Gunslinger back to give it his best shot
On the eve of his comeback to racing, Kieren Fallon has his sights set on Ryan Moore’s champion jockey crown
David Walsh, Chief Sports Writer
“I ain’t like that no more, I ain’t the same, Ned. Just cause we’re going on this killin’, that don’t mean I’m gonna go back to being the way I was. Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth, and his teeth came out the back of his head, I think about him now and again. He didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up” — William Munny (Clint Eastwood) speaking to Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) in Unforgiven
A friend persistently asks why I bother with Kieren Fallon. Here is the answer; as clear as the summer light on this Tuesday evening at his apartment in Newmarket. We had played golf earlier in the afternoon and, only half-interested, he’d won 3&2. “Come back for something to eat,” he said, “Geraldine is cooking dinner.” He called his sister to warn her but it was too late; Geraldine had been expecting just him. “It’ll be all right,” he said. “Just divide what you have in two, there’ll be plenty.”
Dinner is wonderfully Irish: bacon, cabbage, a delicious white sauce and the flouriest potatoes. You mention the potatoes, and Geraldine lists the five best varieties, all by their names.
In the hallway, on the living room walls, everywhere there are photographic testimonials to his genius. Fallon on Russian Rhythm, Kris Kin, Ouija Board, Fallon on any number of Henry Cecil fillies, Fallon in the silks of Coolmore, on Hurricane Run, George Washington, Dylan Thomas.
Somebody once said that John Magnier’s best day at the races was the 2006 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. His horses, Hurricane Run, Horatio Nelson and Rumplestiltskin, won the three Group Ones. Fallon rode like a man possessed. Perhaps he just had too much talent, like the poor rich kid who inherited too much wealth and didn’t know how to look after it.
But in his apartment, surrounded by the frozen frames of winning moments, it is impossible to connect the gifted jockey with the man sitting on the sofa, glancing at re-runs of that day’s racing and talking about his love of the actor Steve Buscemi and the slimy characters he plays. How he loved Buscemi as the contemptible Carl Showalter in Fargo. Then, extraordinarily, Fallon brings his teeth together, opens his mouth and begins to mimic Buscemi speaking to the car-park attendant who wants him to pay $4 for a very short stay: “I guess you think you’re an authority figure, with your clip-on tie . . . these are the limits of your little world, you pathetic piece of s***.” In a second, he has got that squirrelly Buscemi look.
Speaking of films, I suggest he study William Munny in Unforgiven, the old gunslinger coming back for one more killing, and coming back as a changed man. The film asks if the old guy has changed and if he can come back — questions that Fallon will begin to answer five days from now.
HE LAST rode in a horse race on October 7, 2007. He had a corruption trial and a second drugs suspension hanging over him, Dylan Thomas beneath him. If you wanted a metaphor for his life at that time, there it was: a great ride in the Prix de l’Arc one day, a couple of train crashes the next day. He had everything and then he had nothing.
Unlike his rider, Dylan Thomas wasn’t exceptionally talented but he was dependable and consistent. Perhaps opposites do attract, because, together, they never lost. Longchamp that afternoon was the finest moment; a brave, willing horse driven to victory by an inspired jockey. When the trial started the next day, then the news emerged of a second failed drugs test, it was easy to believe Heathcliff would depart Wuthering Heights for the last time.
Fallon has never been so predictable. His vindication in the corruption trial was an embarrassment to those who accused him, and through two years of exile he has got physically stronger and found an almost startling peace. A smile has become his screensaver. Which is not to say all of the angst is gone. That would be impossible and slightly disappointing.
“Do you know how much racing spends on security?” he said that day on the golf course. “Twenty-seven million! We are still racing for two grand in this country — less than the worst prize-money in India when I used to ride there 20 years ago. India is a third-world racing country. Their lowest prize-money 20 years ago wasn’t as bad as what we’re racing for today. Why can’t they understand, if some of that 27m went into prize-money, there would be less need to spend so much on security.”
