Fallon: 'I want to be champion again. I never give up'
Kieren Fallon won his last jockeys' title eight years ago. Now, against all odds, he is after a seventh. He talks to Chris McGrath
It is scarcely unprecedented, to find him muttering about the incompetent excesses of authority.
This time, however, Kieren Fallon does not stand out from his peers because he is angrier, or feels somehow victimised. Instead, as he maintains his unrelenting and unfeasible pursuit of a seventh jockeys' championship – eight years after his sixth – he is the calm at the eye of the storm. All around him is tumult: the attrition and tension of a title race that means more to him than any other, and the tempest of emotion ignited in the weighing room by contentious new whip laws. Yet he can shrug his shoulders and persuasively declare: "I don't have a worry in the world."
While Fallon unequivocally shares the fury of his colleagues, the toughened whip regulations introduced on Monday would ultimately work to his advantage. Even on those days when he has seemed to carry a horse over the line, Fallon has always been a model of restraint, using the whip only as a final crescendo to the orchestration of shared momentum, between his own high torso and the nervous system of his mounts.
"For me, the whip has been the last resort for a long time already," he said. "I think I've had one whip ban in the last five years. A few years ago, I started whistling at them to get them to lengthen and stretch, whereas most other jockeys need to give them a slap to do that. It will definitely hinder quite a few who depend on the whip. But the penalties are completely ridiculous."
Fallon is dismayed that the furore has intruded on what should have been a great celebration for the British sport at Ascot today. He quietly fancies his chances of claiming its biggest prize yet on the improving Green Destiny, but is dispirited that the occasion has been cast in such deep shadow.
On the face of it, jockeys have merely been asked to count to seven – the maximum number of slaps they can administer in a Flat race, no more than five from the furlong pole. "But that's enough for riders to lose concentration, when they're trying to get their rhythm right," Fallon said. "People sometimes ask if you heard the roar of the crowd in the finish, but the only ones who do are the ones beaten and sitting up out the back. In a driving finish, you don't hear a thing. Your concentration is that deep. Riders will not be able to perform to their best, because they'll be trying to change things even as they ride a finish. It breaks your rhythm. Look at Silvestre de Sousa. He gets them on a short hold and pumps, and they do run for him. But you can see he's finding it difficult now, that he's stopping and starting. A lot of jockeys will be forced into mistakes."
Not for the first time, Fallon feels uneasy about those with the power to threaten his livelihood. He briefly invokes the notorious race-fixing trial at the Old Bailey four years ago, where the case against Fallon (and several others) collapsed before the defence had even begun to respond. "It's a little bit the same now," Fallon said. "They brought in that Australian guy who didn't understand our racing environment. He was no expert witness. And we're a bit in the same position here, with some of those bringing in these new rules."
Of course, the various prohibitions Fallon served during his pomp included those he brought upon himself, through two failed drugs tests. "I've never really done anything wrong," he said. "All I've had in all my life is a speeding ticket. Because of who I was, and where I was, everyone made a big song and dance. And then they got me [on the drugs tests] when I was at my weakest. But that's all behind me now. I don't have any problems.
"I've never felt so well in my life. I look after myself a lot better. I'm a lot more sensible. I've a lot of experience. Before it was always all-out, but now I relax better. Thank God, I've only had the one bad injury [to a shoulder at Ascot in 2000]. I've never been knocked out. My bottle is 100 per cent. And my body's in its best shape ever. I don't see why I can't go another five years anyway."
It is precisely those forfeited years of his prime, however, that give heightened purpose to his pursuit of Paul Hanagan, the defending champion, who takes a lead of eight into the final three weeks of the season. Another title now would vindicate Fallon's undiminished self-belief, as a rider, after those periods of lonely insecurity.
"When Frankie [Dettori] beat me, in 2004, I was so far clear before they arrested me that they had stopped betting on the title," he said. "But I lost all my confidence. And when I was champion jockey all those times, I never really had much competition. Every year I was home and hosed well before the end. So this would be a different kind of kick – the icing on the cake."
When Fallon returned from his long suspension, it seemed apposite one day to ask for an assessment of the young star who had emerged in the meantime, Ryan Moore. Fallon responded by gazing into the middle distance and changing the subject. Despite those frailties that have sometimes seemed to amount to an instinct for self-destruction – not least when his attempt to switch mounts in the Derby this year ended up in the High Court – Fallon has always been sustained by the inner certainty that he is better than the rest. He has some pleasant compliments for Hanagan, but will never forswear that secret belief. His rival, after all, is able to take a full book of fancied mounts at lowly Catterick today because his services are not required at Ascot.
"Everyone gets on with Paul," Fallon said. "He's dedicated, and a good rider, but above all he's a lovely guy. That's what would make it easy, if I don't beat him. You couldn't begrudge him. But it's true that I've always had confidence in myself – right from the first time I sat on a horse with tack. I was 18, and Kevin Prendergast and his head lad couldn't believe I'd never ridden before."
The goalposts have moved since the days when only that 2000 injury interrupted what would otherwise have been seven years inviolate as champion. Now that there are floodlit evening meetings through the autumn, the title is primarily a test of physical and mental endurance. "But I'm as fresh now as at the start of the season," Fallon protested. "I feel great. The harder I work, the better I perform. I didn't kill myself in the early part of the season, paced myself really, and then I found myself in the thick of it and could give it a go.
"It's not going to be easy, but Paul is going to have to see it out to the end. He had a great start, and worked really hard off the back of a really tough season last year. But he has had a lot more rides than I have, and has to be feeling the pinch. It's never easy looking over your shoulder – I'd rather be chasing. And the thing about me is that I will never, ever give up. I'll battle my way to the end. That's just the way I am."
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