RACING POST FEATURES – 27-2-2011
For many people a 46th birthday can be tinged with a touch of melancholy as the 50th closes in and with it the sense that the best years are over. Not for Kieren Fallon last Tuesday – “I just can’t believe” he said as the monorail went back up the Dubai Palm from where he sat lunching at The Atlantis, “how lucky I am.”
He was a small, calm, clear eyed little figure in a large, exotic, shady restaurant in one of the ultimate temples to pleasure on the planet. He was in grey shorts and a tee shirt with the end of a tattoo peeping out of each sleeve and he kept returning to the same refrain as he added grated chicken to the Italian chef’s special pasta and sipped nothing more exotic than a Pepsi Cola.
He talked of how lucky he was in the health of his own family and siblings back in Ireland – his father Frank still works seven days a week as a plasterer. How fortunate he is with his own children two of whom were out at the Atlantis last week, the older daughter Natalie also having a birthday, her 17th, to celebrate on Tuesday. How spared he has been from the ravages of wasting and injury that shorten so many careers. And most of all how blessed he is to be looking forward to returning to Newmarket for the new season working again with Luca Cumani.
“Life’s really great,” he says shaking his head in wonderment and smiling at my expression of scepticism at yet another Fallon rebirth and this time with a halo rather than horns above his jockey’s head. “I have had a grand winter out here,” he adds, “riding twice a week and playing golf every day has got me so fit that I did 53kg (8stone 5lbs) last week. To be honest with you even before the court case and all that I was thinking I didn’t have many years left. I was getting tired. I wasn’t getting the same buzz even in the big races. Now I don’t think of retiring. I could come out here every winter and have another five, ten years, who knows?”
It was worth quite a hard chew on the Linguini to square off this new serene Kieren with the obsessive, demon-driven creature of legend whose sublime talent with the racehorse has only been matched by an inability to handle the human species, most of all himself. For the wider world all his classic victories and championship titles get overshadowed by the bad boy stories all the way from his first 6 month ban for pulling fellow jockey Stuart Webster off his horse in 1994 to his hefty suspension 14 years later for failing a drug test announced the very day he stood free after surviving the 6 week ordeal of the race-fixing trial at the Old Bailey. There are leopards and there are spots and most people thought that there was also Kieren Fallon.
But the birthday boy on Tuesday didn’t look leopard-like at all. In fact the most striking feature of his demeanour was the complete absence of the cunning, “I have got things I know” grin which used to only fuel the suspicions that swirled around him. For someone who has had spells in places like The Betty Ford Clinic his conversation also lacks the reformed addicts “one day at a time” mantra and when challenged about his notorious and self confessed failing of being able to find the one bad guy in a crowded room within minutes of entering it he just laughs and says – “oh I am much too old for all that carry on.” He claims he is free – “I didn’t actually like all that stuff and as for drink I can take it or leave it. Have a glass of wine with a meal but it doesn’t bother me. I am so lucky.”
Here we go again, but of course it is actually true. We are about to see another and surely final chance for the fortunes of the Galway plasterer’s son whose left leg would have been amputated for suspected gangrene if his father hadn’t walked into the hospital and scooped the ten year old mite into his arms and took him home to recover within days.
Since then the Good (and extremely tolerant) Fairy has kept mustering up allies just as if it seemed the Fates had got tired of the problem side of Fallon: Jimmy Fitzgerald who gave an English restart to a Kevin Prendergast apprentice who didn’t even ride out his claim. Jack Ramsden who saw the talent and who had it honed in America during that first jockey wrenching suspension. Henry Cecil who took him to classic level. Michael Stoute who took him even further. Aidan O’Brien with whom he threatened to rule the racing world. And finally Luca Cumani who stepped in as Kieren set out on the road again in the autumn of 2009.
Any chance of Italy’s greatest racing export playing up to the sentimental Good Fairy image are rather dispelled by his description of the early days of his and Fallon’s association. “At first,” he says with one of his trademark saturnine chuckles, “we were a bit like two strange dogs sniffing each other’s bottoms. But although people kept telling me that he was unreliable, money-grubbing and difficult to deal with I found none of this to be true. He is never late without texting me, is very straightforward and would not accept a retainer. Before we started I sat him down and said I would not be his nanny but this was obviously his last chance. Our arrangement is that he will be released to ride a fancied horse for someone else in a Group Race but not in a Maiden. He has stuck by that and I think we work very well together.”
The admiration is mutual. “I used to think that Luca was rather stand offish,” says Fallon. “But he is the easiest and nicest guy to work with. His instructions are simple and he is a very clear minded person. We could hardly have had a better year last season, a Royal Ascot winner and some lovely two year olds. But it was just luck we came together. I did not have a stable to ride for and I thank God Luca did not have a stable jockey. And I tell you one thing, he loves his horses more than anything else, he is very emotional about it. That’s why he is such a good trainer.”
Of course all these are easy words when the sun is still high in the Dubai sky even if only fuelled by Pepsi. But those pale blue Fallon eyes fairly twinkle as he talks of the Cumani string to which he will repair for a fortnight before returning one final time for Dubai World Cup night in which he is linked with the Freddie Head trained Arc sixth Marinous in the big race. He talks of Afsare, the Royal Ascot hero, and of Forte Dei Marmi on which he so memorable sliced through a huge field at Newbury, of “lovely fillies” like Dubawi’s half sister Dubai Queen and of the hugely promising Doncaster second Kirthill, a colt of whom he says “even walking round the paddock I thought this was something special.” Above all else he talks of the wonder of being able to do it all.
