Lessons dictate that Fallon's talents face a tough test in transition from rider to trainer
Gifted jockeys rarely reach the top when they hang up their saddles and start running a stable. Chris McGrath reports
Thursday 07 February 2008
There are trawler men in the Hebrides that cannot swim, more or less as an article of faith. Their intimacy with the sea has taught them not pragmatism, but fatalism. It is the same when men deal with another elemental force of nature: the thoroughbred. Jockeys may think that they are imposing their will on their mounts, but trainers learn how very narrow are the perimeters of their control. And they have to do so the hard way, which is why the transition between one career and the other is seldom an easy one.
It is proving hard to predict Kieren Fallon's future from one day to the next, never mind 10 years hence, but the six-times champion jockey seems earnest in his ambition to train one day. As and when he does, the strengths and weaknesses of this complex character will no doubt be magnified by the intensity of his new vocation. His uncanny gift with horses entitles him to be a success; but a less happy knack with people, or people in authority at any rate, has equal potential to hinder his fulfilment.
As it happens, he has a greater awareness of his limitations than is often suggested. He knows that he will need a steady hand on the tiller, when it comes to running his own business. His priority will be to concentrate on the horses in their work. Throughout his career, on the gallops, he has shown a flair for the mental development of the horses trained by his employers. But the fact remains that he will have to distinguish himself from many other top riders who have failed to achieve commensurate status as trainers.
It is no more certain that a farmer will be a good chef than that a great jockey will make a great trainer. In fact, experience might suggest quite the reverse.
The outstanding exception remains Fred Winter, who scaled twin peaks as the only man to ride and train the winners of the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and, twice, the Grand National. As a jockey, between 1947 and 1964, Winter was champion four times; as a trainer, he was champion eight times between 1971 and 1985.
But other names carved into the jockeys' pantheon have crumbled into obscurity as trainers. Some of the best trainers, moreover, have had fairly mediocre careers in the saddle. Paul Nicholls, Winter's modern successor as the dominant jumps trainer, is a case in point. But the most valuable lesson Nicholls ever learned was in defeat. He kept riding horses that were exhausted by their pursuit of front-runners trained by Martin Pipe. He realised that Pipe had taken fitness in racehorses to a new level, and set about doing so himself.
Another Nicholls, David, can perhaps be counted the most successful ex-Flat jockey among current trainers, and he certainly rode at a far more humble level than, say, Walter Swinburn or Pat Eddery. The latter pair, while still in the early stages of their training careers, have a long way to go if they are to retrieve the elite stature they achieved as riders. Lester Piggott himself made only a tentative start as a trainer, before exploring extremes – jail, and a riding comeback at 54 – surpassing even Fallon's unpredictable tale.
There may be an instructive parallel in the fact that many of the best football coaches also emerged from relative obscurity. Jose Mourinho was once an anonymous lieutenant to Bobby Robson at Barcelona. Robson in turn may have been an accomplished footballer, but he never approached the heights he achieved as a manager. In contrast, the litany of gullible icons to have been humiliated in management grows longer every decade.
It would be wrong to be dogmatic. After all, Fabio Capello himself was a top-class player. But so far as racing is concerned, perhaps you will only ever get the best out of horses when you have discovered how bad they can be. If you ride relatively able animals all the time, trying to patch together slow, brittle ones every morning will come as a nasty shock.
Brendan Powell was known as a jump jockey who would go just about anywhere to ride just about anything. Unsurprisingly, he is making rapid progress in the early stages of his own training career. "A lot of people would tell you that you were riding a horse with an attitude problem," he recalled yesterday. "But in my experience as a rider, there was nearly always a reason for what seemed an attitude problem – an injury, perhaps, something holding them back. Now that I'm training, it's my job to try to find out what it might be."
Powell remembers someone asking one of Martin Pipe's riders how the trainer managed to get so much improvement out of his recruits from other stables. "And the answer was that every horse that came into the yard, no matter what it was, would be treated as the next Gold Cup winner," he said. "We get a lot of moderate beasts here, and there's nothing more satisfying than placing them right, so that they can win a race of some sort."
Just as big-name footballers are often fast-tracked to big clubs when they turn to management, so Fallon can be expected to benefit from elite patronage once he starts to train. Training is a ruthlessly competitive walk of life, rewarding relentless demands with regular disappointments. But at least Fallon, unlike some top riders, has seldom been allowed security in his mastery. You can only find complacency among those who taste success. But the lessons of hardship can be learned by anyone.
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