Kieren Fallon is full of surprises. The only predictable thread within his unique career in the saddle is the inevitability of triumph following disaster, and vice versa.
In recent seasons, however, Fallon’s career entered into a rare period of predictability. There have been no handsome retainers, no last dances on the big stage. Just a steady stream of ordinary winners as Fallon’s stock fell from must-have to too-much-trouble. He looked for all money like a man being ushered into retirement.
He knew it, too. As much was plain from his demeanour in July last year, when Luca Cumani’s main patron, Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum, stood Fallon down from riding his horses. He spent the rest of the year in the doldrums. When he spoke, it was to rage against the dying light.
It seemed inevitable Fallon would pursue the theme when he agreed to this interview. What else was there left to talk about in a career of extraordinary dimensions? But again, and doubtless not for the last time, Fallon confounds expectations by breezing in, all smiles. His face is still tanned from a winter stint in Dubai. His skin radiates rude health.
The first thing he notices in the breakfast room of a hotel in Newmarket, where he lives, is the framed set of blue-and-yellow silks hanging on the wall. They enhance his jovial mood since they belong to Saeed Suhail, for whom Fallon rode Kris Kin to win the 2003 Derby.
Moreover, he won’t stop talking. Words are tumbling out of him, unprompted and unencumbered by hesitancy, the latter a Fallon trait when he is unsure where a conversation is heading. He looks as though he is infused by the spring sunshine that casts shafts of bright light through the windows.
“I have never felt as well as I do now,” he says. “I feel better than any time in the last 20 years, I honestly do. For the first time in a long time I am in a really good place. I wake up every morning looking forward to the day.”
His demeanour contrasts sharply with his mood last November, when Fallon considered his options and did not care for any of them.
“Things weren’t looking great for me then,” he reflects. “Luca’s owner didn’t want me, and he had the best horses in the yard. It was getting tougher. It’s very difficult to get motivated if you don’t have a good horse to look forward to, and it just wasn’t happening.”
So much so that Fallon explored possibilities at Gulfstream Park, in Florida, and Australia, where the season would culminate with The Championships, two headline Saturdays at Randwick in April with more than AS$16 million in prize-money.
They were not idle thoughts. He’d applied for his US visa and talked to Ron Anderson, agent to Joel Rosario, about representing him. “I’d done well there in the past,” Fallon says, “but Ron reminded me that the weights jockey ride at are so much lighter. That put me off. It would have been tough enough anyway, because all the jockeys head to Florida for the winter.”
That obliged him to confront the one option he was desperately hoping to avoid. “Yes, I did think about retiring,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to carry on just making up the numbers. It was hard work.”
Gamble pays off
Instead, he decided to spend the winter in Dubai. And that was the game-changer, the deal he had been looking for, the hand he could play to perfection with his vast experience. In riding out every morning for Saeed Bin Suroor, he was routinely aboard the kind of superior horse that has always quickened his pulse.
“They [Godolphin] are one of the strongest outfits and they had quite a selection of jockeys riding out,” Fallon says. “William Buick, Ted Durcan and Hayley Turner were all there, but I was given a chance.”
Carnival rides were hard to come by but sitting on good horses every morning transformed Fallon’s stale mindset. He rediscovered his purpose and, for the first time in many months, he had a role to fulfil.
The turning point came in February when he was asked to renew his acquaintance with Prince Bishop, aboard whom he had won the September Stakes at Kempton towards the end of last season. The horse was Bin Suroor’s second string then, and would be his third in the second round of the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge.
Yet Fallon, 49, stole that race with a virtuoso ride. At the four-furlong pole, and after pedestrian mid-race fractions, he kicked Prince Bishop into a clear lead that was more than sufficient to resist African Story’s late flurry.
“That ride sparked something in me that I’d lost in the second half of last year,” the jockey says. “I went from thinking about taking time out to falling back in love with the game. It gave me a real buzz.”
He received another lift four weeks later, when De Sousa was suspended for Super Saturday, March 4. Fallon stood in for Bin Suroor’s stable jockey, winning the Group 2 Dubai City of Gold on Excellent Result before doubling up aboard Prince Bishop in the Group 1 Al Maktoum Challenge round three – with African Story in the ruck.
As it transpired, however, Fallon’s affinity with Prince Bishop may have cost him the biggest payday of his career. De Sousa would surely have chosen Prince Bishop ahead of African Story for the $10 million Dubai World Cup, but with Fallon extracting a fine tune from the horse, Bin Suroor kept him aboard. And with Prince Bishop missing the break, Fallon could only watch from the rear as African Story sprang a surprise victory under De Sousa.
In recent times that might have played on Fallon’s mind, but he is quick to dismiss its significance. “It is more important to me to be back where I want to be, feeling good, riding out for Saeed every day,” he says.
