Racing: Fallon's first heralds ultimate redemption

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IT MAY have to be squeezed into the half-time interval of international football these days, but the Derby retains a grip on the popular imagination, not least when it delivers a finish like yesterday's, with the winner, Oath, and the second, Daliapour, duelling all the way up the straight before Henry Cecil's colt, in the green and white pyjama colours of The Thoroughbred Corporation, prevailed.

Perhaps more uplifting than the success of the chunk of pedigree horseflesh which Oath represents was the ultimate redemption of the jockey Kieren Fallon, once the bad boy of British racing, before the summons to be Cecil's stable jockey brought focus to his undoubted talents. Involved in various scrapes down the years, most notoriously when pulling a fellow jockey off a horse after a finish, an act for which he received a lengthy ban, Fallon was also dragged into the High Court during the Lynda Ramsden-The Sporting Life libel trial, and only last week found himself in hot water for swearing at an ambulance crew before the start of a race. Oath indeed.

Whatever his capacity for finding trouble, the Irishman's first Derby win confirmed his ability to get a horse into a good position and then make the most of it at the business end of a race. By winning the Oaks on Friday, and the Derby yesterday, Fallon transcended the mere accumulation of winners that brings the jockeys' championship, and placed himself into an indelible chapter of racing history. He now has three of this year's Classics to his name after winning the 1,000 Guineas on Cecil's Wince.

And yet to many observers, Oath seemed to have blown his chances by becoming fractious in the excessively long preliminaries. The much-forecast rain had held off, but as race time approached a thick blanket of grey cloud swept over Epsom on the stiff breeze. The effect was to produce a suffocating wave of heat that did the horses in the parade ring no good at all. The favourite, Dubai Millennium, became edgy and broke into what was almost a dressage trot, tossing his head around as the oppressiveness of the occasion and the burden of responsibility got to him. By the time he had got down to the start, the Godolphin talking horse was covered in a mucky sweat. But by this time, all the money was on, all to be lost. There is more to winning a Derby than saddling a horse with an opportunist name.

Those who had tried to work out the winner had to sift through a spring of inconclusive trials, wet weather, disappointing work in training and various injury setbacks had afflicted most of the 16 runners who went to post. With the week's turbulent weather throwing pre-race calculations into a further spin, form guides had come to look as impenetrable as an optician's eye chart. The knowledge that the last four Derby winners had gone off at punter-hostile odds - 20-1 High Rise (1998), Benny the Dip 11-1 (1997), Shaamit 12-1 (1996) and Lammtarra 14-1 (1995) - proved equally intimidating to hopes of finding a sure bet. Indeed, anyone who had arrived at the course claiming to know the winner either had the sole franchise on the distribution of lucky heather, or had been recently released from restraint by men in white coats.

Omens from the early races proved too numerous to help - a double for the jockey Richard Quinn, and one for Jimmy Fortune, and victories for two trainers with Derby runners, Ed Dunlop and David Elsworth, all looking for their first win in the Blue Riband of British racing. This left punters with one last factor to consider - stamina.

The unique contours of the Epsom course, replicated in part at Chester and Lingfield, bring both balance and staying power into play. Oath had demonstrated both qualities when winning the Dee Stakes at Chester last month, while Daliapour, the runner up, had raced both at Epsom and Lingfield in his preparation. Add in the proximity of a heaving crowd, the noise of a funfair and some intrusive music, and the event itself must become a real ordeal for both horses and jockeys.

"We knew he'd stay," Cecil said, albeit after the race, but some punters had at least been able to drop those horses who needed the assistance of the AA to get the trip, and those who merely stayed like mothers-in-law, in their own time.

The same qualities of long- distance stamina can now be ascribed to Kieren Fallon himself. There was no Dettori-style show-boating as Fallon passed the post, no standing up in the stirrups and certainly no wild snogging of Channel Four's horse- borne interviewer Lesley Graham, just a wide, almost disbelieving smile of satisfaction. Within 20 minutes of the race finishing the rain swept in to finish the day on a wintry note, but Fallon's incredible summer may only just be beginning.