Racing: Fallon survives his rough ride

Kieren Fallon is joint leader of the the jockeys' championship thanks to a riding style of singular strength. Richard Edmondson talked to him
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One of the most outstanding buildings in Dalham, a painted hamlet on the Suffolk and Cambridgeshire border, is an old chapel that has been converted into living premises. Given this ecclesiastical setting, you could be paralysed when the owner answers the arched door. By reputation, Kieren Fallon is becoming the Beelzebub of the turf, a man who would devour babies and tip grandmothers out of their wheelchairs. The problem is he is not like that at all.

Kieren Francis Fallon has been the naughty boy of British racing for some time now. His general disciplinary record is one of the longest players around, and he has been involved in several specific incidents that have achieved the high profile of Mount Rushmore. Yet the impression remains that many are looking for him, and never more so than during the first year he is about to complete since the announcement that he was to ride for Henry Cecil's Warren Place yard.

Henry Richard Amherst Cecil is by most folk's standards a bit of a toff. Kieren Fallon isn't and he does not fall into many racing people's idea as the sort of chap who should be executing one of the most prestigious posts in the sport.

The son of a taxi driver from Crusheen, Co Clare, Fallon has pursued the first part of his career among the (perceived) Satanic mills of northern racing. When he rides a horse, prettiness is not at the forefront of his priorities. There are those who do not like this package, and it is not melodramatic to suggest Fallon has been the victim of soft-core racism among some trainers and gentlemen of the press this season. "Since I came down south it's been a bit like the little wounded fish in the big sea and the sharks trying to catch him," Fallon says. "As soon as I arrived they were betting on how long I would last.

"I'm not depressed about it because I'm riding plenty of winners, but I don't understand why the press are getting stuck into me all the time when there are other jockeys with good jobs like me who don't have the same record. They don't get slated."

The record so far this season has Fallon and Frankie Dettori locked together on 121 winners. Dettori has a five-day suspension to come and the suspicion is that if Fallon had been disqualified from two races in a single afternoon, as the Italian was at Goodwood on Saturday, he would be swinging from the dungeon manacles until his beard tip touched the damp cobbles.

Fallon's total has been compiled with a legitimate violence from the saddle that makes you pray never to come back as a racehorse. Fallon says he tries hard when he is riding. Further explanation illustrates just how hard. "I switch completely when I go out to ride in a race and I always go through a race before I ride in it," he says. "I'll know the sort of race the other jockeys will ride and I'll be out there stalking my prey and watching who is travelling the best.

"When I started at Kevin Prendergast's [in Ireland] the head lad told me the whole game is a rat race with people stabbing you in the back and trying to cut your throat and only the biggest rat will win. He was right.

"The jockeys all have a laugh and a joke and a drink and party together. John Egan and Jimmy Fortune are my best friends and then there's Lindsay Charnock and John Carroll, but when we're out there, there's not a chance in hell we're worrying about each other. We're out there to finish in front.

"When you're in a race, and especially when it gets tight, you're out there for yourself and you don't give a shit who's besides you, whether they go down or stand."

Fallon, it becomes clear, has been fashioned by his arduous upbringing. His first job in Britain was for Jimmy Fitzgerald, who is not well known for handing out sweeties to his jockeys when they arrive for work. Fallon retains great fondness for his fellow Irishman and on the one day of the week he is not riding work for Cecil, a Sunday, he travels to Norton Grange at Malton to assist his old boss.

After Fitzgerald, the jockey linked up with Jack and Lynda Ramsden, others who have a firm, and unflattering, reputation in the sport. Fallon rejects the notion of the Ramsdens as knaves and the thought he might have been under the pressure of the Marianas Trench when the money was down. "The only pressure I felt was that the stewards were after me," he says.

"Before I went to the Ramsdens I used to believe what I read about the big gambles and stopping horses, that they were possibly the biggest crooks in the game. Then I rode for them for a good few years on some badly handicapped horses and I was never asked to pull one once. The people in authority wanted to prove the Ramsdens were dishonest but because they're not they looked for the next best thing: their jockey."

