Kieren Fallon: 'It's only a matter of time before I'll be back...'
He is the greatest Flat jockey of his generation, but despite being cleared of race-fixing misses tomorrow's Derby because of a drugs suspension. In a rare and revealing interview he tells Chris McGrath about beating depression, racing again... and Ronaldo's missed penalty
Friday 06 June 2008
Transfixed, Kieren Fallon leans forward in his seat.
"So let me ask you now," says the man on the screen, his voice strained. "What is a crime? What is a punishment? It seems to vary from time to time, place to place."
"Which is true," Fallon murmurs. "What's legal today is suddenly illegal tomorrow, because some society says it's so. And what's illegal yesterday is suddenly legal, because everybody's doing it – and they can't put everybody in jail. I'm not saying this is right or wrong. I'm just saying that's the way it is."
One of the greatest jockeys in history is in his flat in Newmarket, watching his favourite scene in cinema. Midnight Express, made by Oliver Stone in 1978, is the harrowing story of Billy Hayes, a young American imprisoned for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey. Billy is played by Brad Davis – himself a doomed, tragic figure – here making a hopeless, impassioned protest to a judge who is about to extend his initial sentence of four years to 30.
"My lawyer says: 'Be cool, Billy, don't get angry, don't get upset, be good, and I'll get you a pardon, an amnesty, an appeal...' But this has been going on now for three and a half years, and I've been playing it cool, I've been good. And now I'm damned tired of being good. Because you people gave me the belief that I had 53 days left, you hung 53 days in front of my face and then you just took those 53 days away..."
Billy eloquently suggests that a society is defined by its sense of mercy. And then, finally, he gives way to rage, fulminates at the judge and prosecutor. "Jesus Christ forgave the bastards," he says finally. "But I can't. I hate you. You're pigs." He pauses.
"You're all pigs," Fallon prompts, smiling.
"You're all pigs," says Billy.
Fallon turns off the film, delighted. "Some speech, wasn't it? Huh? I think that speech is one of the best I've ever seen."
And, of course, he has heard a few in his time. Last October, Fallon sat in the Old Bailey, a court accustomed to dealing with murderers and rapists, and listened as the fantastic misapprehensions of his persecutors were presented to a judge entitled to take away not just his livelihood, but his liberty.
Fortunately, the justice system passed its test. The police clearly did not, credulously persuading themselves that they had discovered a race-fixing plot between Fallon and five other men, including two lesser jockeys. In the end the judge dismissed the case without even hearing the defence.
Approaching three and a half years after his arrest, however, Fallon's restoration as a sporting icon proved as illusory as Billy's 53 days to freedom. Not for the first time, he tumbled from frying pan to fire. Within hours, it emerged that Fallon had failed a drugs test in France during the summer – just as he had the previous year, when controversially banished from British racing, pending his trial.
Fallon is now nearly a quarter of the way into an 18-month worldwide suspension. His job at Ballydoyle has gone to Johnny Murtagh, who can measure the stable's status as the most powerful in Europe by choosing between six runners in the Oaks today and five in the Derby tomorrow.
Fallon, unrivalled round Epsom since the days of Lester Piggott, will meanwhile watch on television, his allegiance transferred to the runners trained by Sir Michael Stoute – the man for whom he won two Derbys, and for whom he is now galloping horses several mornings a week.
Even the most sanctimonious will be saddened to see this colossus, still in his pomp, reduced to a bystander. Many assume that Fallon has used up all nine lives. He is 43 now, after all. But as the police may recognise, it seldom pays to make simplistic judgements of this man.
Fallon argues that this latest prohibition, far from destroying his career, has already saved it. "If I'd gone straight back riding after the case, I could have made a mess of things," he said. "I was just down there. In the state of mind I was in, I'd have probably been riding crap, and would have said to myself I have no more to give and packed in."
He gives the example of a friend who once went through another public ordeal, and only succumbed to the strain when it was all over. It was a similar story for Fallon, after his trial. "I was that down, I didn't want to do anything," he said. "When you're depressed, you don't want to get out of bed, you don't want to face people, you don't want to do anything. Depression's a terrible thing, so it is. And the longer you leave it, the worse it gets."
