Kieren Fallon: Sipping fruit juice in the last chance saloon
At 45, the fallen idol believes his chequered past is behind him. As he starts his first full turf season in three years, he tells Chris McGrath why he's driven to prove himself all over again
Saturday 27 March 2010
He sits under a poolside parasol, iced juice to hand, his lissom young partner lounging alongside. In his shades you see the idlers, the beauties, the clockwork children splashing in the water.
To cap it all, he is here in Dubai to ride one of the favourites for the richest prize in Turf history. After everything he has been through, all that torment and atonement, here is all the indemnity anyone could seek. Except, with Kieren Fallon, you know always to expect a paradox. And the fact is that he can barely wait to forsake this paradise to be in Doncaster tomorrow.
The chance to win the Dubai World Cup on Gitano Hernando has persuaded Fallon to miss the first day of the Flat season in Britain. But he will jump on a plane straight afterwards, desperate to begin what would amount to one of sport's epic revivals – a quest for his seventh jockeys' championship, seven years after his sixth. "I know this is a big meeting but I must admit I'm nearly looking forward more to Sunday, to kicking off the season," he says. "I'm looking forward to this year more than any other, ever."
On horseback, this restlessness has made him one of the greatest jockeys of all time. Elsewhere in his life, notoriously, it has been a source of instability and misapprehension. Clumsily persecuted by authority, even at the Old Bailey itself, in his time Fallon has sought perilous sanctuary in drink, drugs, disaffection. Three years of his pomp were squandered in various prohibitions, the last of them ending only last September. At 45, the cat is surely living his ninth life now.
And that was the true significance of what happened at Lingfield last Saturday, when the owner of another horse punched Fallon, accusing him of hampering his gamble. Fallon does not wish to dignify such a thug with attention here, other than to highlight a lack of racecourse security for jockeys. His girlfriend, Kirsty Milczarek, is an accomplished one herself and remembers having a pint of beer thrown over her at Doncaster. But she also identifies the latent comfort in the Lingfield episode. For there was surely a time when Fallon, in the heat of the moment, would at least have tried to defend himself. "I know I haven't many years left riding," he shrugs. "And I want to use them all."
Demonstrably, then, his focus seems just where it should be – keeping himself out of trouble, and retrieving the crown usurped, during his troubles, by Ryan Moore. Asked for a tribute to his young rival, Fallon stares across the pool.
"If they hadn't introduced this rule, confining us to nine meetings a week, I'd be very confident," he says eventually. "Because the harder I work, the better I get. It's a bit like getting through the pain barrier. I get energy from working hard. Ryan has a big stable behind him, and so has Frankie [Dettori]. I won't have their ammunition, so while they won't have to be all out, I probably will.
"To win the championship, though, you have to pace yourself. You can't burn out before the season starts properly – start getting suspensions, start getting tired. You need to be happy in yourself. But it does help to hit the ground running. You don't win championships from off the pace."
Moore won the title last year with 174 winners. Fallon has ridden 200 four times. "So I know what I'm capable of, when I'm working hard," he says. "Whether I can do the same, from just nine meetings, might be a different story. It's obviously going to be more difficult, but that will just make me work harder. Ryan will probably be on the same plane back as me, looking for that same flying start. But he knows he'll have a battle this year."
Fallon's greatest spur is the instant success he enjoyed after ending an 18-month suspension, for a second failed drugs test, last September. Though palpably rusty, he rode so many winners, so quickly, that titles won by others in the meantime suddenly seemed hollow. "When a boxer picks a sparring partner, he always picks the best he can," he says. "So Ryan was the one I had my eye on. I had to match him, and beat him. That was my target, besides getting race fitness, and getting my eye back in, tactically. And to the end of the turf season I had two more winners, from more or less the same number of rides."
During his ban, Fallon had ridden three lots on most mornings for Sir Michael Stoute (a previous boss, who nowadays employs Moore) followed by daily sessions with a personal trainer and various squash partners. Before his licence could be restored, he had to undergo a physical – an intensive, half-hour workout, after which his pulse recovery was timed. "And the fellow was looking at the gadget with this look on his face, as if there were a problem. I asked him what was wrong – and he said it must be broken. They said they had never seen a heart rate like mine."
What he had most needed, however, was heart of another kind. Given that he is routinely depicted as a vulnerable character, historically prone to the wrong company and wrong solutions, he has disclosed colossal mental strength just to get this far. But then it is easy to forget the hard road he first took, from remote Co Clare.
"It didn't happen for me the way it is for William Buick now, or the way it did for Frankie," he says. "When I started out with Kevin Prendergast, I was one of 10 apprentices, all after the same chance. It was a slow, uphill struggle.
