SARATOGA SPRINGS - For most of the year, it's a quaint town of about 30,000 where not much happens. Yet for six weeks every summer, the population triples as it becomes a world-class destination.
Like France's Deauville and England's Goodwood, Saratoga is a holiday haven that lures racing's elite. That's been a tradition since 1863, and its latest distinguished visitor is Frankie Dettori, one of the most popular jockeys in the 350-year history of English racing. The 43-year-old Milan native has won hundreds of stakes all over the globe, and he's a star off the track, too. In 2002, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Dettori an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), and he's been a regular on quiz and reality shows on British television. Saratoga was one of the very few items left on his bucket list. He said he'd been invited to ride here "for 25 years," and Friday he finally did.
He'd already had an eventful, tiring week, riding Wednesday in Istanbul and Thursday night at Doncaster in northern England. After his delayed flight from Heathrow, near London, reached JFK at 11 a.m. Friday, he learned his luggage had been lost, and he missed his first two rides for trainer Wesley Ward. A private plane took Dettori to Albany, and within the hour, the Spa revived his spirit.
"It's nice to see so many people at the races," Dettori said. "There's a lot of warmth here."
He felt it personally after winning on Aventure Love in the eighth. Fans yelled "Welcome to Saratoga, Frankie!" and he rewarded them with two flying dismounts. He wasn't dressed for the occasion as well as he would have liked, having been forced to borrow a saddle, whip and pants, but so what.
"It's a childhood dream to ride at Saratoga," Dettori said, "and I managed to do it."
True to form, the flamboyant jockey gave an encore, winning the last race before joining his "hero," Angel Cordero Jr., for dinner. The 71-year-old Hall of Famer was doing flying dismounts as the King of Saratoga when Dettori was a stable boy. Besides providing a room for the weekend, Cordero offered tips about riding the track he once ruled. "Angel told me, 'Let them run. Don't pull 'em back like in Europe.' "
Dettori said he had a quiet meal with Cordero and fell asleep early. "I was jet-lagged."
Ward said he'd never met Dettori until last month at England's Royal Ascot meeting, where Ward is among the few American trainers ever to have won. They collaborated July 5 at Newmarket, finishing fourth with Belmont Park stakes-winner Undrafted, owned by Broncos receiver Wes Welker. "Frankie mentioned he'd never ridden at Saratoga," Ward said. "He's always been very kind and gracious to all the riders I sent over to Europe, so I was happy to accommodate him."
Dettori's main client, Sheikh Joann al Thani, a member of Qatar's ruling family, gave him the time off. "This is my busiest season in Europe," Dettori said, "but we didn't have much running this weekend."
He had seven mounts Saturday, when his gear wasn't scheduled to arrive until after the card, so again he wore a helmet and pants borrowed from Rajiv Maragh. Dettori went 0-for-7 but just missed producing more fireworks when he fell short by a neck on runner-up Stephanie's Kitten in the Grade I, $500,000 Diana Stakes. He's named on two horses Sunday and three Monday.
"I stay until Monday," he said, "but who knows, maybe I'll come back."
At Saratoga, sooner or later, almost everybody does.