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Jester temporarily estranged from the joke; James Willoughby on Frankie Dettori and the human condition.

Byline: James Willoughby

THERE are few more impressive traits than resolution in the face of adversity. It can be the litmus test of personality and the defining characteristic of those to whom we are attracted. It is not, however, a natural state for all.

Though sport could be said to be trivial in the context of some of life's other challenges, it nevertheless has the propensity to bare all facets of the human condition. Success and failure will both feature heavily in the narrative of a sportsman's career. And in the game, the winner and the loser are not two separate characters, but two sides of the same soul.

Every trainer or jockey who has ever held a licence will have confronted the two imposters. And some part of racing's appeal is that we have, too. For this was the first truly interactive sport, through its connection with betting; we are all familiar with the elevating feeling of backing a winner and the grounding of a losing run.

Some of us have a natural fragility that failure exposes, while others have the innate capacity to thrive while in its thrall. The manifestation of either in the sportsman brings them closer to us and increases our interest in their fate.

The golfer Colin Montgomerie, for example, draws on his mercurial personality for a large part of his considerable appeal. We long to see his temperamental reaction to a poor shot or a missed putt because of the attendant exposure of his humanity; the paradox is that failure allows us to connect with him when at his magnificent best. Then we know he is doing it all despite himself - and you need a hard heart to begrudge that when he cans a 12-footer in the Ryder Cup.

Frankie Dettori is a different character inasmuch as the public sees little of, nor connects with, the dark side of his being that failure discloses. At Nottingham on Wednesday, for example, he arrived for one ride on a lesser accomplished Godolphin runner wearing an unimpassioned countenance that fits him like a baggy suit. Nevertheless, he was still asked for autographs and, to be fair, still found time to sign them. There is an extent to which even his supporters must feel reluctant to indulge him in this dolefulness.

The mass mindset of the modern sports fan is that the considerable earnings of the leading protagonists are enough to assuage their feelings of inadequacy when failure comes to call. This, after all, is the get-over-italready generation of television viewers, encouraged in their intolerance of fallibility by the hermetically sealed tantrums of reality shows such as Big Brother.

While success can be fleeting, so too is failure when you ride for Sheikh Mohammed. The next big winner is just around the corner; the next flying dismount may be only a dozen rides away.

This, however, would be missing the point as far as Dettori is concerned. He has given himself an unfortunate context in his present predicament by the vigour with which he normally greets success. This, in effect, is the balancing force of equilibrium in all our personalities: immerse yourself in one extreme of emotion and, for all that it is unwelcome, its obverse will affect you just as much.

Nobody can affect sanguine and phlegmatic according to circumstance; black dog for Dettori is only his form of emotional candour. How much he would irritate us if he passed through the Dubawi incident without a vestige of distress.

Instead, he is there before us as the jester estranged from the joke, a poignant symbol of fulmination against the glibness of his public self. We do not know the real Dettori because we do not live with him, and we are all a lot more complicated than the image we try to project. If nothing else, however, his despondency provides him with some captivating depth.
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Oct 7, 2005
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