Wild boy with a magic touch

Kieren Fallon still has an image problem but now he is the No 1 jockey for one of racing's most distinguished names.
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The Independent Online
When the news broke three weeks ago that Kieren Fallon had been appointed first jockey to Henry Cecil for the 1997 Flat season, Julian Wilson, the BBC's racing correspondent, commented that it was akin to discovering "that Michael Heseltine has married Amanda de Cadenet".

To liken a 31-year-old rider of exceptional ability and determination, who is enjoying the best season of his career, to the Eighties "wild child" whose only real talent was for self-promotion seems desperately unfair. Fallon, though, has an image problem. The image in question is of a brief moment of anger and aggression, two years ago. The problem is that it is one of those sporting snapshots which is familiar even to those with no interest in the turf. Try as he might, Fallon cannot shake it off.

The John Mangles Memorial Handicap at Beverley on 14 September 1992 was certainly memorable, but not in a manner of which the late Major Mangles, a stern racecourse official for many years, would have approved. The winner, Sailormaite, beat his 14 rivals with ease, but Stuart Webster, his jockey, did not enjoy the moment of triumph for long. As Webster eased Sailormaite to a walk a few yards beyond the winning post, another rider galloped up behind him, grasped him firmly by the collar and hauled him to the turf. Punters throughout Britain watched the fracas in bemusement. So too did millions of television viewers when the footage made the network news later that evening. Even now, the incident appears in the opening credits of the fun- poking quiz show They Think It's All Over, which is perhaps the ultimate testimony to its enduring capacity to shock and surprise.

The aggressor was Fallon. Webster, he said, had almost put another rider "on the floor" in the early stages of the race and had "no respect for horse or rider. He's ridden recklessly like that several times and I wanted to show him that he shouldn't."

For his attempt to hand out DIY justice, Fallon's own punishment was swift and severe. He was banned from riding for six months, one of the longest suspensions of recent decades, for his "violent and improper conduct". It might have been much worse. The exchange of views between Fallon and Webster had become increasingly full and frank in the weighing-room shortly afterwards. Webster emerged with a broken nose, but strangely, given that perhaps two dozen jockeys were nearby at the time, every one claimed that their gaze had been elsewhere. With no independent witnesses, the Jockey Club's disciplinarians were forced, reluctantly, to dismiss charges against both men.

But one "not proven" verdict could not take any of the dark shine off Fallon's reputation, now apparently well-earned, for being a bovver boy in silks. His record already included a suspension for hitting a horse about the head with his whip, another for striking a filly "in a particularly offensive manner" after she had reared and unseated him, and an impressive back-catalogue of less serious riding and whip offences. As he started his six-month banishment from the track, it seemed that a talent of immense promise had been crippled beyond recall by a quick and nasty temper.

Less than two years later, the predictions have proved every bit as misguided as Fallon's actions in the red mist at Beverley. He has ridden more than 100 winners in a season for the first time, and that with almost three months remaining. He has struck up an irresistible partnership with Dazzle, an unbeaten two-year-old filly who is already a strong favourite for the first Classic of the 1997 season, the 1,000 Guineas. Above all, there is the contract to ride for Cecil, the country's pre-eminent trainer for more than 20 years, whose Warren Place stable is home to 180 horses, every last one of them fuelled by blood of the deepest blue.

Rather more blue, in fact, than that of the man who will be riding them, as the chattering class of Newmarket was no doubt quick to point out. The son of a taxi driver from Crusheen in County Clare, Fallon could not draw on any family connections to ease his way into racing. On his 17th birthday, he joined Kevin Prendergast's stable in Kildare as an apprentice, and started to clamber through the ranks. It is a somewhat different career path to that of his new employer, who was born into one distinguished racing family and married into another.

Fallon's roughneck image is so familiar that at first it is hard to believe that the jaunty figure who emerges from the weighing-room is not some sort of stunt-double, hired to do the interviews. Relaxed and articulate, and revelling in the confidence borne of his best season in the saddle, Fallon now reflects on the events at Beverley as the day his life started to change for the better.

"You have to find the positive in everything," he says. "It's the only way to look at it. That looked to be the lowest point of my career, but it's turned out to be one of the high points, because I went to California.

"I was working for top trainers like Rodney Rash and Bobby Frankel, and when you're riding good horses all the time, you can't but improve. I became a better judge of pace, my balance improved, and I came back a much better rider."

The best, in fact, if the jockey ratings compiled by John Whitley, one of the sport's most respected statisticians, are any guide. Whitley's analysis of the 1995 season, a study of how well horses perform for different riders, placed Fallon at the head of the table, his abilities matched only by those of Lanfranco Dettori, the current champion.

"I really haven't a clue why Mr Cecil chose me," Fallon says, "and when he rang to offer me the job, I thought I'd done something wrong. But if you can win with horses no one else can win on, it's a guide.

"For example, Sycamore Lodge was a five-year-old maiden when he came to Mrs Ramsden [Fallon's present employer] from Peter Calver. He told her: 'This horse cannot win.' Yet we won with him. Frankie Dettori is another who can get the best out of a horse, another jockey will get on and it won't run so well."

In 12 months' time, Dettori and Fallon may also be locked together at the top of the table which matters. The sport's traditionalists may balk at his rough-hewn reputation, but they can only approve if the Irishman re-establishes Warren Place as the natural home of the champion jockey.

"Mr Cecil has said to me that he's made umpteen champions, such as Steve Cauthen, Pat Eddery and Joe Mercer," Fallon says, "so he can't see why I shouldn't be as well. Even this season I got to within about six of Pat at one stage and a lot of my rides have been bad horses. It's not easy to ride good horses, but it's easier than riding the bad ones."

Ladbrokes offer 4-1 against Fallon winning the championship next year, but the bookmakers are not likely to see any shrewd money until he has demonstrated that his temperament can stand the stress and scrutiny that will come with the most sought-after job in racing.

Cecil is convinced that it can. "I know he has had a reputation for having a temper," the trainer said when the retainer was announced, "but riding for Warren Place, with nice horses as well as our understanding owners and staff, surely there will be little reason for hot-headedness. Kieren seems to have curbed his temper anyway. He has matured noticeably and is a great horseman, strong, cool and patient."

Fallon can at least be sure that Cecil will not add to the pressure. His first important ride for the stable was on Corradini in the Ebor Handicap at York last month, who finished third after finding trouble in running. "He's unbelievable to ride for because he knows the game so well. It looked like I should have won on Corradini, but he could see I couldn't have been any handier, I just had a wall of horses in front of me and nowhere to go. He can accept that.

"My temper is still there, but the difference now is that I know how to control it. I know that if I lose my temper, I'm the one missing out."

The partnership between Cecil and Fallon will, it is clear, be founded on admiration and respect, while Fallon in particular is working hard to control his wayward streak. Above all, there is a fierce determination on both sides to make their relationship work. The union of Michael and Amanda, it seems, could prove to be a match made in heaven.