dubai season required a minimum of three published stories and an association with a professional media company.
I’m a worker bee, so I set about gathering the necessary “honey.”
Each year, the graduate journalism school at my alma mater, Columbia University, sponsors alumni networking sessions in different cities around the U.S. and the world. In 2009, they planned one for early April in Dubai.
I had met an alumnus at a literary festival in Dubai. She was then a new reporter at one of the English-language newspapers. I mentioned to her the details of the networking session and offered a companion invitation.
She came that evening and brought along her editor. In the chit-chat, blah-blah, that goes on at such meetings, I began mentioning the details of the new racing facility being built.
Meydan, which means “meeting place” in Arabic, was going to be the hub of a new community outside downtown Dubai. Its focus was the horse lifestyle. It would have stables and pedestrian-cum-horse paths. There would be Venetian-like, man-made canals. The Dubai Creek would be dredged and water-filled so racegoers could take abras—water taxis—to the new racing facility and the luxury hotel of the same name.
My chit-chat, blah-blah was prodigious.
Impressed, the editor inquired: “You know a lot about this. Could you do a cover piece for our weekend magazine?”
The piece was due in a week. I put as much effort research and writing it as I have with any of the hundreds I’ve published. More. I lined up three interviews with people involved in the Meydan project. After all, this would be my “Golden Ticket” (for you Willy Wonka fans).
“It’s always something”
—Roseanne Roseannadanna (Gilda Radner on SNL)
Then it happened; the moment, actually moments, every journalist dreads: One by one, my interviewees were “too busy,” would be “out of town” or “can’t speak about it” as each one cancelled.
Imagine. A very long piece of journalism, of “observation,” absent a single interview, without an original quote.
Embarrassing at least; fatal for the piece at worst.
I immediately needed to get on the telephone thingey. But who to call? It was April. The racing season ended with Dubai World Cup day in March. The staff would be on vacation. The jockeys would be off to England and worldwide points beyond.
So I thought: “I’m a fan of the home team. They’re in business 24/7/365.” I called the local office of Godolphin.
Luckily, the Godolphin media representative in Dubai was also a worker bee. I explained my predicament. We commiserated a bit, but she said: “Everyone’s gone and all our riders are at Newmarket. I’ll see what I can do.”
She called back a half-hour later and said: “You can expect a call tomorrow at half-past noon GMT.”
I didn’t think to ask from whom. I didn’t care if it was the person who mucked stalls. I wasn’t sure of Dubai time relative to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). I was too grateful to care.
I thanked her perhaps a bit too much, requested a photo or two I could use in my piece and prepared my interview questions.
“Hello, this is…”
The next day, I hovered over my phone and waited.
At the appointed time, the phone rang.
“Hello, this is Frankie Dettori. I have my first race in 20 minutes. How can I help?”
I swiftly got past my shock and excitement. I conducted a thorough, professional interview. The details were just what I needed.
Now, writers know you need a way to “get out” of every story, something to tie the end to the beginning. That’s called a “kicker.” I love kickers. They are as identifiable as my signature on virtually piece I write.
Frankie needed to go run a race and I needed to finish my piece.
I had likened the closing of Nad al Sheba to the closing of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. Here are the final closing paragraphs of that piece, entitled “The Final Furlong”:
“Only time will tell, as its opening day hinted, if the Yankees lost something in gaining such an elegant manor. For as much as the Yankees planned for and built a worthy heir to its two forefathers (star players Babe Ruth and Derek Jeter), neither money nor architects can create the atmosphere that makes a building a ballpark. For one day, and even before the Cleveland Indians turned a pitchers’ duel into a rout with a nine-run seventh inning, Yankee Stadium sounded nothing like the old place. It sounded much quieter, much more refined.”
The same can be said of a racetrack. Will Frankie Dettori miss Nad Al Sheba? “A little bit,” he sighs wistfully. “I won every major race there: the Maktoum Challenge One, Two and Three, The World Cup. So, yes, a little bit.”
When the old Yankee Stadium closed on the final day of the 2008 baseball season, the crowd began to take away mementos of ‘The House that Ruth Built,’ a reference to Babe Ruth. There, as in other sporting venues, a piece of the playing field, a handful of turf or small jar of dirt, became a prized souvenir.
Did Frankie Dettori try to capture a piece of the past by taking a bit of the dirt from the track at Nad Al Sheba? “No,” says Frankie, “but I did kiss my locker at Nad Al Sheba. It served me very well over the years.”
Oh. My. God.
It is to this day, the best kicker I’ve ever gotten from an interview subject.
The piece was the cover story of “Wknd” Magazine in the Khaleej Times April 24, 2009. I still take great pride in it.
That piece would breed two more articles, both for United Press International. The following racing season, I received my media accreditation as a UPI journalist for the brand new Meydan racing season. I’ve been accredited for every racing season and have never missed Dubai World Cup day.
You can’t buy them, but you can lose them
I left Dubai and AUD when my contract ended in 2010. I went on to China, the “new, new thing” then, with a similar job and the opportunity to use the Mandarin I learned years earlier.