Fallon recognised this inner wasteland. He had traversed it before, and knew where to find the oasis. In March, he flew out to Palm Springs and checked into a Betty Ford clinic for a month. He returned to Newmarket with his bearings restored, and his appetite for life renewed.
"I feel great now," he said. "I like to work, want to work. That's why I went to America, because I knew I wasn't in the state of mind I wanted to be. It was brilliant. Once I was there, I just couldn't wait to get back on a horse again, and that's what I wanted to feel. Whereas before, I didn't think I wanted to do it again. You get into a rut, and I'd have been finished if I'd stayed like it. But I'd say by getting away, and just cleaning up my act, I'm happy again, really looking forward to going to work every day, getting out of bed at six every morning. And the rest will come, you know."
Some will look at the jagged outline of Fallon's career and fear that it must always retain a lethal edge. The reality is that his problems have been more insidious than shocking.
He cites two elite jockeys who were forced to confront drink problems because they palpably, outrageously, lost control. He remembers one, in polite company, urinating in an ashtray. In a way, Fallon wishes that he had transgressed as vilely years ago; had he done so, he might never have had another drink. As it was, he never missed a single morning's work.
When first suspended, Fallon considered bringing forward a projected training career. But it proves that he would have been building on precarious foundations, and he plainly did well to favour this sanctuary with Stoute instead. He has meanwhile opened a fresh chapter in his personal life, in a relationship with Kirsty Milczarek, herself an emerging jockey.
And he is resisting the temptation of bitterness, even as he watches Murtagh on the Ballydoyle bluebloods.
"I love horses more than anything in the world, and feel comfortable around them," he said. "Working with them, I'm happy, even though I'm not race-riding. Obviously for the Oaks and Derby and all, I'm really hoping for Stoutey. There's a buzz in the yard, it's exciting. And riding out every day we have a great laugh. It's only a matter of time before I'll be back. And there's nothing else I can do. If you're going to start being enemies, or feel jealous – it doesn't make any difference to me who rides, whether it's Johnny Murtagh, Richard Hughes, Ryan Moore, it doesn't matter who's on them. It's not me."
Whether or not the trauma of his arrest and prosecution contributed to other difficulties in his life, Fallon finds it harder to stifle resentment of those responsible. "It's just disappointing to think that the same guys are still doing the same job they fucked up big time," he said. "I mean, if you give a horse a bad ride, you get sacked. You give a horse a bad ride in a big race, you're history. Go back to when Lester beat Ernie Johnson [in the 1972 Derby] and said: 'I'd have won on either of them.'
"Ernie hardly rode a winner after. It was Ernie's downfall. And these guys really, you know, it was worse than Ronaldo's penalty [in the Champions League final] – ran up to it, stood there like an eejit, and tapped it into the goalie's hands. And these are the same guys still policing the sport. That's the only thing that's frustrating about it. Well it's not, because I'm away from it now. But if I was going racing now, and having to look at them, I'd be wanting to get sick."
While the advent of betting exchanges may have warranted a new disciplinary culture in racing, it has given regrettable rein to those who find reds under every bed. As Fallon says: "They're getting to the stage that anything a jockey knows is 'inside information'. What chance have you got? You can't speak to anybody. And if you don't speak to anybody, they say you're ignorant. The old boy on the gate, you've been telling him, the last 20 years, your best ride – you can't do that any more."
But none of his trials – public or private – have terminally broken Fallon. For all the frailties of his character, he retains a firm perspective. "At the worst times in my life I always try to think of somebody else," he said. "Of Africa: the poverty, the kids sitting in the tents, the queues and the famines. They can't go anywhere. They can't do anything. They're stuck. There's so much I can do, so many places I want to go. And it won't be long.
"But they're finished. When I start to feel low, I remind myself how lucky I am. And I'll be lucky again. At the moment, it's just time-out."