While he was temporarily exiled, he refreshed himself. He used the time to see more of his children, Natalie, Brittany, Cieren and James. Even in the bad times, he was a decent father, and now when they come to stay, they’re sad when they leave. He saw young Cieren score two tries in a curtain-raiser to a Wigan Warriors game. Unsurprisingly, the lad is hard to stop.
Renewal came through exercise and a healthier lifestyle. Newmarket’s narrow streets are strewn with the bodies of jockeys who have taken him on at squash, and he has worked out with a physical trainer. He tells of the psychotherapist whom racing’s authorities made him see, and how he grew to like her and find her helpful. “She asks good questions, she’s very nice, you’d like her.” I mention Tony Soprano and his therapist. Thankfully, he hasn’t been a Sopranos watcher. But the greatest source of rehabilitation has been the gallops at Newmarket, where for two years he has been virtually every morning at six o’clock, riding out for Sir Michael Stoute, Luca Cumani, Ed Dunlop, William Haggas, Paul Howling and many others.
This is William Munny, in his back garden, putting a tin on a fence and seeing if he can still hit the target from 30 paces. With the reins in his hands, the inside of his legs gently touching the horse’s withers, Fallon instinctively knows if the response is what it should be. Every morning he tries to ride better, and dreams of coming back better, stronger, more in tune with his animal than before.
“Have you read Jerry Bailey’s book?” he asks. It’s the autobiography of the great American rider. “I’ve only ever read two books in my life, and one of them was Jerry’s [the other was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces]. I loved Jerry’s book, his story. He had problems, he sorted them out, he came back and enjoyed the best part of his career. Look at Garrett Gomez now, the best jockey riding in America today, and look what he’s come through.”
A COUPLE of weeks before, we were sitting down for dinner at the Phoenix restaurant in Histon, near Cambridge; Fallon and a couple of friends. Shooting the breeze about how good he will be when he comes back. In the middle of the optimism and bravura, he is reserved. “It is one thing to feel good on the gallops but a race is a different test.” His companions see nothing but winners and the champion’s title at the end of 2010.
He wants that title, his title, back. But it won’t be easy. Ryan Moore, the new champion, is talented, dedicated, insatiably hungry and No 1 jockey to Stoute. Fallon and Moore see each other at Stoute’s and are polite to each other, but since Moore became champion, it hasn’t been much more than low-key politeness. Moore needed to make his own way to the top and wasn’t interested in tipping his hat to Fallon as he went by.
While Fallon agrees his successor is a very good rider, he thinks the championships have come too easily. “Who is seriously trying to beat him? Not Hughesy [Richard Hughes], not Frankie [Dettori], not Jamie [Spencer], none of them.” Although he doesn’t say it, he wants you to understand that it will no longer be so easy for Moore. From Southwell to Lingfield, Ayr to Bath, he will chase the kid — William Munny back for one last killing.
We fantasised about how much we would make backing him to win next year’s title. Stan James was offering 20-1 for Fallon to be 2010 champion, 8-1 without Moore. Among the three of us, there wasn’t one who didn’t want to have the biggest bet of his life. With him in our midst, it felt like insider trading but he said nothing to embolden us. His silence was encouragement enough.
Unwittingly, Moore has helped by getting himself an eight-day ban that begins on Saturday, the day after Fallon’s return. Next weekend Stoute will need a jockey for Group One races at Haydock and Leopardstown. Fallon may get some big chances sooner than imagined. He hopes his children can be present to see his first day back, because he believes it is going to be the start of a better life for their father.
In the past six months, he has spoken of treating people differently on his return. “Before, when you rode for a small trainer and a small owner, you’d get off the horse and hardly give them the time of day. You were rushing away to get changed for the next race, or you just weren’t bothered. I’m not going to be like that again. These people think as much of their horse as the man who paid 500,000 for his, and they deserve to be treated properly.”
A few days after the night at the Phoenix, I asked if he was flattered that we all wanted to back him to win next year’s championship. He was non-committal. So, I asked, should I back him? “With every penny you’ve got,” he replied.
think he’s 7 rides tomorrow…i’ll be doing a yankee or lucky 31 …