Friday, March 1, 2024

Dettori’s goal of Kentucky Derby mount hangs in the balance

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Legendary jockey Frankie Dettori has checked off most of the goals that he set for himself when he began his nearly yearlong farewell tour at Santa Anita in late December. But one important one, landing a mount in Kentucky Derby 2023, hangs in the balance as his winter sojourn at The Great Race Place draws to a close.

The 52-year-old Dettori, a native of Milan, Italy, who now lives in England when he isn’t trotting the globe, set the following goals in an interview with Santa Anita publicity director Mike Willman shortly before opening day on Dec. 26:

• Ride competitively at Santa Anita. Mission accomplished. Through Sunday, he was third in the jockey standings with 18 wins, trailing only runaway leader Juan Hernandez and Flavien Prat.

• Get a live mount for the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational. Check. He rode Last Samurai to a fourth-place finish behind Art Collector on Jan. 28.

• Get back on Country Grammer for the Saudi Cup (G1). Done. He finished second aboard the Bob Baffert-trained 6-year-old to Japan-based Panthalassa on Feb. 25 and has the mount again for the Dubai World Cup (G1) on March 25.

The final goal – “find a nice 3-year-old” in hopes of landing a second mount in the Kentucky Derby – also appeared to be in the bag after Dettori picked up the mount on the Baffert-trained Newgate. He rode the son of Into Mischief to a neck victory in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita on Feb. 4 after a second to stablemate Reincarnate in the Sham Stakes (G3) the previous month.

But with Newgate now sidelined by a hock problem, Dettori is back to square one in finding a serious Derby prospect.

That’s not to say the resilient rider is throwing in the towel. In a conversation with Horse Racing Nation late last week, he noted that a lot can change in the nearly eight weeks remaining until the first Saturday in May.

“The Blue Grass, the Santa Anita Derby, the Florida Derby, the Arkansas Derby, there’s a lot going on in the next few weeks and who knows?” he said. “… I haven’t got one yet, but there’s still lots to play for.”

Whether he and agent Ron Anderson can line up a Derby mount will go a long way toward determining how much longer Dettori will ride at Santa Anita.

If he doesn’t ride in Louisville on May 6, he is expected to leave for England, where he has a solid Plan B in place. He is first choice to ride Dewhurst Stakes winner Chaldean for trainer Andrew Balding and powerhouse Juddmonte breeding and racing operation in the 2000 Guineas (G1), one of Europe’s most prestigious races run on the same day at Newmarket.

That almost certainly would spell the end of the American leg of Dettori’s farewell tour, except for an expected return for Breeders’ Cup 2023 at Santa Anita on Nov. 3-4.

Dettori initially indicated that the Breeders’ Cup would be the end of his farewell tour, but he is now considering adding a curtain call by riding in the Melbourne Cup (G1) in Australia three days later.

“At the moment, the plan is to go to Europe sometime in the spring and race there in spring and summer,” he said. “And Italy will be high on my agenda for the end of the season. … But if I can stretch til end of the season and take a mount in the Melbourne Cup, why not?”

In the near term, Dettori will head soon to the Middle East to ride the Dubai World Cup card. He said he has at least six mounts lined up for Baffert and the British father-son training tandem of John and Thady Gosden, among others.

Dettori said he is most excited to climb back aboard Country Grammer.

“Country Grammer is the main one,” he said. “He’s a wonderful horse, ultra consistent and very sound. … I like him a lot.”

Even if he doesn’t get a second Kentucky Derby mount – he rode Godolphin’s China Visit to a sixth-place finish in 2000 – Dettori said the first stop on his farewell tour at Santa Anita has exceeded his expectations.

“When I first arrived and I looked at the lineup – Mike Smith, Johnny Velazquez, Kent Desormeaux, Hernandez, Joe Bravo, (Victor) Espinoza – I thought, ‘I’m going to find it tough,’ ” he said. “But I had a very good start and did better than I thought. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m not finished.

“Sometimes I have to kick myself because I should have done this 10 years ago,” he added with a laugh.

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