Triumph and despair both featured in our first extract from Frankie Dettori’s very racy new autobiography, Leap Of Faith, on Saturday, as he won a ‘Magnificent Seven’ races one day but then saw his reputation destroyed by a drugs bust. Today, he recalls a terrifying encounter with death…

Thursday, June 1, 2000 was a terrible day. It was grey and blustery, and the kind of day that anyone sensible would choose to curl up under a duvet at their home and watch an old movie.

Ray Cochrane, my friend and fellow jockey, was also flying me to Goodwood. Our plane was being serviced, so we rented a Piper Seneca.

‘When are we getting our normal one back?’ I asked Patrick Mackey, the pilot.

‘As soon as possible, I hope,’ he said. ‘I don’t like this one.’

That’s not what I wanted to hear. Patrick was a skilled pilot and a calm person. If he didn’t like it there must be a reason. We had to make it to Goodwood in the time we needed to race.

I was flying to Goodwood from Newmarket, along with my friend and fellow jockey Ray Cochrane. Our usual plane was being serviced so we had a rented Piper Seneca, writes Frankie Dettori

Ray Cochrane, my friend and fellow jockey, was also flying me to Goodwood. Frankie Dettori wrote that we had a Piper Seneca rented while our plane was being serviced.

‘Look,’ said Patrick as he did pre-flight checks, ‘it’s windy and it’s going to be hairy, so buckle up.’

He wasn’t wrong. The wind buffeted us as we bumped and bounced down the runway. The left wing lifted a little, tipping it to the right. I heard a thud as we continued.

Ray and I looked at one another. This wasn’t right.

100ft above the Newmarket railings, smoke was rising from the right engine. I could see the flames flickering and the propeller looked worn. It must have hit the ground as it sank to the side.

We tilted abruptly, hard to the right at an odd angle. I sat down and braced myself.

Patrick was trying to keep us airborne but it was impossible. We were being pulled to the ground.

We’re going to die. We’re going to die. We’re going to die.

It seemed so stupid. I was in perfect health, I was one of the best in the world at what I did, I’d just won the Gold Cup, and most of all I had a wife and baby boy I loved. I was about to lose it all so close to home that I could see my front door.

I didn’t even have the strength to scream or cry. The most overwhelming emotion I felt, beyond fear, was disillusionment. My life wasn’t flashing in front of my eyes like it is said to at times like these. I thought “Why?” I thought, Why not take me now?

As we turned to the ground, thunder and lightning sounded simultaneously. There was metal scraping and voices shrieking as we crashed into the ground. After a brief moment of unconsciousness, the world went black. Then, I came around.

My leg was in pain and I felt something warm and sticky on the top of my head. Blood.

Ray and me were still strapped into our seats. Patrick was motionless, his head against an instrument panel, as flames billowed from engines.

Ray’s voice was loud in the sudden silence. ‘Get out! Frankie, get out! The plane’s full of fuel.’

A ball of fire the size of a tree spiralled up, knocking him back with the force of the explosion. He ripped off his jacket and beat at the flames raging all around him, but to no avail. The cockpit was on fire and there was no way that anyone, short of a fully equipped fire brigade, was getting in there

A ball of fire, the size of a large tree, spiralled up and knocked him back with the force the explosion. He pulled off his jacket, and began to fight the flames that raged around him. The cockpit was on fire. There was no way anyone could get in there without a fully equipped fire brigade.

The door that was used to store my baggage just behind my seat was open. Ray opened it, dragged my backwards, and then pushed me out the narrow opening. He then went back inside to find Patrick. The strong and perilous smell of kerosene is overwhelming and dangerous. I was right next to a machine that was on fire and going to explode at any moment, and I couldn’t move.

‘Ray! Ray!’ I screamed. ‘Help me!’ Jagged shards of pain forked through me every time I moved. There was so much blood that I couldn’t see out of one eye. I wondered if I’d lost that eye. Maybe I’d be half-blind for ever.

I thought Ray hadn’t heard me, but then his face appeared at the broken hatch. He grabbed me by the arms and dragged my body 20-30 metres away from the wreckage.

A ball of fire, the size of a large tree, spiralled up and knocked him back with the force the explosion. He tore off his jacket and tried to fight the flames that raged around him, but to no avail. The cockpit was on fire. There was no way anyone could get in there, unless there was a fully equipped fire brigade.

Patrick had already gone. Ray realized and went ballistic, smashing the plane and screaming at heavens before collapsing with frustration and rage.

He crawled over and hugged me, and that’s how we stayed for a while, huddled together in shock like two small woodland animals.

The Army arrived. I don’t know if they were nearby or what, but a plane going down near a racecourse with flames and smoke everywhere is hard to miss, I guess.

Soon the paramedics were there, the soldiers loaded us into a helicopter and we were flown the ten miles to Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge.

They operated on my leg and performed plastic surgery to my face. Ray suffered third-degree burns to his hands and other injuries. He was completely smashed up. But we were discharged in time for Patrick’s funeral a week later.

I couldn’t shake off the feeling I’d had since the crash: why did he die when I didn’t? He was a great man, and 52 is not an age to die. I still remember the promise I made to myself when I was a small boy to buy a Ferrari before turning 30. I was 29 at the time, and the crash had taught me that life is all about seizing the moment.

What the hell was I doing? I thought. I went to the dealership and purchased a 360 Modena.

I couldn’t sit around too much after the crash, it drove me mad. So, three weeks later, I got into my morning suit and went to watch Dubai Millennium, the horse I’d won the Dubai World Cup on earlier that year, run in the Prince of Wales Stakes at Ascot.

