Fallon aims high in the recognition stakes

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One of the oddities about the scrap for this season's jockeys' championship is the refusal by many of the sport's pundits to acknowledge that the man out in front in the title race may actually be the best jockey. It is true that Kieren Fallon has neither the glamour and gloss of his nearest challenger Frankie Dettori, nor the experience and comfortable familiarity of the now sidelined Pat Eddery, but he has performed consistently better than both of them all year.

At the start of play yesterday he was 21 clear of Dettori and winning on nearly one ride in four, but perhaps a more telling statistic is a financial one. Of the top ten jockeys in the table, he is the only one to show a level stakes profit, and a considerable one at that. By Friday night, anyone who had placed pounds 1 on each of his 777 rides this year would be pounds 125 richer.

By contrast, Dettori showed a pounds 17 loss, and followers of Eddery would be a whopping pounds 151 down. The explanation is that Fallon does not persuade just fancied horses to win, but forlorn hopes as well. Punters and owners are now perfectly happy, in fact eager, to have Fallon on their side. But much of the establishment has yet to be convinced.

The prejudice, for such it undoubtedly is, cannot be because he is Irish - in fact the son of a Co Clare taxi driver with no heritage of horses - for their birthplace has done neither Eddery, nor John Reid, Richard Dunwoody, Tony McCoy or Adrian Maguire any harm in the popularity stakes. It may be because he has in the past played Vinnie Jones and more recently Paul Gascoigne to Dettori's Gary Lineker. It was probably unwise to drag Stuart Webster off his horse in full view of the stewards and TV cameras and then break his nose, however he may have felt the action - which he viewed as a warning to an erratic rider on behalf of his weighing- room colleagues - justifiable.

And it could also be because he did not learn his trade in Suffolk or Berkshire. Time was when they bred and raced better horses in Yorkshire than anywhere else in the world, but the North is now regarded in some quarters as where the poor relations of the Flat business, both human and equine, live and work. And when the Southern toff Henry Cecil, ten- times champion trainer, hired this graduate of Malton and Thirsk, eyebrows popped through the ozone layer. It is a testimony to Cecil's judgement as well as his man's grace under fire that Fallon has maintained a title challenge through what has been a rollercoaster of a first season in the limelight.

Like Lady Montdore, Fallon is perhaps not an intellectual, but he is becoming more streetwise and less naive in his dealings with those in authority and the press, and is learning, for his own sake, to control his volatility with both horses and people. But he has been more than a little mystified by his reception and the reaction - or over-reaction - to some of his mistakes, which have been relatively few. His reply has been the aforementioned tally of winners (which include his first Classics, on Sleepytime and Reams of Verse) and an absolute determination to win the championship if he possibly can.

It should be remembered, though, that he is not a boy wonder, but a man of 32 (five years older than Dettori) who rode his first winner, as an apprentice in Ireland, 13 years ago and who has waited a long enough time through his years with Jimmy FitzGerald and Lynda Ramsden in Yorkshire for his talent to be rewarded with a top job. In the saddle his belief in himself is absolute, and it is a confidence than he transmits to the horses under him, almost daring them not to get their heads in front.

His most obvious assets are his strength, timing and competitiveness in a finish - even Dettori admits that he would rather not see Fallon looming up in full drive position - and, despite the blips (notably Bosra Sham in the Eclipse Stakes) on his record this season, he is also a good judge of pace, an asset that was the result of a wind that turned out not so ill; during the six-month ban for the Webster incident (five years ago) he spent some time in the States and there learned to ride with the clock.

He knows well that he is not yet the complete article, acknowledging that he has yet to attain the tidiness and finesse of someone like Dettori while doing a job that is fast and often joltingly physical. Worryingly for his rivals, he also knows that improvement will come as he gains big- time experience.

Fallon is now odds-on for the title in his first season in racing's premiership, but with six weeks still to go before stumps are drawn he is as aware as anyone that one fall, another ban, and the pendulum will swing again in Dettori's favour. The two are very different, the smooth, dark and handsome Italian, so aware of his assets, and the rawer, less worldly Irishman, blue-eyed and with a charming smile no less marketable than Frankie's.

What they have in common is a respect for each other's ability and tunnel vision on the job in hand, and either would be a worthy champion. Make no mistake, if Dettori, despite his protestations that he is out of the race, gets within striking distance of his rival, he will give no quarter in the quest to reclaim his ascendancy. But maybe, this time, Fallon wants the title more. For him - and his friends in the North - it would be the sweetest riposte of all.