With that link continuing on Fallon’s return from Dubai, he ruled out a riding stint in Australia. “Riding out fills me with confidence, gives me more energy,” he says. “It’s like a workout in the gym, or playing squash. I didn’t ride out last year, so I was getting out of bed at nine or ten in the morning. The way I feel now I can’t see why I couldn’t ride for another four or five years.”
When that day comes Fallon will find it hard to turn his back on horses. He accepts he lacks the public relations skills that come with the territory but training has always preoccupied him, even though he has received plenty of discouragement.
“Sir Michael Stoute always used to say to me, ‘Oh, to be a jockey.’ But I’d love to train, to be around horses. They say jockeys don’t appreciate what it is like to be an owner or trainer, but I’ve got a pretty good idea.
“When I couldn’t ride for 18 months I’d go into Sir Michael’s every day, I’d ride four lots and be a part of it, rather than arrive on the gallops, jump on and jump off. Afterwards I’d help in dealing with the lame horses.”
The routine was familiar to Fallon from his time apprenticed to the late Jimmy FitzGerald. He used to break in the yearlings and prepare them for their Flat campaigns while FitzGerald was preoccupied with his jumpers. “I really enjoyed bringing those young horses on,” he reflects.
Mention of FitzGerald serves to remind that Fallon has been in Britain for more than half his life. He was 22 when he left his native County Clare, where his father was a plasterer, to join FitzGerald in north Yorkshire. He was a latecomer to the top table, having not joined Henry Cecil as stable jockey until he was 31.
Over the next 13 years Fallon’s personal life was as dysfunctional as his professional life was successful. Interspersed with 15 British Classics and six jockeys’ titles came a spate of long bans, ranging from dragging a fellow jockey off a horse to two suspensions – the second of them for 18 months – when he tested positive for cocaine.
But the seminal chapter concerns race-fixing charges levelled against him and seven others in the now-infamous Old Bailey trial that took two and a half years to come to court in 2007 – and resulted in the judge throwing the case out two months later for lack of evidence.
Fallon’s new-found tranquillity provides the ideal window to reflect on years of turbulence, when his follies saw him squander opportunities that would have exceeded the combined lifetime expectations of ten people. As he trawls the wreckage, he finds one common denominator.
“The regret is that I never had someone, one person, to help me along that journey,” he says. “I always try to help young lads coming through today, because it is a roller-coaster. You have to have someone with you who genuinely wants to help you, and those people are very hard to find in racing.
“It’s a different way in Ireland,” he continues. “I grew up basically living off the land and enjoyed it; it was such a happy, healthy way to live. It is a massive change to go from that kind of background to winning big races all over Europe. You can handle the ruthlessness, the pressure, the rat-race mentality. It’s what happens in the background you need guidance with.”
Harsh lessons learned
He is also not enamoured by his formative years in racing. “It was very old-school,” he reflects. “When you did well they didn’t pat you on the back, they kicked you up the arse. You are brought up to be tough, you’re not supposed to cry; it can be a hard way.
“I’m not sure how much good it did me, because one thing we all need when we start out is a bit of self-esteem,” he continues. “You don’t get that when you grow up that way. You have no confidence at all.”
He was keen for his three children to avoid such mental angst. While he still sees them, they, as young adults, have their own agendas. His eldest, Natalie, is now 20, while the twins, Brittany and Cieren, are 15. There is obvious pride in his voice as he relates Cieren’s talent for rugby, soccer and cross-country running.
As adolescents, Fallon’s children always asked why he never smiled when he’d ridden a big winner. “I wish I could wind back the clock and enjoy those moments a bit more than I did,” he concedes.
“I didn’t appreciate all those good horses. It came so easily to me and I just saw it as my job, something I had to do. But that’s the way I was: I’d be rewinding the race back in my head, thinking about where the horse should run next, rather than waving and jumping around the place. People say that Ryan [Moore] is always miserable but that’s not how it is. I can see he is deep in thought.”
It remains to be seen whether Fallon has the opportunity to revisit the winner’s circle on big occasions. Although he feels the legacy of that Old Bailey trial still clings to him like a stain, he takes heart from a recent medical examination from which he emerged in excellent physical shape.
That alone is an insufficient testimonial for any jockey. Their mental state is equally important, and in this, Fallon is convinced he has found the key.
“I wasn’t enjoying it last year,” he says. “I wasn’t even getting out of bed, but I have completely turned it around. Even if I don’t get good rides I still want to get up and ride good horses in the mornings. It’s the feeling you get from them; you just can’t explain it.”
Fallon may be unable to annunciate the feeling but he readily acknowledges what has happened to him. The feeling of riding a horse is what drew him to racing in the first place. For all the subsequent fame and tribulations that contaminated that simple pleasure, he has now rediscovered it.
He is back where he started, in thrall to those four-legged creatures that appeal to so many in so many different ways. As he puts it: “Riding out at 6am with the breeze in your face is a beautiful thing.”