Frankie Dettori is saying all the right things. No desert storm over the latest whip rules, no sign of annoyance at the umpteenth question about his retirement.
He is on autopilot in Riyadh. His smile is almost forced. He looks tired, yet somehow leaner as he sits before the waiting press conference ahead of the fourth edition of the Saudi Cup.
Country Grammer will be his partner in the big one. And there are $20million reasons why the latest pit-stop on this long-goodbye tour matters.
The Saudi Cup came calling, of course. They want star power to promote the event and while much of the King Abdulaziz Racecourse still looks like a building site 48 hours before the big race itself, there is no better salesman than Dettori.
On Friday, he will ride in the International Jockeys Challenge – a series of four handicap races, each run for an eye-watering $400,000 – alongside five other international male riders, two locals and seven international female jockeys. All 14 jockeys will ride in each of the dirt and turf races.
“I’m looking forward to it. Tomorrow is the appetiser for the big one,” insists Dettori.
“I’ve been coming here for 30 years. I’m part of the furniture and I know most of the trainers and I’m riding with some great jockeys, so I was honoured to be asked.”
The dirt track, which surrounds the lush, green Riyadh turf course, is considered by many riders to be the best in the world.
“Back in the day we used to race at a track in the city centre and this track has been built about 15 years, and it is very much like the footprint of Belmont in New York,” says the Italian, who will make his 11th seasonal appearance in Saudi Arabia, where he has ridden six winners from 72 rides.
“I’d say this is the best dirt track I have ever ridden. It is kinder than other dirt tracks I’ve ridden throughout the world.
“For example, you saw Mishriff, a turf horse, win the Saudi Cup a few years ago, so it does open things up a bit for turf horses and I really enjoy riding here.
“Basically this (event) is getting bigger and bigger. The Saudi Cup has found a good slot in the international racing calendar.
“It just shows you with the kind of (quality) horses we will ride this weekend.”
A couple of months spent in America have appeared to have done him the world of good. The positivity is genuine enough and certainly a far cry from the angst of a public fall-out with John Gosden, whose thinly veiled criticism of the jockey’s work ethic surfaced after a run of bad luck and a smattering of unfortunate rides at Royal Ascot in the summer. Bridges were quickly mended, lessons learned.
Dettori has since been riding out of his magnificently tanned skin, helped by his old friend and ally, trainer Bob Baffert.
His recent stint at Santa Anita has reaped rich rewards and while not exactly fresh from a fabulous four-timer at Santa Anita on Saturday, one gets the feeling that he has surprised himself a touch.
“It has been overwhelming,” Dettori adds. “I didn’t expect to do so well, especially some great rides at Santa Anita and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve been getting all sorts of support from a variety of trainers, so it is going well.”
Dettori announced this will be his last season in the saddle in December. Riyadh was the first place the international media had gathered in numbers to get his thoughts. Taken aback, he ticked the boxes, fielded the same questions he has faced – and will certainly continue to bat back – with the courtesy they demanded.
Prodded by a Japanese correspondent about the decision to retire, Dettori replies: “It is only just sinking in, now that I’m stopping, that I have thought about it.
“Since I announced my retirement, I have been overwhelmed by the warmth of the people in and out of racing. That is the bit I will miss.
“I only started off as a young kid with a dream to be a jockey and I think I’ve pretty much succeeded, and the last few months have been a great journey and everyone has been very nice. That’s all I have to say.”
Another prod to expand, produced another straight bat. ”I gave myself a year to give myself a last farewell.
“I’ve been at Santa Anita because I was asked to – I would usually spend my winters in Dubai.
“I will do the European programme and then Ascot should be my last one in England (British Champions Day) and then possibly the Breeders’ Cup will be my last (meeting), or a Melbourne Cup or something else will materialise, but basically this year is my last. I will be 53 in December and I will finish at the top.
“It’s very hard to choose the right moment. My heart wants to carry on , but I want to have another life after this.”
What that constitutes appears to be more than a little fluid or simply unknown.
For now, he states: “I will keep my eye on working in the media side, in racing obviously.
“That is the road I am thinking of taking, possibly doing other things, buying a few horses, being a bloodstock agent, something like that. At the end of the season, I’ll have a couple of months to sit back and look at the whole picture.”
The irony is that in this land of sand and dust, Dettori’s plans for a future after race-riding are not set in concrete. Father Time is knocking, yet what if a special horse should emerge?
America has served him well. A Kentucky Derby is still missing form the Dettori CV.
There will be a temptation for an encore. For now, he will just keep saying all the right things.