Fallon: the fearlessness and the fallibility

Race for jockeys' title: Former champion closes in on the line as the flak flies and the scars show
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Even in the height of summer, there can be a kick in the wind across Newmarket Heath. By November, punters decamp from the warmth of their cars and joke wearily about the need for insulation. One sweater, two sweaters, sweater and a coat. The season is gone and the racing industry is pleasing itself. Sixteen races over two days, the last chance for trainers to sneak a run into callow two-year-olds or grab some financial insulation of their own when no one else is looking.

Only one title remains unresolved, largely obscured by the dazzle of the lights from the Breeders' Cup and a season dominated by the rivalry between Ireland and the Middle East. On Friday morning, the gap between Kieren Fallon and Kevin Darley in the race for the jockeys' championship is 11, wide enough for the oddsmakers to consider the book as good as closed, not quite enough for either contender to feel the same. If Darley is going to mount one last defence of his title, the ground has to be here at headquarters, in Fallon's backyard.

Not many expected the race to last this deep into the season, but Darley has clung tenaciously to Fallon's coat-tails, never letting up on a ride or allowing the former champion to push himself on to horses that were not rightfully his. When Darley won the championship for the first time at the age of 39, Fallon, three times the champion, said his title was merely "on loan". He had not been best pleased with the suggestion, voiced by Darley's agent, that Sir Michael Stoute should really have employed Darley not Fallon as his stable jockey.

There was never much common ground between them. Darley rode in the North, Fallon in the South, but this season their paths have crossed most days and mutual respect has developed into an unlikely friendship. Sometimes, when Fallon is stripped down and the weighing room is quiet, Darley still looks at the scar which runs from beneath the Irishman's neck and down – like the contours of the River Shannon, as he once described it – to his elbow and wonders how on earth Fallon ever came back. Fallon himself sometimes wonders too.

"I've only got admiration for the man, no matter what people say about him," says Darley. "That scar, I've never seen anything like it. He was in pain when he came back, you could see it, and then all the criticism he's had, it's a credit to him that he's knuckled down and got on with it."

They were laughing the other evening, the pair of them, over dinner at a Sandown hotel. Both had stayed over on the Friday and all day the photographers had been pressing them to pose for a picture together. Fallon is not given to pleasing the press much and Darley has never sought a day's publicity in his life. "Just imagine," Fallon said, "what the press would make of this, the pair of us sharing a candlelit dinner together."

But, in truth, Fallon has not had much to laugh about, not since the day he lay on the turf at Royal Ascot, trampled by two tons of horseflesh and pleading for a medic to stop the pain in his shoulder. "I had no interest in racing, I just wanted the pain to go away," Fallon recalled five months later. It did, slowly, but not before many in a fickle industry had compared the frail figure of the spring with the confident champion who had ridden 200 winners in three successive seasons. Fallon rode Golan to win the 2,000 Guineas for Stoute, but by his own admission was not riding with his usual zest. Owners, never the most patient breed, began to get restless.

The late Lord Carnarvon, the Queen's racing manager, was blisteringly critical of Fallon's ride on Flight of Fancy at York. Fallon, the former stablelad boxing champion to the fore, gently wondered when was the last time my noble lord had ridden competitively, which was not the tug of the forelock racing demands from its servants. When the news finally broke on Wednesday that Fallon would no longer be the stable jockey at Freemason Lodge next year, the only surprise was that the split had been so long delayed.

Friday afternoon began as inauspiciously as the rest of the week for Stoute and Fallon. Funfair, an expensively bred two-year-old by Singspiel, reared up in the stalls and had to be withdrawn. Stoute was summoned to explain himself to the stewards, Fallon went off to seek better luck on Saddler's Quest, trained by Gerard Butler. The engaging young Irishman has heard all the talk about Fallon, knows the rumours, but is concerned only about hiring the best man for the job. If anyone can persuade his talented, but quirky, four-year-old that racing is really not so bad after all, it is Fallon.

"All of a sudden everyone is pointing a finger at Kieren, but they seem to forget some of the brilliant rides he's given horses this year," Butler says. "He does flirt with the bad-boy image he had a while ago, but Kieren has never taken a backward step in his life, no matter what has happened to him. He's had to raise himself from the dead and he's done that and he's on the verge of winning the championship this year. A lot of guys would have taken the easy way out and gone round with a sulky look on their face saying, 'Look what's happened to me'. That's not Kieren. He's back."

Butler knew that for sure when Fallon drove Beauchamp Pilot to victory at Ascot in late September. "No one would have won on him that day except Kieren," he recalls. "He never gave up, pushing, pushing and, boom, won on the line by a neck." Fallon was booked to ride the same horse at Redcar last week, but switched meetings and Darley took the ride instead. Darley won on him too. But it was Fallon who was back in the saddle again to complete the three-year-old's hat-trick at Newmarket yesterday. "The owners wanted it, everyone wants Kieren on their horses," said Butler. Not everyone, according to Stoute. The Aga Khan was a notable absentee from the rollcall of support for Fallon last week.

By nightfall on Friday, Darley had whittled the gap down to nine, so, with honours even yesterday afternoon, the chase will continue to Doncaster next weekend. "If I do win," says Fallon, "it will be a special title because I know what it's taken to be riding again. Last year they knocked Kevin because they thought he'd won it by default, which wasn't fair. This year they've knocked me because of my arm. I can't be disappointed with my season, and I'll win the title again next year."

But there was a weariness in the air over Newmarket late last week which was not all to do with the time of the year. Fallon has now lost the two top jobs in the country, with Stoute and Henry Cecil, and though both jockey and trainer maintain that the alliance will be almost as strong next year, Fallon has long since forfeited the inside rail in his quest for a fair hearing. Fallon in trouble, Fallon the champion. You cannot take one without the other. The danger for Fallon is that racing might start to tire of both.