How long can a man tour the seventh circle of hell before he is devoured by flames? That is the grotesque drama transfixing the Turf as Kieren Fallon returns to Paris tomorrow, hoping to reprise his nerveless exhibition there 12 months ago.
When he won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Hurricane Run, everyone marvelled how a man with so much on his mind could ride with such freedom. Fallon was due to answer bail the very next day to police investigating allegations of corruption, but his insistence in their absurdity seemed to be underlined by the bravura of his riding.
Tomorrow he must summon the same sort of daring from even deeper inside the inferno. In July he was finally charged with conspiracy to defraud, and yesterday his lawyers were attending a preliminary rite in his prosecution at Southwark Crown Court.
After he was charged, the Horseracing Regulatory Authority took the squeamish decision that he should not be permitted to ride in Britain unless and until he cleared his name in court - even though that process could certainly stretch until this time next year.
That judgement raised the stakes enormously. Fortunately for Fallon, the Irish and French authorities took a different view and he has somehow managed to preserve all the conviction of his riding under their jurisdictions. But his lawyers have abandoned efforts to obtain a Kentucky licence for the Breeders' Cup, while the Australians are expected to decide next week whether he can ride Yeats in the Melbourne Cup. As such, tomorrow presents by far the most momentous opportunity for Fallon to demonstrate undiminished mastery over his peers.
Certainly this meeting last year had shown him to be a champion in his pomp. Finding himself at the tail of the field, Fallon sent Hurricane Run down what could easily have turned into a blind alley on the inside. The colt hurtled through and won going away, completing a Group One treble for Fallon, who had also won on Horatio Nelson and Rumplestiltskin for his patrons at Coolmore Stud.
Yet while apparently indestructible as a jockey, as a man he walks a high wire of frailty. He disappeared for the winter, renewing gossip about a temperament that had already demanded treatment in an alcohol clinic. Earlier this week Aidan O'Brien, who trains most of the Coolmore horses, told this newspaper of his fears for a vulnerable man. "When he does get hurt, he's liable to do funny things," he said. "That's part of what makes him so brilliant, that little bit of madness."
The stage is set, then, for another compelling chapter. For if Hurricane Run is to become the first Arc winner to retain the prize since Alleged in 1978, he will surely require another tour de force from his rider.
Hurricane Run looks particularly vulnerable in a field of eight. Though he did win the King George in midsummer, he has developed a lethargic habit of running in snatches, and it was only a strong gallop last year that enabled Fallon to release the sling so dramatically. And, despite the lack of numbers, this is a better race than last year. True, it lacks the Derby winner, Sir Percy, and those outstanding fillies, Alexandrova and Mandesha, who instead provide a delectable hors d'oeuvre in the Prix de l'Opera. Alexandrova, or indeed Dylan Thomas, might well have run in other hands, but O'Brien has not been permitted to take on his patrons' French champion.
Even so, this looks a vintage Arc, and there are still more formidable forces in the race than Fallon. There is Christophe Soumillon, the flamboyant local champion who won five races on trials day. And there is André Fabre, who has won the race six times and saddles not only Hurricane Run but Soumillon's mount, Shirocco, and the progressive three-year-old, Rail Link.
With no source of pace, Soumillon could dictate on Shirocco, a less complicated ride than Hurricane Run. Both shaped well in their rehearsal over course and distance, while Rail Link and the British runner, Sixties Icon, benefit from a munificent weight allowance.
Sixties Icon's quality has been obscured by the rabble he outclassed in the St Leger, and he will not mind rain. In contrast, soft ground would represent uncharted terrain for the only runner with the potential to win easily. Deep Impact is so revered in his homeland that 187 Japanese photographers have applied for access to his coronation here. He arrives with a much bigger reputation than El Condor Pasa, who nearly beat Montjeu in 1999.
But nothing will supplant Fallon at the top of the bill. His other rides include Holy Roman Emperor, Moss Vale in the Prix de l'Abbaye and of course Alexandrova. For the sport's most incendiary talent, it is a day smouldering with promise.