I returned to Dubai regularly for the racing season, for World Cup Week, to see my former students, now friends and fellow professionals. Keeping track of Frankie and his career, I’d see him occasionally. He remained just as hospitable as he had been the day he called me.
Godolphin racing silks are unique in the sport. They are a simple Royal Blue with a matching cap. The latest versions follow the European soccer tradition of placing the name of the sponsor on the breast: “Fly Emirates.”
As a racing enthusiast, I’ve collected too many pieces of memorabilia from my favorites over the past decade: brass name-plated Halters worn by horses from Cigar to American Pharoah; saddle cloths from famous races the world over, including Dubai; even jockey silks. The one thing that eludes me is those Godolphin silks. Their riders guard them like gold.
You can’t buy them. But you can lose them.
In 2012, as happens in sports, some “young guns” began to take the reins for Godolphin. Frankie was essentially demoted, getting fewer rides.
As he would later explain in a 2013 interview with Clare Balding and Channel News 4, the demotion depressed him.
“It started from there (the demotion). There was never an explanation why or what, I had to kind of accept it for unknown reasons. You start getting depressed. I wasn’t sleeping at night and I was arguing with my wife. But then you think maybe I’ll be all right next week, maybe I’ll be back in favour. But then things kept on getting worse, and my head was wrecked, absolutely wrecked. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Frankie made the first of two fateful decisions. The first was accepting a ride on Camelot, a horse owned by Coolmore, Godolphin’s chief global competitor from breeding to yearling purchases to racing.
“When I got offered the ride on Camelot it was like winning the Lottery. I felt wanted again and for me it was a way out of the job. I did not want to leave, but they forced my hand for me.”
There was no forgiving that decision. Godolphin announced in Oct. 2013 Frankie would not be retained for the coming season.
Out of respect for Sheikh Mohammed, Dettori visited Dubai and sought out his benefactor.
“I stopped in Dubai because I wanted to basically shake hands with Sheikh Mohammed, my patron for 18 years, and say thank you for all the good things that he’d done for me,” Dettori recalls. “But for some reason or another, he was too busy.”
Godolphin had just experienced a doping scandal when its rising number two trainer Mahmood al Zarooni was banned for eight years in Britain for giving banned anabolic steroids to 15 horses in his care. It was a bad time for the Sheikh and his beloved Godolphin.
Dettori isn’t certain of the reason he could not visit with Sheikh Mohammed, but a second fateful decision came to light that may have had an influence. It was revealed he had tested positive for cocaine at Longchamp in Sept. 2013.
Dettori, cautioned for possession of cocaine when he was an apprentice jockey in 1993, insisted he was not a regular user of the drug.
“You feel low and perhaps you want to escape the reality of life,” Dettori said. “It was a moment of weakness and I fell for it. I’ve only got myself to blame, I can’t blame anyone else. I did the wrong thing at the wrong time and I got tested. We get tested everywhere we go. If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.”
Dettori got a six-month racing ban.
How true love can Enable redemption
Dettori went freelance as a rider after serving the ban. He began to pick up rides again. He began to have success again.
In 2017, Frankie was hired by trainer John Gosden and owner Prince Khalid Abdullah of Juddmonte Farms to ride a three-year-old filly named Enable.
He has ridden the great now-six-year-old mare in all her races in England, Ireland, France and the U.S. They have paired to win 15 races in 18 starts. They have twice won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, a historic three runnings of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and perhaps the most memorable Breeders’ Cup Turf ever.
They have made history together. They have fashioned unforgettable moments of exaltation for racing fans and casual observers alike.
Sunday at Longchamp, “Queen” Enable as she is known to the French, seeks her final historic crown, Dettori his final redemption. They ride their final race together in search of that elusive third Arc victory.
Following the race, Enable will be retired to Juddmonte Farms. She will become a bucket-list destination for every horse and racing fan in the world, for anyone who wants to see greatness in the flesh.
“She’s taken me somewhere other horses haven’t…emotionally,” says Frankie in an interview with World Horse Racing. “I guess I’ve become an ‘old man’…emotions…because of the simple fact this is it for her in this country—I’ll never see her again.”
I was at Longchamp last year for their attempt at a third consecutive Arc victory. When Enable was passed in the final furlong and beaten by Waldgeist, the media center went deadly quiet. You literally could hear a pin drop.
I made immediate plans to be there in 2020, to stay with a friend in Amsterdam for a week. We would then drive to Paris, dine at our favorite restaurant and hope to see history unfold at Longchamp.
Among the many millions of lives damaged and plans thrown into upheaval, my own plans became a victim too. But a minor one on the grand scale.
Through the new miracle of the Internet that has replaced my beloved telephone, I’ll be at Longchamp in spirit, bright and early U.S. time, hoping again to see history made—as much for Frankie as for Enable.
As they race tomorrow, I might even yell to no one as I hope they pull away in the stretch: “Frankie! Frankie! Frankie!”
If they win tomorrow, I’ll recall what he said to me as the kicker in our interview…
…and I’ll bet Lanfranco Dettori will kiss his beloved Enable…right on her lips.
With special thanks to Frankie Dettori, Enable and my editor, Carley Sparks.