15 April 2001
Brough Scott finds the three-time champion jockey in a buoyant mood after his brush with disaster.
Can he ever be the same again? In each of the three seasons since he came south as a still unsung 32-year-old to ride for Henry Cecil, Kieren Fallon rode a double century and branded his own intuitive physical style into folklore. But he didn’t just injure his left arm in that terrible fall at Royal Ascot last June. He very nearly lost it.
It was the worst injury to a champion Flat jockey since Steve Cauthen broke his neck at Goodwood a dozen years ago and has been the most extensive piece of internal plumbing racing has seen. The axillary artery which controls the blood supply to the shoulder, armpit and lower arm was ruptured and the axillary nerve severed. If he had not got into the hands of leading nerve surgeon Rolfe Burch within 24 hours, he would never have ridden again.
“When I went to move,” said Fallon, back in action at Lingfield on Wednesday, “the arm just flopped down beside me.” At 36 he is quite boyishly thrilled to be back on the championship trail and doesn’t care who knows it. His opening race at Wolverhampton had the doubters querying his fitness, but he had five rides on both Tuesday and Thursday and the relish with which he went about his work almost matches the gruesome details of his injury recollections.
“I couldn’t feel the arm,” he continues, “couldn’t see any blood. I thought it had just come out of its socket. Then the pain began to get me. I was real abusive, so I was,” he says wryly in his soft County Clare accent. “They were asking questions like could I feel my legs and I was just swearing at them to put me under.”
But by the time the ambulance got him to Slough’s Wexham Hospital, the clearing station for Royal Ascot casualties, Fallon was a drugged-up zombie and his upper left arm was grotesquely swollen. And although the scan showed no internal damage, the Wexham team did not like the way the Fallon fingers did not work.
“It was the alertness of the emergency service and of Andrew Unwin, at Wexham, that was crucial,” said Rolf Birch, from the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, Middlesex. “Andrew got him to us in time. A hoof had hit Kieren below the shoulder. He had massive bleeding internally and had increasing paralysis of the arm. We had to operate.”
As the careful tones tick off the draining of four pints of blood, of taking “an unimportant nerve in the forearm” and grafting it on to the damaged area, the mind went back to the astonishing purple pipeline of scar tissue that now runs across the top of Fallon’s muscled-up left breast and then loops around the armpit before running out in the sands of the forearm. “I don’t remember anything,” says Fallon, “but the operation was 6½ hours. They say that you can have a heart transplant in 3½ .”
When the surgeon compares the nerve to an electronic cable “with thousands and thousands of wires within it”, you begin to appreciate the complexity of his task. Later he told Fallon he thought the operation had taken but that it would be at least a year before he could ride again.” Reality was hard to swallow.
The cuttings show that he had his first canter for Michael Stoute at Newmarket in late September and his first winner, in Dubai, at the end of December. But the truth is that it was slow going. It took two weeks at the Rehabilitation Centre at Lilleshall and then another two intensive, Stoute-arranged weeks in Barbados with West Indies physio Jacqueline King to even get the arm straightened and the fingers working normally.
“Michael Stoute insisted I took my time,” says Fallon, “but I soon knew that myself. That winner in Dubai didn’t count. It was just a runaway job. I worked at the rehab, then took the last month as a holiday and it is only this month when I have been back riding the good horses every day that I have begun to feel really part of them again. Even on a Monday morning, if you have taken Sunday off, you don’t seem to fit the first horse perfectly. It was bound to take time.”
So how far back is he already? There was a powerful double at Musselburgh on Grand National day and another winner there on Thursday. On Wednesday the nearest he got was second. We stood close against the rail to watch him shove an unraced colt called Araxas up to the leaders on the final turn. From directly behind we could see the familiar rolling pump as the Fallon frame began to galvanise his partner. The whip was picked up in the right hand, switched to the left, switched to the right again.
The trademark overhand left was not quite there and the doctors suggest it may take a while to return. But increased ambidexterity is only likely to make for a better jockey. Fallon thinks the Stoute horses are awesome this year even if he doesn’t know where they are running and how the top ones are likely to match up. He is going to be on some mighty machines in the next few weeks. Forget any weasel words about injury-limited technique. Absence has only increased the hunger.
Rolf Birch saw his patient again early last week. “He kept shaking me by the hand and saying it was a miracle,” says Fallon, and the surgeon is not slow to give praise. To the emergency services, to the man himself, “he already has a full range of movement and 70 per cent of the deltoid muscle back,” and to the work originally started by the Medical Research Council into nerve repair during the Second World War.
“Make no mistake,” says Mr Birch, “this is one of Britain’s greatest contributions to the world of medicine.” And at Newmarket this week, our world of racing will appreciate Birch’s greatest contribution in the long-awaited resurgence of Kieren Fallon.