Bob Baffert knows very well what makes a headline and he does not disappoint. Two minutes into a discussion about what happens when Frankie goes to Hollywood and, already, he has delivered.
‘Listen, man, people love to see greatness up close,’ says Baffert, a trainer who has courted success and controversy throughout a colourful career.
‘I love [American] football but I can’t go up and stand next to Tom Brady, as much as I might want to.
‘That’s why horse-racing is such a beautiful sport. Out here, the fans follow the riders to the paddock and, believe me, they will follow Frankie everywhere. People root for him; they love him. He’s going to bring even more fans. This is like Lionel Messi coming out to the USA to play soccer. It’s huge.’
It also does not feel like an outlandish comparison. Messi is still doing magical things for Inter Miami, keeping Father Time beautifully at bay, and Dettori, who has dominated his sport in the same way the Argentinian has dominated football, expects to be similarly rejuvenated in the United States.
Frankie Dettori (left) is the Lionel Messi (right) of racing, according to trainer Bob Baffert
Dettori rode Baffert’s Country Grammer to glory in the Dubai World Cup last year
Dettori, who earlier this month reversed his decision to retire, will pursue a new life in southern California with his wife, Catherine. The pair will be based in Pasadena and his local track will be Santa Anita — the place where Baffert is regarded as the king.
Santa Anita stages the 40th Breeders’ Cup this weekend. Billed as the world championships of thoroughbred racing, there is more than $30million (£25m) in prize-money up for grabs over two spectacular days and both Dettori and Baffert have had remarkable triumphs at the meeting down the years.
The Italian has 14 wins at the event — Enable in 2018, in the Turf, and Raven’s Pass in the 2008 Classic at Santa Anita are standouts — and Baffert has 18 but they have never paired up on that stage. The way the 70-year-old trainer speaks about Dettori, though, you wonder whether that will change.
‘I have known him for a long time and what I love about him is that he has this amazing personality,’ says Baffert, who has taken this early call from Mail Sport standing where he does most mornings at Clockers’ Corner, the famous open-air bistro at Santa Anita Park.
‘He is fun and people love him. But, at the end of the day, he’s very smart and horses run beautifully for him.
‘What you see with him is world-class. These old guys now, they stay in condition. They are like golfers — they eat right, train hard and watch their weight. They know what they have to do.
‘But he is also a winner. I think every time Frankie gets on a horse, he expects to win and if it loses, it comes as a surprise to him. He’s so talented. You can put him in any kind of situation and you will see him do special things. Honestly, they will flock to see him in Los Angeles.’
To get his eye in at the track, where Dettori’s headline ride is likely to be Inspiral in the Breeders Cup Filly and Mare Turf, he had a couple of spins at Santa Anita Saturday night, having arrived in California last Wednesday.
Dettori rode King Of Steel to victory in the Champion Stakes at Ascot – his final ride in the UK
This will be a only fleeting visit before he settles permanently Stateside as the feeling persists that Dettori will soon be unveiled as one of this year’s contestants on I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! — and Baffert cannot wait to see him regularly.
It is here he tells a story. It is also here we must explain why Baffert has such a controversial reputation. The success he has enjoyed since training the first of more than 3,000 winners — Flipper Star in January 1979 — has been remarkable and carried him into the US Hall Of Fame.
Baffert oversaw the careers of US Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) but this six-time Kentucky Derby winner was banned from running horses at Churchill Downs after Medina Spirit — who should have been his seventh triumph in 2021 — failed a drugs test.
He has always protested his innocence and has said the affair damaged his reputation. During the height of it in 2022, as he looked to clear his name, he received an unexpected message from Dettori asking whether he had a rider for Country Grammer in the $12million Dubai World Cup.
‘We’d wondered about asking Will Buick but then Sheik Mohammed decided to run a Godolphin horse, so it meant William would be unavailable,’ says Baffert.
‘We had some American riders in mind but then I got a text from Frankie: “Hey Bob! I’m open for Dubai!” That was it.’
Baffert cannot wait to see the face of racing regularly at Santa Anita next season
Country Grammer was a powerful horse but was not expected to beat odds-on favourite Life Is Good.
‘I remember talking to Frankie beforehand,’ Baffert continues. ‘I said to him, “Frankie, man, if you can get me second, that’s like a win!” . . . I watched him the whole way. When they turned for home, Frankie pulled him to the outside and he kept picking them off. He went and won!
‘I have won a lot of big races but that was extra special. Frankie willed that horse to win. That was at a point in my life when I needed that uplift and he gave it to us. To have him on top that day, I’ll never forget it. He can put a horse in any situation and win. What can I say? He’s just one of the greatest of all time.’
Another headline. You sense both men will be writing them for many more years to come.