Racing: A calmer Fallon confirms arrival

The champion Flat jockey talks to Sue Montgomery about his more relaxed attitude now that the pressure to prove himself is off
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The Independent Online
WITH THE Flat racing season coming up to its half-way mark at next week's Royal Ascot it is already clear that the reigning champion jockey, Kieren Fallon, will, barring cataclysmic injury, be crowned for the second time in November. But there are still some puzzling aspects to the scenario.

Why, for instance, did a fair proportion of the sport's pundits refused to acknowledge last year that the man leading the title race was actually the best exponent of his craft? And why did it take Fallon, with his highly developed will to win and extraordinary empathy with the equine species, so long to reach the pinnacle? At the age of 33, he is no boy wonder, as were the likes of Dettori, Cauthen, Eddery and Piggott before him.

The answers are probably inextricably linked and lie within the nature of the man himself. Irish-born like so many talented horsemen, he plied his trade for most of his career on the northern circuit, a bread-and- butter round of business not exactly despised but a world away from the wealth and fashion of Suffolk and Berkshire.

And in those days he was, by his own admission, a bit wild. Which may be something of an understatement if you consider that, as well as picking up the usual punishments for riding infringements that are part of a jockey's lot, he was, at various times, banned or fined for violent conduct, verbal abuse, misleading the Jockey Club stewards and hitting a horse over the head.

It was two years ago that Fallon took his finger off the self-destruct button. It was a close-run thing, but the softly-spoken son of a Co. Clare taxi driver finally seems a man at peace with himself and at ease with the world.

"I have Jimmy FitzGerald, who I joined as an apprentice from Ireland to thank," he said. "He took me aside one day and pointed out that the only loser was going to be me and that I was the only one who could do anything about it. My attitude and behaviour was costing me not only winners and money, but also professional credibility."

Underneath the volatility was an innate talent that could not be overlooked. Fallon not only has the hunger and the technique but the ability to transmit something extra to the animals underneath him. Call it a will to win if you like; it is certainly a will to run, even though the discomfort barrier. He can make up horses' minds for them.

By the end of the 1996 season Fallon had put his career back on the rails to such an extent that he finished third in the jockeys' table on 136 winners, a virtually unheard-of total for one northern-based. He had started riding regularly for some of the big Newmarket yards and at the end of the year acquired the plum job as No 1 to Henry Cecil's mighty stable.

Plain sailing from there on in? Not at all, just more pressure, more stress. Eyebrows had popped through the ozone layer at the thought that Cecil had hired this graduate of Malton and Thirsk. A bit of rough, what? But this time Fallon stayed smooth.

It was a testimony to the trainer's judgement as well as his man's new- found grace under fire that Fallon maintained a title challenge through what proved a roller coaster of a first season in the limelight. The jockey bagged his first two Classics - the 1,000 Guineas on Sleepytime and the Oaks on Reams Of Verse - but notoriously lost the ride on another star filly, Bosra Sham, after a misjudged ride. And earlier this year came more adverse publicity when his integrity as a rider was called into question during a libel case.

Again, Fallon kept his own counsel and rode the storm. "I can cope now," he said. "I have finally learned to relax. And that means I can enjoy it all more. Although I won those big races last year, I think it would be a greater thrill if I won them now. The pressure did not allow me to enjoy the moments as much as I should have done at the time. I just wanted to get on to the next day and prove more.

"I was an outsider, a stranger in the south, and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to have failed. I just had to win that championship. With the opportunities I had been given, nothing else would have done."

Fallon thrives on winning, sure. But sometimes that is almost a bonus on top of the sheer pleasure he gets from the act of riding. With him, it is almost a fusion of identities.

"I just like being on a horse, he said, "whether it's riding work, or just riding in the country. But when you're racing you get the ultimate feeling, the rhythm and flow of the race, getting deep into your horse, getting him to stretch, becoming one with him."

One of Fallon's trademarks is that late, perfectly timed swoop so beloved of punters. "I love to ride them from the back, get them to switch off so they hardly know they're racing. Then I can stalk the field, cover everyone, make my move. When you have got the right horse under you, one than not only can do it but wants to do it, it is sheer pleasure. Like when I won at York last month on that lovely mare Bollin Joanne.

"I like to throw them their heads, on the buckle end of the rein. I ride the horse, you see, the whole horse, not just its head. Anyway, you use your legs and your body to keep a horse balanced, not your hands. Some jockeys just push the reins and when you see that you know they could be getting so much more from that horse. Willie Carson is always criticising me for not getting hold of their heads, but to me that's gagging them, stopping the forward movement. He says I'd look the part better if I did. But I'd rather be in the winners' enclosure."

Fallon, with wife Julie and young daughter Natalie, is putting down roots in Newmarket with the imminent purchase of a substantial property, and his smile - no less charming than Dettori's - is becoming more frequent. "I would not have fitted into this job a few years ago, when I was in the wrong frame of mind. But now I can make it work, and I'm enjoying it." The man is no longer driven by demons, just healthy ambition.

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