Kieren Fallon was last night at the centre of a sensational legal attempt to prevent him riding one of the leading fancies for the world's most famous Flat race. The six-times champion jockey, whose spellbinding career has been defined in equal measure by achievement and controversy, will not find out until 10.30am today whether a High Court judge will grant an injunction preventing him from riding Recital in the Investec Derby at Epsom tomorrow.
Fallon, who said the situation was an "innocent misunderstanding", had agreed a contract to ride Native Khan in all his races. On Monday, however, the horse's owners learnt that Fallon would abandon their colt in the Derby in favour of Recital, trained at Ballydoyle in Ireland for his former employers, at Coolmore Stud. They have also booked him to ride Wonder Of Wonders, strongly fancied for the Investec Oaks, the fillies' equivalent to the Derby, this afternoon.
For Fallon, the two Ballydoyle horses together represented far and away the biggest opportunity to restore his standing as a big-race jockey since he ended a notorious series of suspensions in September 2009. He was suitably devastated, then, when summoned to the High Court yesterday to face a legal challenge from Native Khan's owner Ibrahim Araci, whose lawyers argued they had been "badly let down" by Fallon.
It was said that Fallon had obtained a competitive advantage by riding Native Khan in earlier races. The contract is understood to have stipulated a liability of £30,000 in liquidated damages, should Fallon fail to honour its terms. The court yesterday heard debate whether that clause was sufficient to cover his defection to Recital. Araci's lawyers suggested that Fallon was retained as a means of tying up his talent, as an asset otherwise available to rival horses. They have already secured as his replacement another jockey with three Derby winners to his name, in Johnny Murtagh.
Both sides will have the option of appealing, once learning Mr Justice MacDuff's decision. That raises the possibility that Fallon could be riding Wonder Of Wonders at Epsom even as his eligibility to ride in the Derby, 24 hours later, is being debated in the Court of Appeal.
Even by Fallon's standards, that would represent a fairly breathtaking melodrama. Of course, this is hardly the first time he has required a team of lawyers. In 2007, he faced a charge of conspiracy to defraud at the Old Bailey. Along with all the other defendants, however, he was absolved by the judge, who directed the jury to dismiss the case even before the defence was heard. It seemed typical of Fallon's career, however, that he should have fallen straight from frying pan to fire. Within hours it emerged that he had failed a drugs test when riding in France that summer –for the second time in barely a year. He was duly suspended for 18 months, meaning that he had in effect lost four seasons of his pomp when finally returning to the fray.
Fallon's reunion this weekend, with John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore, was viewed within the sport purely as a pragmatic measure of his expertise in this particular crucible. But he would undoubtedly view success in an eighth Epsom Classic, whether on Wonder Of Wonders or Recital, as a way of discharging a debt.
Magnier had stood by his man when the British authorities unwisely suspended his licence, in deference to police misapprehensions about race-fixing. But the Coolmore partners lost patience when Fallon, once exonerated, was promptly banned for the positive drug test. Recital, in his trial at Leopardstown last month, was only his second mount for Ballydoyle since his return in September 2009.
Following the resignation last autumn of Murtagh, however, the Co Tipperary stable has been using the best available, above all in big races overseas. And while Fallon is not getting any younger, at 46, his experience round Epsom proved too precious an asset to neglect.
A similar view will be taken today by many of those betting shop punters who never forswore their fealty to "King Kieren", even when the police had drenched his name in suspicion. For Wonder Of Wonders has outstanding prospects, even though she has run only once outside maidens and must now beat two Classic winners.
By Kingmambo out of a sister to Galileo, and half-sister to Sea The Stars, Wonder Of Wonders was born for days like this and will duly stand out as a physical specimen. It was admittedly the manner of her trial at Chester, rather than its substance, that bellowed "Oaks winner". But the antecedents and supervision of this filly together create an irresistible sense that she is top-class.
Blaise Chorus – a maiden, but reckoned good enough to follow the winner here in the hope of another podium finish – broke free round the tight bends at Chester, putting all but one of her pursuers in sudden trouble. Only Wonder Of Wonders proved immune to the bias of the race, picking up smartly to run down her target under minimal pressure and win going away. And experience tells us that a horse with this kind of profile is almost guaranteed to progress again at Epsom, in the care of Aidan O'Brien.
The Ballydoyle trainer's three other runners include Misty For Me, game winner of the Irish 1,000 Guineas. She had clearly failed to run her race behind Blue Bunting in the Newmarket version, but her maternal genes make it hard to be adamant that she will last the extra half-mile. In contrast, Blue Bunting apparently got away with her minimum distance at Newmarket, having long been considered more of an Oaks type. She looks a solid favourite but there just remains a nagging sense that the Guineas slightly fell into her lap, the protagonists floundering in the headwind as Blue Bunting came scuttling up the rail.
Havant, sixth there, will also prefer this distance but may not relish coming downhill even on watered ground. Zain Al Boldan won the Lingfield trial with bewildering ease for a filly that had previously won a Folkestone photo off 73, and perhaps the others didn't set much of a standard on the day. Siren's Song has come a long way quickly, however, and can outrun big odds if inexperience does not catch her out.
The other Group One race on the card, the Investec Coronation Cup, has engrossing quality despite pathetic quantity. O'Brien finally gets to saddle St Nicholas Abbey at Epsom, a year after the colt was supposed to win the Derby. He looked back to his best at Chester, but his chequered history makes him a dubious proposition at short odds against the reliable Midday. Only beaten in a photo by Sariska in their Oaks, two years ago, Midday has somehow avoided colts previously, but it is they who should be grateful.
As for the Derby itself, it looks as though the hot favourite should be fit to take his chance for the monarch. Carlton House was one of 13 final declarations, after emerging from a morning canter with no immediate reaction in the ankle swelling that caused such alarm during the week. Few imagined that the panic over the royal colt could be relegated to a mere footnote by the eve of the race.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Wonder Of Wonders (4.05 Epsom) Must improve on the bare form of her Chester trial but looks all class – in pedigree, physique and rate of progress.
Extraterrestrial (2.10 Epsom) Had plunged down the weights before bolting up at Thirsk last time and remains competitively treated off his revised mark.
One to watch
Ferruccio (James Fanshawe) Is steadily improving and his commitment when narrowly thwarted at Nottingham on Sunday promised better beyond a mile.
Where the money's going
William Hill saw eve-of-race support for Izzi Top in the Investec Oaks, going 20-1 from 33-1.