How very appropriate, that they should have been making a collection at Lingfield Park yesterday for the RNLI. If ever a man knew how it feels to be hauled back from fathomless depths, in the middle of a sunlit racecourse, it must be Kieren Fallon.
By the end of the day, perhaps, a more suitable analogy lay at the other extreme: the man who has been lost in the desert. For when you finally crawl into the oasis, you are not supposed to slake your thirst too hastily, and Fallon ended his first day back at work without a winner.
True rehydration requires electrolytes, not just water, and it was right that Fallon should first get to savour the pungent tang of competition, before the drenching relief of the elixir that has driven him to six riding championships, 15 British Classics and – most remarkably of all – back to the humdrum environments of Lingfield, and an evening meeting at Kempton. It was enough merely to know the oasis to be no mirage.
At no stage did any of his four Lingfield mounts really look like winning, even the filly in the opener who led on the home turn. Then it was off to Kempton, for his first experience of the new floodlit track there, where he mustered a second, third and fourth. He undertakes another double shift today, at Haydock and Wolverhampton, in the hope of his first success on British soil in over three years.
For the past 18 months, Fallon has been serving a worldwide ban after failing a drugs test in France – his second in consecutive summers. In a narrative lurch that staggered even those familiar with his propensity to entangle triumph and disaster, the positive test for cocaine was confirmed within 24 hours of his reprieve from another, far more public ordeal. His British licence had been contentiously suspended in July 2006, when police got it into their heads that he was part of a race-fixing conspiracy. The shocking news from France ensured that the collapse of the subsequent Old Bailey trial was just another cruel, shimmering illusion.
But here he was again, at long last – and as long promised. Many had viewed the ban as the point of no return. This time, however, his notoriously precarious judgment seems to have served him well. He has had treatment at an addiction clinic; he has undertaken psychotherapy, and a dozen random drug tests. He now accepts that to have resumed riding, straight after the trial, would only have hastened the end of his career. As he said then: "I'll use this time to get myself back on track. I'd been trying to smile my way through, but deep down I was in bits."
Now he is back on track, literally at least, albeit he knows now – if he did not before – that all those mornings on the gallops could provide only the loosest preparation for race-riding. As he put it: "Can I still see the board, like a good chess player?"
It was fitting that his comeback mount should have been for Amy Weaver, who has the smallest yard in Newmarket. His instinct for discomfiting the establishment might go a long way towards explaining the more painful chapters in his saga; but it also informs his relationship with the betting public.
If not exactly jamming the turnstiles, they had certainly turned out in sufficient hundreds at Lingfield to attest their solidarity, and there was a corresponding, bashful round of applause as the Irishman emerged from the weighing room. These, remember, were the very people he was accused of traducing at the Old Bailey. He walked between them, pale and solemn, before managing a taut smile once mounted in the parade ring.
In some respects, it was if he had never been away: the loose rein, the clenched lower body, the slow wind-up. But he also looked a stride or two out of synch, conspicuously so by the end of the evening, and his mounts proved too modest to meet him in the middle. Sooner rather than later, no doubt, he will be compensating for their inadequacies once again. For now, they confirmed themselves indifferent to a sense of destiny. That tends to be the way with horses, after all – however pliant Fallon's prosecutors fondly imagined them to be.
"It's taking longer than I thought to get a feel of the racecourse again," he admitted. "My fitness is fine, it's just a case of getting used to the feel of a race again, and it will be a bonus to have today under my belt. I haven't stopped riding out for the last couple of years, but this was a bit different.
"It was great to get a nice reception, and it all helps to build your confidence back up again. Coming to the course is the only thing I know, the only thing I want to do. I just want to ride as many winners as I can, and hopefully have a crack at the championship next year. I just hope I can get a winner and if I do, I can relax into the game. If I don't, there's going to be a little bit of nerves."
One of the many trainers to have enthusiastically endorsed Fallon's renewal, Ed Dunlop, was asked what he most cherished about his services. "If he likes a horse, he will keep believing longer than most," he said. "Even when they have let him down."
The latent reproof, for those still resenting the damage Fallon has done to the sport's reputation, could hardly be more obvious.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Tinaar (5.25 Kempton) Caught the eye on her debut at Newmarket and put a disappointing trip to Ascot behind her when beating a subsequent winner in good style last time. She has an excellent pedigree, and seems to have been allotted a pretty fair rating for this handicap debut.
King's Icon (9.20 Wolverhampton) Has hit a rich streak of form since having cheekpieces restored, twice produced late against well-handicapped rivals since his win at Yarmouth. Runs off the same mark under the same, very competent claimer tonight.
*One to watch
Queen Of Thebes (Gary Moore) Returned from a break with an eye-catching run at Lingfield on Wednesday, going strongly when short of room before finishing fast into sixth. Has dropped to a very tempting mark.
*Where the money's going
The American champion filly, Rachel Alexandra, is a 1-2 morning line favourite to beat older males in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga tonight.