Racing: Tight in the title race as Fallon surges on

Three winners at Nottingham yesterday took Kieren Fallon six ahead of Frankie Dettori in the race for the Flat jockeys' championship. Their rivalry revives images of another tightly fought contest 10 seasons ago. Then, as now, writes Greg Wood, raw power contrasted with style in a duel between the country's two top riders that lasted until the final day of the season.
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It is exactly 10 years since one question both defined and divided punters throughout Britain. As Pat Eddery and Steve Cauthen scrapped for the jockeys' championship in a title race which came down to the final day of the season, anyone who follows the horses was either for Pat or for Steve. You did not need to have money riding on the outcome, and for many the choice was one from the heart, beyond explanation. One thing, however, was for certain - neutrality was not an option.

And now it may be happening again, as Kieren Fallon and Frankie Dettori tug the backers in the betting shops and on the racecourse terraces into opposing camps. Just as in 1987, when Cauthen secured the title with just one of the season's 3,000-odd races left to run, the two men involved have taken very different paths to the top.

Back then, Eddery was the grafter, who had ridden his first winner as an apprentice in 1969 and climbed the ladder without missing a rung. Cauthen, as elegant in the saddle as his rival was forceful, had won the American Triple Crown on Affirmed as a teenager, before walking straight into gilt- edged jobs in Britain, first with Robert Sangster and then with Henry Cecil.

If you wanted Eddery then, you will probably want Fallon now. The taxi- driver's son from Co Clare is equal parts talent and determination, and gets the best from his mounts whether they like it or not.

The six-month suspension he received five years ago for hauling another jockey from his saddle would have finished many riders. Fallon not only returned, but he returned as a better jockey, having spent his long holiday riding work in the States.

For Cauthen, meanwhile, read Dettori, the son of a champion jockey, nurtured almost from adolescence by Luca Cumani, and the winner of two Group Ones at Ascot on the same afternoon when he was two months short of his 20th birthday.

Just three weeks ago, the Italian was long-odds on to regain the title he won for the first time in 1994, and lost last year - to the evergreen Eddery - only after losing several weeks' work with a broken elbow. Now, though, it is Dettori who trails, with 138 winners to Fallon's 145 and the gap just will not close.

Last week Dettori rode three winners in an afternoon - Fallon rode five the same day. Yesterday, at Nottingham, Dettori rode a double -again Fallon went one better, recording a 41-1 treble. The sequence in the first four races yesterday was Dettori, Fallon, Dettori, Fallon. If this is how they are riding with eight weeks to go, who knows what the final fortnight will bring.

But with a lead, and the knowledge that Dettori will be banned for six days from Sunday, Fallon is now the deserved favourite, as even Matty Cowing, his rival's agent, admits.

"Kieren's in the hot seat at the moment," Cowing said yesterday, "six in front, and we've got six days, he's looking good and he's a very good jockey, no doubt about that. But you never know what's round the corner in life, and we'll have some good trainers, like Luca Cumani and Ian Balding, to back up John Gosden and Godolphin."

The title push is a team effort, and for Cowing, it is always "us", not "him" (Dave Pollington, Fallon's agent, is the same). He shares the frustration when a possible winner goes begging, as several trained by David Loder, a frequent employer of Dettori earlier this season, have done recently.

"We've got a lot of horses to ride," Cowing says, "and it's just been that whenever he's wanted us, we can't ride them, so like any trainer, he goes for the best jockey he can get." And that, of course, will often mean Kieren Fallon, most recently on Golden Fortune, one of yesterday's winners.

But it was the handicap which preceded the St Leger at Doncaster on Saturday which best summed up the way the title race has started to turn. Fallon was on Russian Music, an 8-1 chance, able but exposed and nothing more than a fair each-way chance at best. Dettori was aboard Yorkie George, an improving three-year-old and preferred by the market at 6-1.

But while Frankie was still hacking with a furlong to run, Dettori was stuck behind a wall of horses, unwilling to force his way through and risk yet another suspension. Fallon, meanwhile, was sailing down the outside with a perfectly judged challenge, and with the Irishman doing the persuading there was no sign of Russian Music's tendency to idle after hitting the front.

"That was a great ride," Pollington said yesterday," and Midnight Line at Doncaster last week was another. I think he's probably 2lb or 3lb better than anyone else, you only have to look in the back of the Racing Post and you'll see that if you'd backed everything he's ridden with a pound this year, you'd be pounds 117 up. That tells a story."

The moral of which is that Dettori (level stakes loss on the season: pounds 38) is winning on horses which start with every chance, while Fallon, riding like a man possessed, is doing the business on both favourites and outsiders. That, at the moment, is inching him towards the title.

Yet after a contest with more twists than 20 hands of pontoon, few would care to bet that the final cards have now been dealt. "You only have to stand in a betting shop," Cowing said yesterday, "and you'll hear the Kieren fans and the Frankie fans." Unless, of course, the championship goes all the way to a murky Monday afternoon at Folkestone in November, in which case you will be lucky to force your way through the door.

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