Fallon: Beyond the last-chance saloon

The six-times champion jockey returns to the saddle today after an 18-month ban for drug abuse. Chris McGrath on why you shouldn't bet against him pulling off yet another comeback
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The Independent Online

He will be restored to public scrutiny at Lingfield this afternoon much as he left it, in the gluttonous gaze of the cameras. But the last time the world tried to read these same, pale features – supposedly in a moment of relief and vindication, outside the Old Bailey – none perceived the latent despair. Few, then, will presume to know the scope or substance of this latest renewal. As he acknowledges himself: "It is my last shot."

Admiration for his riding, and regard for his fortitude, together ensure that the sport Kieren Fallon bestrode six times as champion jockey will salute his return to a British racecourse for the first time in more than three years. But no flashbulb, no snap judgement, can disclose a man whose strengths and frailties are woven in the complexity of genius.

At 44, one of the great jockeys returns in the knowledge that his pomp has been squandered through ill luck, and worse judgement. No cat has ever consumed eight lives quite so unequivocally.

The seventh, infamously, was the ham-fisted prosecution that required Fallon to answer corruption charges in the Old Bailey. The grandiose setting proved in shocking contrast with the credulous misapprehensions sustaining the case against him. In the event, the judge threw it out without even hearing the defence.

Contentiously, his British licence had been suspended as soon as he was charged, in July 2006. In his homeland, the authorities proved less squeamish – or more respectful of the principles of equity, at any rate – and the Irishman was able to continue riding in other jurisdictions.

John Magnier and his partners, who retained Fallon as their jockey, stood by their man even when, later that year, he was banned for six months after failing a drugs test at Chantilly during the summer. Strangely, hardly anyone noted that the sample had been taken just two days after the withdrawal of his British licence. Had they done so, perhaps they would have glimpsed the corrosion within.

Fallon first sought treatment at an alcohol clinic in the winter of 2002. Now, as a scandalised outcast, he was more vulnerable than ever to dangerous succour. When completing his ban, in June 2007, he was so trapped by the release of cocaine that he would fail a second drugs test in France only weeks later.

This would not emerge, however, until the trial collapsed. Only Fallon, surely, could have bookended his Old Bailey ordeal so incorrigibly. On the eve of the trial, he had won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Dylan Thomas; the day after it was all over, it was confirmed that he had vaulted from frying pan to fire.

He was banned for 18 months, and even his greatest admirers wondered if this was one exasperation too many – a ninth life, not an eighth. Respected observers pronounced that there could be no way back now. The final chapter of his melodrama had been written.

But the man himself insisted otherwise, telling this newspaper that he would turn the ban to his advantage, and restore equilibrium to his life. "Sometimes good things can come out of bad," he said. "I can come back from this as a better, stronger person." He noted that he had been a very late starter, and that Lester Piggott had been 54 when he returned after serving time in prison. Garrett Gomez, in America, was another inspiration. He did not ride for 21 months after entering rehabilitation in 2003, but had since become one of the world's top riders.

Fallon also hoped to lay the foundations for a later training career, but ultimately his reunion with an old ally, Sir Michael Stoute, proved in a lower key. Simply by exercising horses every morning, back on the Newmarket gallops, Fallon has kept his eye on the ball as a rider, and he has meanwhile proved true to his word out of the saddle.

He spent a month at a Betty Ford clinic in Palm Springs. As a condition of his return to the fold, he has since agreed to frequent, random drug tests by the regulators; likewise, to undergo psychotherapy. He has kept himself in physical trim, too, hiring a personal trainer and tormenting other jockeys on the squash court.

It is already clear that trainers are prepared to endorse all these efforts. If he proves as good as ever, after all, that should cover a multitude of sins. Moreover, the racing community shared a mutual sense of indignation over the farce at the Old Bailey.

Gerard Butler, one of the trainers who has booked Fallon at Kempton this evening, is adamant. "It's very good for racing," he said. "Kieren coming back will ignite things. We need superstars very, very badly. Please God, he gets back into a groove and by the end of the season he will show what we have missed for the last couple of years. I'm sure he'll be quite apprehensive going into the first race, but within minutes it will be as though he's never been away."

In a critical sense, the last thing Fallon can afford is to be exactly the same as before. "I've changed," he insists. "I'm happy, mentally and physically better than where I left off." He is even trying to forget his bitterness over the inept powers who still police the sport. As he memorably observes: "There's no point letting them live rent-free in your head."

The prodigal returns with a severe haircut: gone are those lawless locks, flowing under his helmet. The austerity of his look makes that slowly spreading smile even more of a relief than before. He can hardly have shed every insecurity. When he enters the changing room at Lingfield, he expects to feel like a nervous boy on his first day at school. But as his masterpiece on Dylan Thomas testified, it is on horseback that he has always found tranquillity. To that extent, you can hardly say his exile ends today. At his best, as at his worst, Fallon will always be something of an exile.

Fallon angel: The roller-coaster career of a champion

22 February 1965: Kieren Fallon born, son of a plasterer, in Crusheen, Co Clare.

19 June 1984: rides first winner, Piccadilly Lord, at Navan

14 September 1994: pulls fellow jockey, Stuart Webster, out of the saddle after passing the post at Beverley; banned for six months.

Winter 1994: Spends his suspension riding trackwork in the United States, and returns much improved rider. Becomes a leading rider on the northern circuit.

4 May 1997: Now stable jockey to Henry Cecil, he rides Sleepytime to win the 1,000 Guineas and ends the season as champion jockey for the first time.

February 1998: Wins £70,000 in damages from The Sporting Life after an allegation that he had ridden Top Cees dishonestly when beaten in a Newmarket handicap.

July 1999: Sacked by Cecil on grounds never specified; promptly joins Sir Michael Stoute.

November 2003: Seals sixth riding championship

2 March 2004: Eases Ballinger Ridge, clear leader in a race at Lingfield, and is caught on the line.

1 September 2004: Arrested by police investigating allegations of race-fixing.

3 July 2006: Charged with conspiracy to defraud punters.

29 November 2006: Six-month ban for failing drugs test in France.

7 October 2007: On the eve of his trial at the Old Bailey, wins Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Dylan Thomas.

7 December 2007: Trial for conspiracy collapses.

8 December 2007: Revealed to have tested positive to cocaine a second time in France that summer – riding a horse named, of all things, Myboycharlie.

February 2008: Having been banned for 18 months, takes up offer to work in Stoute's yard.

4 September 2009: Returns to the saddle with rides at Lingfield and Kempton.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Simple Rhythm (5.30 Catterick) Claimed out of a seller last time, but even in defeat showed herself back in form that makes her looked well treated now – and her new trainer, John Ryan, is very competent to take advantage.

Next best

Promise Maker (5.0 Catterick) Excellent second when stepped up in trip over the same course and distance last week, and clearly handicapped to take a bit of catching if she can match that.

One to watch

Benefit Game (Jonjo O'Neill) Only fourth at Hereford on Wednesday, but lost ground jumping badly left and warrants perseverance away from right-handed tracks.

Where the money's going

Rainbow View is Ladbrokes' evens favourite for the Matron Stakes at Leopardstown tomorrow.