I haven’t felt this nervous in a long time. Probably not since Sir Stirling Moss ordered me to stretch a leg over from the passenger seat and try the clutch of a £30 million classic Mercedes at 80mph.
That was the legendary SLR Sir Stirling drove to victory in the famous Mille Miglia around-Italy road race in 1955. Now three-time champion jockey Frankie Dettori has the same look in his eye, as he saddles up beside me in a 510bhp Alfa Romeo Giulia in Newmarket.
“Beautiful motor – made with Italian passion!” enthuses Dettori, who has ridden more than 3,000 winners and keeps a thoroughbred Ferrari 488 Spider in his own stable of cars. Our Guilia Quadrifoglio – Italian for four-leaf clover, the symbol synonymous with Alfa’s racing teams since 1923 – is a super-saloon capable of an equally impressive 191mph.
I’m hoping Dettori hasn’t seen the “race” button, which can turn the Alfa into an unwieldy stallion on steroids. Unfortunately for me, the rider who famously won seven races in a day at Ascot has studied the form. He shouts with glee as four outsize exhaust pipes start burbling.
We’re parked outside the Jockey Club Rooms in Newmarket, or “HQ” in the horsey world of tweed and expensive binoculars. The Suffolk town has dedicated itself to equine pursuits ever since King Charles I created a circular course that helped it become the centre of flat racing in Britain.
The Rooms is not only an exclusive private members club but also laden with historic artwork and memorabilia from the sport of kings. Portraits of famous horses like Gimcrack and Eclipse decorate the walls, alongside works by equine artists Alfred Munnings and George Stubbs.
Private tours of The Rooms last about 90 minutes, with a further opportunity to visit the National Stud, or visit the gallops – an early morning spectacle when trainers and owners put their horses through their paces.
Some of the 21 luxurious bedrooms at HQ are available to the public, too. However, rooms are a non-starter during the key racing festivals, or the sales at nearby Tattersalls, the world’s oldest bloodstock auctioneer which last year sold a horse called Marsha for £6.3 million.
As we drive out past the club’s imposing wrought iron gates, Dettori adjusts the seat to account for his 5ft 4in frame. “Before I owned the 488 I had a Ferrari 430 Scuderia. The driving position was low - I needed a cushion to see over the steering wheel,” he said.
Dettori, 47, has crashed a motorbike, rolled a car and suffered at least 10 major injuries during his riding career – the most recent a broken shoulder that ruled his out of last year’s Royal Ascot. In 2000, he was hospitalised when the light plane he was a passenger in crashed at Newmarket racecourse.
“That accident put everything in perspective. I was 29 and had promised myself a Ferrari by the time I was 30. When I could walk again, I just went out and bought one.”
Our first stop is barely out of the starting gates – just around the corner in Palace Street. Palace House was built by King Charles II who would escape to the country for a spot of hare-coursing and riding as often as possible. Nearby is the cottage of his mistress, Nell Gwyn.
The House and stables are now home to the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sport Art. Shortlisted for museum of the year in 2017, it’s a must see in Newmarket, even if you don’t know one end of a horse from the other.
From here we head out to one of Newmarket’s two main racecourses, the Rowley Mile Course. The Course of Champions is regarded as the most historic stretch of turf in the country. The venue was built in honour of King Charles II, who was known as Old Rowley and rode a horse of the same name.
Thankfully, Dettori is driving the Quadrifoglio at a canter. Parked near the end of the 1.2-mile straight, he points out a clump of shrubs two furlongs from the finishing line. “These are probably the most famous bushes in the country. It’s an unofficial marker for riders to kick on downhill towards the finishing line.”
Our next stop is four miles south of Newmarket on the B1061 at Dullingham. Estate agents would describe the pretty village as “sought after” - no surprise then that Dettori and his wife Catherine lived here until recently with their five children. All of them ride and son Rocco, 13, is already competing in Shetland pony races.
The jockey looks longingly as we pass The King’s Head pub, one of his favourite eateries. “Keeping my weight down requires a strict routine. I like to stay at around 8st 10lb, which is difficult when the kids have chocolate in the house.”
We then drive out along the A1304, where Dettori makes a detour to show me his latest project – a part-built, mock Georgian mansion surrounded by 90 acres. It should be finished by the summer, although the stables are already loaded with a menagerie that includes horses, a pet emu and a pig called Mr Wiggy.
It’s eight miles via Fulbourn on the back roads to Cambridge, where Dettori and his wife sometimes like to escape the racing fraternity for an evening out. Newmarket is home to more than 80 racing stables, housing 2,500 horses. “The subject of conversation always turns to racing so it’s good to get out of the bubble, although I like to stay at home and cook too,” Dettori revealed.
Dettori’s only frustration is that locally he can’t find good ice cream. “I was born in Milan, surrounded by amazing gelato. I fly back to Italy to a couple of times a year to get my fix - the food and weather are what I miss the most.”
On June 2, Dettori will line up for the Investec Derby at Epsom. He has won the race twice before and is as passionate as ever about the event. “I don’t like to think about retiring. I do know that when I get on a horse I’m as focussed and driven as I’ve always been. As long as it stays like that, I will carry on riding.”
thejockeyclub.co.uk; epsomderby.co.uk; palacehousenewmarket.co.uk
Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio
ENGINE 2,891cc, V6 twin-turbo petrol
TOP SPEED 191mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 3.9sec
FUEL ECONOMY 34.4mpg (EU Combined)
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