Racing: Fallon's Ascot masterclass

Sue Montgomery reveals the secrets of the champion's art, perfectly executed on Dr Fong
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The Independent Online
THE BBC recently repeated one of the most unexpectedly watchable television programmes it has produced in the past few years, an acting masterclass given by Michael Caine. In it, Caine was reprising his starring role in Educating Rita to demonstrate his art to a group of drama students. He told them what he was going to do, and why, and how, and then did it so exactly as he had explained he would that it was dumbfounding.

The St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot on Tuesday produced the same feelings of amazement, enjoyment and fascination. Sure, on this occasion there was excitement thrown in too, for it was a nip-and-tuck finish between two high-class horses. But more than that it was a case of quod erat demonstrandum. A few days earlier I had sat at Kieren Fallon's breakfast table while he explained to me how he persuaded horses to run for him. And on Dr Fong the manifestation of his words was, as Caine's had been about his boozy professor, riveting to watch.

The explanations of his technique kept echoing as the race developed. Early on, Dr Fong was nearer last than first as one of the market leaders, Desert Prince, took the lead. "I like to stalk the field, always watching, cover everyone, make my move," Fallon had said. "You haven't always got the horse underneath you to do it, but when you have ... well, it's just a brilliant feeling." Ah, yes. I see.

Into the short Ascot straight; pan back from the leader Desert Prince. Binoculars remove extraneous elements and concentrate vision to a degree that events seem almost to be taking place in slow motion, and Fallon is beginning to stoke up Dr Fong to launch his attack.

Although it might come into the category of stating the obvious to say so, one of the things that makes this man the champion jockey is not just that he rides more good horses than anyone else, but that he persistently wins races on horses who would not have won if they had been ridden by someone else. In other words, he has the knack of persuading the animal underneath him to produce that bit extra; more, perhaps, that it had intended to give.

He understands what many who watch this sport do not, that nearly all horses have to be motivated. "I can feel in a horse when he doesn't want to go and its my job to persuade him he does. Most do need you to work hard to get the best out of them. Even the good ones." Exactly. Fallon is now working hard. Less than two furlongs to go and the one in front is not noticeably stopping.

In the final furlong Dr Fong has hit top gear and horse and jockey are of one forward-thinking intent as they swoop to conquer. "I enjoy being on a horse," Fallon said. "I enjoy getting into his rhythm, getting him to stretch, almost becoming part of him. I ride the whole horse, you see, not just his head. Some jockeys just push at the reins, but when you see that you know there's a lot in that horse they're not getting out." Yup. Absolutely.

Horses are rear-engined; their power and energy comes from the engagement of the mechanism behind the saddle. To instigate it, and keep it going, needs strength, not to be mistaken for brutality.

"I like to throw them their heads to the buckle end of the rein, like Sir Gordon Richards used to, and get behind them. They won't waver from side to side, you use your legs and your body, not your hands, to keep a horse balanced. If you hang on to his head you're just gagging him, stopping the forward movement." Logical, really.

Dr Fong's progress is inexorable, his challenge irresistible. The chestnut colt's mind has been made up and he thrusts his white-bridled head in front of Desert Prince's with a stride to spare. As his jockey knew he would.

But it takes two to make a race. And if Fallon was one of the few who could have driven Dr Fong home, then no one could have put Desert Prince closer under the circumstances than Olivier Peslier. Left exposed in the lead, the poweful bay was taking a tug early in the race; the French champion, with tactful hands and soothing voice, persuaded him to spit out his bit and conserve something - though not quite enough this time - for the business end.

Fallon, like all artists, watches and learns from others. For him, there is no question of who would be the best tutor. "Aaah, Frankie," he said. "There's no one like him. He can get them settled. He's strong. You hardly ever see him get one unbalanced or in the wrong place. And his judgement of pace and timing is the best."

Forget the Oaks; refer now to Dettori's riding of Kayf Tara in the Gold Cup. Some of the skills we saw last week were, as they should be at a top-level festival of sport, truly a masterclass. QED.

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