As I walked through the parade ring, there was cheering and clapping. The Queen’s here, I thought, but she was nowhere in sight, and gradually I realised the applause was for me. I was touched and tried my best to show it without breaking down. Racing fans are truly the best.

Two months after the crash, I was racing again and had a few Newmarket winners. I won the Dubai World Cup again on Moon Ballad, and that was the start to a recovery. The richest day’s racing in the world, £500,000 in two hours, thank you very much.

2004 was my third win as champion jockey, but I still haven’t won the race I hoped to win as a youngster riding a pony in Milan.

Back then, Italian TV showed only four races from abroad: the Grand National, the Epsom Derby, the King George and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The Derby was what attracted me: the crowds and the horses, the colors.

I can still recall telling my dad, the most well-known jockey in Italy that I wanted to win The Derby. He showed me his 1960s white gold Piaget watch. He was a winner of a race and his rich owner gave it to me. He treasured it as if it were the Crown Jewels for the Queen of England.

‘If you win the Epsom Derby,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you this.’

By 2007, I’d ridden in the Derby 14 times and the story of whether I could win had captured people’s imagination. So when I was due to ride Authorized, the best horse in that year’s race, everybody was wishing me luck.

As I crossed the line, my voice screamed. I did not scream with triumph, but with the anguish of hope lost year after year.

Dad said to me that he had something for us after the race. Before he gave the box to me, I recognized it immediately. I lifted the watch out as though it was the Koh-i-Noor diamond — and saw he’d had it engraved with my name and the race details.

I hugged him. It was a symbol for so many things. It was more than a reward for winning a race. It was a reminder of where I came from and what my family had done for me. And, although I didn’t know it then, what I was soon to risk losing.

My relationship with Godolphin (the racing outfit owned by Sheikh Mohammed in Dubai) became increasingly difficult over the next few years. I joined them in 1994 and since 1996 I’d been their stable jockey on a handsome retainer and was given the pick of rides. But for the 2012 season they employed two extra retained jockeys, Frenchman Mickaël Barzalona and the Brazilian Silvestre de Sousa.

‘The three jockeys will get equal opportunities,’ Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford told the Press. ‘Frankie has to share the cake and he understands that.’

I understood everything. I was officially no longer number one and I didn’t like it, not one little bit.

I watched the Oaks in Epsom’s weighing room that year. On Derby day, I wasn’t even on the course. I was at Haydock, where I rode three races and came in fifth, eighth, and last. People looked at me with curiosity, pity, and curiosity.

I felt frustrated and even when I won the Irish Champion Stakes in Leopardstown that September it didn’t improve my mood.

I had a few people over when I returned from Ireland. I was able to enjoy the booze and forget all the crap that was going on inside my head and in my life.

When someone started chopping up a few lines of coke, I knew I shouldn’t be tempted. Random drug tests are done on jockeys and cocaine is found to be the same as any other drug. But how lucky would I be to be pinged?

It was also late. I was drunk, my career was on the skids and fundamentally I didn’t care.

I took a rolled-up £20 note, bent my head to the table and snorted a line. I took another, then another, and yet another.

It was 9am the next day before I got to bed, and when I woke, I’d got the fear big time. What was I doing? It wasn’t just a single line I took, either: I got really stuck in.

Cocaine remains in the system for around a week. To flush it out, I drank pints and sipped water. Eight days later, I rode in trials for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at the Longchamp racecourse in Paris.

Four races. There were no wins. One drug test.

As I drank the cocaine, I calculated the time frame. It had been just over one week since I had taken the cocaine. It was touch and gone. I had a bad feeling about this.

After the test, I walked on eggsshells every day. I relaxed a bit every morning until the next morning when the post arrived.

While all this was going on, I’d decided that I’d finally had enough of being sidelined by Godolphin and we agreed that, after 18 years, my retainer would not be renewed at the end of the season.

A few days after we’d issued statements to the Press, a letter arrived from France. I was immediately drawn to the key words. ‘Failed a drugs test.’ ‘Positive for metabolites of cocaine.’ That was it. Busted. Only a year previously I’d had a great job and a great career. I had no job, and no career, when this happened.

I was the only one to blame. I did the wrong thing at wrong time and was punished. If you play with fire you’re going to get burned.

I was due to race in the Breeders’ Cup in Santa Anita, California, then to fly to Australia for the Melbourne Cup, and I asked my wife Catherine to come with me.

‘I can’t do them myself,’ I told her. ‘Not now.’

I flew five thousand miles to America in a plane with all that guilt on mine. No matter how far I went, I couldn’t outrun it. I didn’t win anything there or in Australia and even if I had I wouldn’t have felt like celebrating — me, who normally loved the roar of the crowd and the champagne sprays in the winners’ enclosure.

I locked myself in my room at the hotel at the end each day, until it was time to start the next day. Thank goodness I had Catherine to assist me. Who knows what I might’ve done.

After my return to the UK, I flew to Paris to face the French equivalent to the British Horseracing Authority. To avoid the Press, I was smuggled into Paris. I told the truth. I did it because I was frustrated, angry, and tired. But that was my decision.

They suspended me for six month, which is the minimum. The ban was to be lifted the following May. This would mean that I would miss out on the 2000 Guineas and 1000 Guineas. However, I would be allowed to ride at Royal Ascot in the early summer and the Derby in the early June.

That depended on whether anyone would have me and, as I will describe in tomorrow’s Mail, the coming years would leave me feeling like a character in a Dick Francis novel, the washed-up ex-jockey who had it all and blew it.

n Adapted from Leap Of Faith by Frankie Dettori, published by HarperCollins on October 28 at £20. © Frankie Dettori 2021

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