When he returns, Fallon plans to build a new career for himself in the United States, perhaps returning to Europe only for the summers. He still believes in the happy ending. After all, even Midnight Express has one.
For a while, Billy is annihilated, mentally and physically. But slowly he gets himself back together, and finally he escapes.
"That's right," says Fallon. "Then he gets out, and lives his life."
'I want to make a career of it in America'
Kieren Fallon hopes to make a fresh start in the US after his suspension ends in August next year.
"I want to try to make a career of it in America," he revealed. "I'd like to spend the winters there at least, and come back here for the summer. I love that they're changing the [dirt] surfaces. Prize money is very good, and I found it so easy to ride the turf races when I rode at Gulfstream – and that was just on Jerry Bailey's second and third strings."
That was in early 2005, when Fallon took a break in Florida and enlisted the help of Bailey's agent, Ron Anderson. Shortly afterwards he was recruited as stable jockey at Ballydoyle, but not before acquiring a taste for the American scene.
Fallon emphasises that he was a late starter in racing and believes that he could extend his career for several years if based there. His riding style would be considered alien to dirt, but the new synthetic tracks have much more in common with turf. His American CV so far features two wins at the Breeders' Cup and an Arlington Million.
'If I could choose a Derby ride it would be the Doctor'
It is a quirk of fate, no doubt, but it certainly does not diminish Kieren Fallon's aura as Epsom's éminence grise. His return to the service of Sir Michael Stoute, for whom he won the race on Kris Kin (2003) and North Light (2004), has coincided with the emergence of no fewer than three Derby colts in the yard. Doctor Fremantle and Tajaaweed both impressed in trials at Chester, while Tartan Bearer – a brother to Golan, the 2001 Derby runner-up – won the Dante Stakes at York.
Fallon has ridden them all in their work and has a hunch that Stoute's stable jockey, Ryan Moore, has made the wrong choice. True, Tajaaweed was always going to be ridden by Richard Hills, who is retained by the colt's owner, Sheikh Hamdan. But Moore has chosen to ride Tartan Bearer, leaving Doctor Fremantle to Kerrin McEvoy.
"I rode Doctor Fremantle for the first time last Saturday," Fallon said. "What a feeling he gave me! I'd ridden Tajaaweed the previous week and really loved him, he felt like a Derby horse. But this horse – I think he felt better.
"I rode Tartan Bearer a couple of weeks ago as well. He's very laid-back, doesn't do a tap at home. Very like Golan, who saved all his energy until he went racing. But I loved everything about Doctor Fremantle, from the moment I jumped on him and cantered down. He was just so relaxed and he moves like a bird, just glides. I do think Ryan's on the wrong one.
"But it's really hard to assess these horses. Tajaaweed will get the trip, all right. It just depends how Richard's going to ride him. Is he going to take all the chances, go on the inside and save ground like he has to? I think Sheikh Hamdan likes his horses on the outside. But you don't win Derbys round the outside.
"Authorized went a little wide last year, but he had so much up his sleeve he could afford to. But this is going to be a different kettle of fish. This is a tough Derby, very competitive. But if you gave me a choice of anything in the race, it would be the Doctor."
Fallon's status as the heir to Lester Piggott round Epsom was sealed by a nationwide gamble on Kris Kin, and his continued absence makes him the spectre at the feast. So how would he urge McEvoy to ride Doctor Fremantle?
"If I was going round on this fellow I'd be thinking I was [on] by far the best in the race," he said. "Ride with confidence, try to get down to the inside, fourth or fifth. You're starting to do something going by the four [furlong pole] to the three, so that you're flying by the two."
But you can only claim the most coveted position in the field – tracking the leaders down the hill – with a sharp horse and sharper wits.
"You need to be able to see around you, who's travelling and what they're doing," Fallon explained. "It's like having antennae, you're taking everything in. That way you know whether to take back half a length, or go forward. And you have to do it all without burning any gas, because you're climbing up that hill. You have to do it all as smoothly as possible. You really have to be so alert. It's not easy."
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