Who is sport’s most influential person? It’s a one-horse race

John Inverdale
A MID all the speculation about who will win the 2012 BBC sports personality and team awards, a major event took place yesterday that highlighted the potential need for another category in the end of year jamboree – the most influential sports star. Bradley Wiggins and the way he’s got us all dressing up in Lycra would obviously get many votes for that title too, but there is another contender who for many years has virtually carried an entire industry on his shoulders, and there is a risk that in the near future he may ride off into the sunset, leaving his sport bereft of a single personality to captivate the public.

Once upon a time yesterday afternoon would have been one of the highlights of the autumnal sporting calendar. Even non-horse racing fans would tune in to watch the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp as the finest middle distance horses in Europe competed for the then richest prize in the game. Yesterday it was banished from all recognisable television outlets to the wilds of channel 415, At The Races, but it duly produced a sensational finish that was the equivalent of the Ryder Cup’s. Few saw it, and only a few more cared.

The race yesterday was notable in advance for one thing only: could Frankie Dettori (right) win aboard the Derby winner Camelot? As National Hunt racing has inexorably overtaken its more arrogant sibling in the public’s affection, so flat racing has become more dependant on Dettori for keeping it in the limelight. The extraordinary exploits of Frankel have only served to emphasise the fact that horses come and go – and Frankel will be history after a final lap of honour at Ascot in two weeks’ time – but jockeys last for decades. It is they who sustain and regularly fuel public interest.

But Frankie, like Frankel, will be gone soon. He’s 41 now so the clock is ticking, and even though he’s not in the jockey’s championship top 20, he’s still the man everyone knows. Ask the person next to you on the Tube to name those at the top of that table, and if they come up with Richard Hughes, Silvestre de Sousa and Paul Hanagan, they are either a bookmaker or Sheikh Mohammed on a rare trip on the Central Line.

Dettori has been the face of flat racing for 20 years. How is the sport preparing for life after him? What steps are being taken to ensure he continues to be the highest-profile ambassador once his riding days are over? He may not have won yesterday but that didn’t stop him making the headlines, illustrating that no other sport in this country owes a single individual a greater debt than horse racing owes the Italian.

Most influential sportsperson? It’s a one-horse race.