9 December 2007

Seen this week from the distance of Hong Kong, the Kieren Fallon saga had a sad sense of impending doom about it. How ironic that the horse he should have ridden in the big race here today is called Dylan Thomas.

For while we spent every morning watching four-legged Dylan drilling up the gallop as he prepared for the last race of a quite magnificent career, we also knew that the end of the week was crunch time for Fallon. What’s more, a few of us were aware that the Old Bailey result would be far from the end of it for the flawed genius, who had steered Dylan Thomas to Arc de Triomphe success the day before the trial started in early October.

The news of a second positive drug test was catastrophic both for the jockey and for the support team who had so loyally bankrolled him through the immensely-expensive and quite disgracefully-devised proceedings. At a stroke, it dissipated the goodwill which develops when a prosecution case is shown to be a mixture of childish stupidity and bone-headed arrogance. Just when there was a chance of Fallon wiping the slate clean with a confession of clear, but not criminal, racing offences, he has been sucked back into the penalties that addictions bring.

There are two ways that we should react. The first is the generous one of compassion and was best expressed by Aidan O’Brien here in Hong Kong on Friday. The man who had legged Fallon into Dylan Thomas’s saddle at Longchamp on Arc day was talking after the trial collapse. The drug test had not been announced but he would have known about it. “Kieren has been under intolerable pressure,” O’Brien said, “and his temperament is fickle enough at the best of times. It’s a big shame and a big mess and he will probably never get over it. Obviously he will have to get a lot of counselling.”

The second reaction is much more robust and just as necessary. What planet did Fallon think he was on that he could so flagrantly flout not just the rules of racing but, if the test is correct, of absolute common sense? Let’s not fall for any “naive horse boy” special pleading. Kieren Fallon is a 42-year-old, six-figure income, Derby-winning superstar, who has been champion jockey six times. He has ridden for the Queen and many great owners while being the stable choice of the three current training geniuses, Henry Cecil, Michael Stoute and Aidan O’Brien. Such achievements also involve setting an example, which in this case has all too often been conspicuous by its absence.

There is a third reaction, which is less comfortable because it involves all of us in racing. When we have finished venting our anger at the faults of others we should think back to why we got into this mess in the first place. For sure the prosecution was a shambles, the policemen incompetent, the Australian steward a joke, and the idea of showing Fallon’s finest winning rides as proof of him stopping horses was worthy of Monty Python. But that only came afterwards.

What started it was a web of telephone and betting communication, which everyone involved knew was utterly against the Rules of racing but which far too many of us shrug off as “something on the side”. The truth is we have moved on from the days of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink; don’t put the money on unless I carry my whip in the right hand”, just as rugby players don’t get sloshed before internationals and company directors don’t ring up all their friends before a takeover deal. Of course, it will still happen and, for sure, it is not exactly a hanging offence, but in an age of openness, full camera surveillance and Betfair, the racing world has signed up to a new code of conduct. If it had been adhered to none of this would have happened.

But Fallon’s demons will remain and it is his own and our frustration that they have nothing to do with what he does in the saddle. Up there he has developed into the most complete physical flat race jockey that I have ever seen. There would have been times when Lester Piggott would have outthought him, Scobie Breasley outfinessed him, but for sheer instinctive gathering of human and equine muscle there has never been anything to match him. Yet what counts this  when he can say, as he did on a previous counselling course, “you know if I get into a room with 50 people, in 10 minutes I will end up talking to the only two bad ones there”. Champions have to guard against the company they keep or pay the consequences.

There is a problem that needs help. But it needs discipline too. Without it there is only Dylan Thomas’s famous Dying of the Light. And Dylan was dead at 39.

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