19 September 2004
Fallon v Dettori, what a roller-coaster of a ride: Kieren once again pursued by his demons, Frankie inspired by the title chase. Two unique and very different talents now locked into a championship duel as riveting as any that have gone before.
In 50 years I have never seen a Flat jockey as physically strong on a horse as Fallon, nor one with such an acrobatic finesse as Dettori. Fallon, despite his status as champion and jockey for the Queen, is still fuelled by an outsider’s sense of grievance at the troubles that the authorities – and himself – have laid at his door. Dettori, despite his superstar celebrity, wants to ram the “too famous for hard work” taunts back down the throats of some critics.
Oh, and he has a book out this week.
Between them they have taken eight of the last 10 titles. Dettori, now 33, first became champion in 1994 with a stunning 233-winner total and won again in 1995 with a mere 216. Fallon, now 39, came later to the top flight, grabbing the crown in 1997 and keeping it every year since bar 2000 when he all but lost an arm in a dreadful fall at Royal Ascot.
This season had looked like another Fallon `shoo-in’, but we had not reckoned on a Dettori revival, nor on Fallon’s capacity to self-destruct. The latter came first: a bread-and-butter day on the sand at Lingfield in March; Fallon going clear on an inveterate loser called Ballinger Ridge only to ease up inexcusably and get caught on the line.
It got worse: he and fellow jockey John Egan had fallen for a News of The World sting. He had told his new `friends’ that Ballinger Ridge would lose and had accompanied them on a night out to a Spanish brothel while confiding the intriguing news that he had to be careful because the News of The World were after him.
So Fallon, a married father-of-three and a recovering alcoholic, began his season with a three-week ban and an as yet unresolved charge of `bringing racing into disrepute’. Dettori, who since his 1995 championship and, especially after surviving that light-plane crash in 2000, has eschewed the daily winner chase of the championship for the challenge of global prizes with Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin stable, had a very different start. He was off with a five-timer at Folkestone.
For weeks he would not admit it publicly, but it was clear he wanted his title back. No matter that the jockeys’ crown is worth nothing but glory and is still anachronistically based on mere numbers, where winning the Derby counts no more than scoring in a seller at Redcar, Dettori began turning up at all points of the compass from Musselburgh to Bath. Into May he was still leading the field. And triggering the expected Fallon counter-attack.
Fallon is a complex man: part open, friendly, almost simple Irishman; part raging and sometimes almost sinister genius of whom you never quite know what to expect on a horse or off it. The early part of summer saw him at the height of his powers. He won both the Derby and the Oaks at Epsom, he flew from track to track to take in evening meetings while Dettori, who understandably avoids small planes, missed out unless journeys were short enough for a car.
But Fallon did not draw as far clear as we expected and, when the evening meetings ended last month, the odds swung back towards Dettori, backed by the new-look Godolphin with the strongest team of two-year-olds in the country. Dettori began to claw back the advantage. Fallon had the police knocking on his door. Last week Dettori drew level. By any normal standards, the champion was under fire.
But there is something primeval in the way Fallon wraps his body around a racehorse and thrusts his whole energy down the power line of the hind quarters, an inner hunger that only the winning post can sate. However dark the storms lowering over Fallon’s future, on the track is where he finds sunshine.
He will remain the ultimate opponent, but readers of Dettori’s tome will realise the little Italian has not always sailed under open skies. Beneath the smiling, flying-dismount exterior is a little diamond which has been polished as much by trauma as excess. This year he has been a man on a mission to pay tribute to the original talent from which all his other success has sprung. Mature both as an individual and an athlete, he is putting himself on the treadmill just to test himself at the core.
In the racing activity, which so often is the very essence of hard-nosed business, the Dettori-Fallon duel is taking things back to the straightforward, overwhelming, challenge of sport where glory remains the greatest prize. Watch them, because you will never see the like of this again.