“I honestly can’t remember,” he says, “being as happy with myself at the start of the season. Last year it took a bit of time to get going, to get my confidence, to get the rides. But then Mark Johnson booked me for four horses at Epsom and I won on three of them and should have won on the fourth. After that he kept putting me up and they kept winning. If he uses me again this season and I can fill in the gaps outside Luca, the winners can come. The championship is not something you can think about until the last few months but I would love to be involved, I would love the competition of it and nowadays I know how to pace myself. I may be 46 but I think I now feel better than I have ever done.”
Cumani thinks his jockey was 75% of his 6 championship best when he returned and now cautiously estimates him at 99% of the old Fallon but the man himself believes he can go the whole way. “I just feel I am much sharper now,” he says. “In the past I let things happen, now I see if I can make things happen. If I had a bad draw I didn’t used to put much thought into it, now I think of all sorts of ways that I could make things happen. I am hungrier now than I have ever been. A week ago I had a couple of moderate rides and Ryan Moore asked me what I was bothering with them for. I said I was doing it because I love riding, love being out there between the gates. Even if the horse doesn’t have an obvious chance I love to go out and try to do something about it.”
As he talks the memories flood back of Fallon in the saddle: that distinctive upright style, the body tilted slightly sideways, the reins loose in front of him, the whole body’s strength thrusting in rhythm with the horse’s stride. He is a unique mixture of Gordon Richards (whom he never knew) and the brilliant but troubled Pat Valenzuela whom he worshipped when he spent seminal winters in California.
“He was by a mile the most talented rider I have ever seen,” says Fallon enthusiastically. “Sprinters, stayers, fillies colts, he could ride them all. And he was the best jockey ever out of a gate. I watched and watched but I just could not work out how he did it. He had a peculiar style, not as low as most Americans but he could help a horse when it was coming back underneath him. I think I get a bit of what I do from him.”
Valenzuela’s career was blighted by the addictive demons that threatened to derail his disciple and by the time of his own 46th birthday he was but a husk of the man he once was. The contrast is not lost on Fallon as he relishes the chance of returning again to the great arenas of the word – and most especially to Epsom.
“I just love riding at Epsom,” he says without any need to namecheck the string of Derby, Oaks and Coronation Cup winners that he has held and guided and impelled round that horseshoe shaped helter skelter of a track. “It seems to suit my style. I have huge confidence round there and as horses are sensitive animals they get their confidence from me. The Derby is something you never forget. I would just love to win another Derby for Luca because I have always enjoyed working with a trainer. And while Derby day itself is great you think back down the long road and all the work it took to get there.”
History shows that 46 is not too old to conquer the greatest of all the Classics, and Scobie Breasley was a 50 year old grandfather when he won it for the first time on Santa Claus in 1964. Nonetheless in no other toe to toe physically competitive sport does someone in their late forties truly claim to be the equal of their younger self which Fallon will surely need to be if he is to master the grind of the jockeys championship as well as classic race glory.
Richard Hills rode a big winner in Dubai last weekend. He turns the clock at two years Fallon’s senior and has ridden against him from the very beginning. “You have to work harder as you get older,” says Richard. “And you can’t afford to take time out. That’s why I am out here for the winter and I know that the same goes for Kieren. But if your body and mind are still in good shape, your experience is a real weapon.”
“When Kieren came back I welcomed him with open arms,” Hills continued, “for whatever the other stuff he has been a great jockey and a very fair rider to compete with. He’s in great shape and in much more relaxed state of mind. When you get older you realise what you would be missing. It makes you treasure it.”
For Fallon the treasuring is almost tangible. “There’s nothing else that matters half as much” he says in what is probably a bit of a gloss over his slightly on-off relationship with fellow rider Kirsty Milczarek. “I have got this chance and I am so so lucky to have no weight trouble and no injuries. Do you know” he adds holding out his right hand, “that except for the arm, the only fracture I have ever had was when I broke this thumb boxing?”
The “except for the arm” reference is something of an understatement of the terrible fall at Ascot which severed a nerve high in his left arm in 2000 and only critically early surgery rather than paternal removal saved him from another amputation. It still won’t raise as high as the other arm but he claims it is actually stronger now than before (he is left handed) and takes ghoulish delight in tracing a whole river chart of scars from up by the neck all the way to the underside of the forearm.
On the track with his body protector and his “game face” on Kieren Fallon can seem a formidable and even bulky figure. In summer slips and dwarfed by the lengthening shadows of the follies of Dubai he has a slighter but still clearly substantial presence. And where once his competitive juices were fuelled by an almost venal force of self assertion his renewed enthusiasm comes from the understanding of how close he came to amputating not just a limb but his whole sense of being.
“At the end of the court case I just didn’t care anymore,” he reflects. “I couldn’t sleep. I could have killed myself. But then I began to think of what would be involved in having one more crack at it and now I am determined to ride my luck all the way home and enjoy it every day.”
If you detect something spiritual in all this you are on the scent. On his right upper arm the former altar boy who once dreamed of missionary work in Africa has put a symbol of his gratitude. The tattoo shows two hands joined in prayer.