"And I was a late starter anyway. Yes, I was riding bareback when I was young and wild, but didn't sit on a horse with a saddle and bridle until I was 18."
He has never forgotten the panorama from the summit he eventually attained, for all the storm clouds since. Listening to him, it is easy to understand why other jockeys panic whenever they hear that trademark whistle of his, encouraging his mounts to join issue. "I do have a lot of confidence in myself," he says. "It's a bit like Phil Taylor. That's why he's so successful. There are plenty of other darts players out there, and some of them may even be more talented. But they haven't got his confidence. He throws an ugly dart, so he does, or used to. It would sort of go sideways. But he just worries them out of it."
Fallon's own style is not for the purist, either, but unnerves his rivals in the same way. "It's not so much the other riders, you can forget them," he says dismissively. "It's the horse you're riding. Horses are very sensitive animals, and if there's anything there at all, they can feel it. There's no way you can block it out from them. But if, when you're riding, you think you're better than anyone else – well, even if you don't have the horse, you're going to find a way."
And this, surely, is what animates his genius – something all the more remarkable in a man who knows despair, who has sought treatment for addiction. Did he never fear that the flame had been extinguished? He pauses. "Yes. Once. When I walked out of the court. And that was regardless of what I knew was coming up, with the [failed] drugs test. I'd been sitting there every day, for all those weeks. And you just think to yourself: 'Bloody hell, I don't know...' But it was only for a short moment. Because I love horses, I don't know anything else but horses. When I get on a horse, I forget everything. It's just a totally different place. Pretty soon I knew I had to get back."
So there he stood, outside the Old Bailey, liberated from any gnawing fear that a jury might get things as muddled as the police. And this was the nadir? "Yes. Really, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry."
But they say, don't they, that you only begin the journey back by first reaching rock bottom. "You do indeed," Fallon says. His tone has become quiet, unstrained. "Fortunately, I had Stoutey. That was a big boost, the fact that I didn't have a licence and someone like that still wanted me in every day to ride good horses. Then that start I had in September – I was riding winners every day. Even though it was only Wolverhampton or Lingfield, I was getting my confidence back.
"Because the worry was always: will your bottle still be intact? A lot of jockeys younger than me have handed in their licence because it's gone. Even more important: will horses still run for you? You do worry. Are all those things still going to be there? That's why my inspiration has to be Lester. He'd done time, for God's sake, and he was 10 or 11 years older than me, with a weight problem. And he still came out and beat the best in the world [at the Breeders' Cup]. I'm not saying I'm Lester Piggott, but I have won a lot of Classics. In fact, someone sent me a table of the percentage strike rate of all the Classic jockeys, and I came out top apart from Fred Archer."
Having found his feet at home, last autumn Fallon went to Santa Anita to beat the best riders in America on this same horse, Gitano Hernando. "Yes, that was another step for the confidence. Then a winter here in the sun, the chance to freshen up. And even riding a maiden winner the other day, I got such a buzz.
"And that's what I want, that buzz. And I will get it. I know I will. And then you build on it, every day. Until you think you can walk on water."
Past tense: The ups and downs of a controversial career
1965 Born on 22 February at Crusheen, Co Clare.
1984 Rides first winner, Piccadilly Lord, at Navan.
1994 Banned for six months after pulling jockey Stuart Webster from his mount after a race at Beverley.
1997 Wins the first of 15 Classics, the 1,000 Guineas on Sleepytime, and the first of six riding championships.
1998 Wins £70,000 in libel damages from The Sporting Life over an article about his riding of Top Cees at Newmarket in 1995.
1999 Sacked by Henry Cecil after tabloid stories about the trainer's wife and an unnamed jockey; Fallon denies involvement, sues for breach of contract and joins Sir Michael Stoute.
2000 Career threatened by shoulder injury sustained in a fall at Royal Ascot.
2003 Treated for "an alcohol-related problem".
March 2004 Commits an infamous blunder at Lingfield, easing up on clear leader Ballinger Ridge and getting caught on the line.
September 2004 Arrested, questioned and bailed by police investigating allegations of race-fixing.
2005 Becomes stable jockey at Ballydoyle.
July 2006 Charged with conspiracy to defraud, and licence to ride in Britain controversially suspended.
November 2006 Receives six-month ban for a failed drugs test in France. October 2007 Less than 24 hours after winning the Arc on Dylan Thomas, appears with five co-defendants in race-fixing trial at the Old Bailey.
December 2007 Case thrown out by the judge – but Fallon is promptly banned for 18 months by French authorities after failing another drugs test.
September 2009 Returns to the saddle and within weeks has won a Grade One race in California on Gitano Hernando.
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