Fallon, it must be said, was not unhelpful in the search. If the jockey is culpable, the charge has to be of gross naivete. Several of the Fallon's transgressions have been for striking horses, which may be correctionally effective in the solitude of a morning work-out, but is hardly the most appealing sight on a racecourse. The rider does not appear to make the distinction. "I've done one or two stupid things over the years, losing my temper with horses," he says, "but with some of them, if you don't kick them, or hit them or chastise them they're going to get away with murder and become unrideable. Especially with young horses, you've got to give them a slap like you might with a child."

Fallon cannot, however, find excuse for his most infamous moment on the racetrack, at Beverley in September 1992. Stuart Webster won a race on Sailormaite that day, but the celebrations were truncated when he was yanked out of the saddle by Fallon. The pair later engaged in hand-to- hand combat, a contest which Webster lost by a nose, a broken one.

It was Fallon's belief that he had done his weighing-room mates some sort of favour here by reprimanding a rider who is not known as the best steerer in the business. The Irishman, once again naively, considered he had administered street justice. The law that counts kept him out of the saddle for six months, the longest suspension of recent decades. "I'd rather not speak about that any more," Fallon now says. "I don't see much of him these days. Thank God."

Old contacts are indeed thin on the ground as Fallon has only recently moved into his new home. It shows. There are trousers, shirts and ties enough to stage a car boot sale piled on to a single chair, combs and lotions on the mantelpiece (Fallon likes to fiddle with his crown despite the fact that he appears to hold no truck with modern hairstyling techniques) and a gathering topsoil of bills and newspapers. The main constituent of this is old Liverpool Daily Posts. These are of particular interest to Fallon's pal and driver, Tony, who comes from Scotland Road, like Cilla, the nation's mother. My Mum would say the whole place needed a woman's touch.

Fallon himself is well muscled for a jockey, the owner of a gymnast's physique which hints at why his mounts are not able to employ a reverse gear. His eyes are blue and on the left cheekbone a lateral scar enhances the image of a man not to mess with. It is a little disappointing to discover this mark was not caused by a tiff with the local Hell's Angel chapter but rather a chestnut called Evichstar. When Fallon speaks he drawls, and he is enormously laid-back until a bee or wasp enters his territory. Then he goes bonkers.

There were several punters in the same state after the jockey's effort on Bosra Sham in this year's Eclipse Stakes. The filly went into a cul- de-sac and her trainer went into a rage. His words of admonishment were transmitted through the newspapers. "He wasn't really that critical, you know," Fallon says. "He said she was the best filly in the race and would have won with different tactics. We didn't argue about it or even discuss it. I don't know whether she would have won or not.

"But we're having a great year winning races like the Oaks, the Guineas and a Sussex Stakes. For me it's unbelievable. I just hope it continues like this, even if the press do get annoyed."

Later in July, at Glorious Goodwood, Fallon received the garland for the Sussex Stakes on Ali-Royal, but found it turning to poison ivy and tightening on his throat 30 minutes later. The rider was banned for five days for a rather injudicious effort on Memorise. "That wasn't terrible riding because the horse was a difficult ride and he was hanging badly," the jockey says. "I was out of control, the whole thing was out of my hands.

"The stewards were banging on about my irresponsible riding, revving me up. I still get revved with them, but I'm a bit better because I realise how costly it's been over the years. At that Goodwood inquiry I was giving my evidence and there was one steward who wasn't even listening. He was picking his nails."

The following day Fallon won the Richmond Stakes on Daggers Drawn, the favourite for the 1998 2,000 Guineas. During the course of the race the colt's name had looked quite apposite. "As soon as those gates open you're not thinking about what the press are going to write, but something strange happened to me when I was sitting behind the wall [of horses] on Daggers Drawn and I had everything covered," Fallon says. "They were in a C shape in front of me and for the first time in my life, and I hope it never happens again, the thought went through my mind what the headlines would be the next day if I didn't get out of there.

"The gaps come for you nine times out of 10 when there is plenty of pace. If they canter around and then sprint they usually finish how they were positioned at the two-furlong marker, but with Daggers Drawn I could have sat for another furlong if I'd liked.

"People don't seem to realise how quickly that is all happening and they think it's so easy. This job is not like being a carpenter or a builder because not everybody can learn to ride. Racing is very competitive and tough. Lots of people have tried and failed at this job."

Kieren Fallon at least will not fail for lack of trying. The punishment and publicity he receives continues to be out of all proportion to natural justice. If Fallon cheated at patience the SAS would probably come crashing through the window. It will, however, take tougher men than them to break him.