Kieren Fallon: I never got a buzz out of riding; I saw it as part of my job
Julian Muscat meets a very different man two years on from quitting the saddle
Published in the Racing Post on June 26, 2018
Kieren Fallon rides out on Newmarket Heath six mornings a week. His day's work is done soon after 10am, after which he retreats to the anonymity of his home in the town. Evidence of the trappings of his success are nowhere to be seen.
Fallon could pass for anyone but a six-time champion jockey. In considering him today, it is tempting to ask the question once posed of George Best by the room-service waiter who delivered yet more champagne to Best's hotel room in the early hours as he lay sprawled on his bed with two women.
"Where did it all go wrong, Kieren?"
Except that for Fallon, it is gradually coming right. All the years of turmoil, a deal of it self-inflicted, have made way for the simpler things. One of the best-paid sportsmen of his generation has found release away from the saddle and an existence that bound him to a lifestyle he came to despise.
Not everyone who reaches the summit enjoys the view from on high. It induced in Fallon a kind of vertigo he could only properly quell on the back of a racehorse. The protocol before he mounted, and after he dismounted in triumph, signalled a return to a domain in which he never truly belonged.
Only now, two years into retirement, is Fallon piecing together the jagged shards of a brilliant career. There is tranquility in eyes that once emitted anger. He has made some frank admissions to himself, admissions he once believed never applied to him. With that has come the realisation that everything he once aspired to was a burning necklace.
As Fallon, 53, reminisces it becomes clear the weighing room was more of a prison than a sanctuary. He was never comfortable in the place he once ruled, bending the will of other jockeys to his own. The only thing preoccupying him when he walked into the jockeys' room was how quickly he could leave it.
That's why Fallon never revisits it on his rare trips to the races. "I feel embarrassed," he says. "I don't know why; I'm weird, aren't I? I'm not really in touch with the boys I used to ride with either."
None of which is the slightest bit surprising. In his haste to leave the weighing room Fallon often swigged from a bottle of vodka immediately after his last ride. He wasn't even beyond its doors before he sought solace from its suffocating environment.
In that respect he became a mirror image of Monica Seles, the teenage tennis prodigy whose life imploded immediately after she was stabbed by a spectator at a tournament in Germany in 1993.
Seles found true happiness only within the white-line perimeters of a tennis court. The dichotomy was that she had to embrace locker-room life to get there, a process she found traumatic given what had happened to her. Fallon wanted only to ride horses. The weighing room was thus a necessary evil.
"It was like being in a goldfish bowl," he reflects. "You're up at six in the morning, not home until midnight sometimes, travelling five or six hours in the car. The madness of it didn't hit me until I stopped.
"It came to me when I was in one of my rehab clinics," he continues. "When you're driving from Newbury to Kempton at 120mph, up the hard shoulder, weaving in and out of traffic to ride in a two-grand race at 9pm – only then did I see how crazy it was."
Fallon had an inkling that a top jockey's life in Britain didn't square with his expectations on a visit to the US, which became his spiritual home. Back then, however, it took him time to work it out for himself.
"You don't travel around every day in America," he says. "You are ponied to the start, held in the gate and picked up again [by an outrider] at the finish. All your energy is focused on riding, and you're racing for serious prize-money all the time."
It was also the Americans who identified a serious character flaw inherent in Fallon. "They said I was a passive-aggressive person," he relates. "I hate confrontation. I always said 'Yes' to please someone even when I didn't want to."
He agrees that his inability to communicate his thoughts was a by-product of low self-esteem. It's hard to square that with the man who rode like a Greek god, whose saddle demeanour espoused confidence of a kind that can't be taught, and who induced panic in all but the best jockeys when he bore down on them near the finish. Yet Fallon was always one of a kind.
One of six children born to a County Clare plasterer who worked every daylight hour, Fallon spent more time in the fields of rural Ireland than in the classroom. Reading remains a problem: "I have only read one book in my life: Kane And Abel by Jeffrey Archer," he relates with a hint of embarrassment. "It took me six months to finish it."
There is thus irony in the fact that Fallon's autobiography Form, ghost-written by Oliver Holt, was named Cross International Autobiography of the Year at this year's Sports Book Awards in London.
Fallon was taken aback. "I've never been so embarrassed in my life," he says of the evening. "Going there, I thought we had no chance, but when I heard the compere use the words 'flawed genius' I knew what was coming. At that moment I wanted the ground to rise up and swallow me."
Again, what should have been a personal landmark became something of an ordeal. He was overwhelmed as he went up to receive the award. "I couldn't remember Simon & Schuster, the publisher whose name I must have said a million times before," he relates.
"I couldn't remember Ollie Holt's name even though I'd sat with him for hours and got on really well with him. I couldn't even remember Christopher's [Stewart-Moore, his long-standing solicitor] name. I just couldn't wait to get off that stage."
It is interesting to look back at footage of that presentation ceremony. It depicts a plainly nervous Fallon, yet also a man who disguises his 'embarrassment' well. But then, Fallon has been doing that all his life.
He seamlessly glosses over his inability to remember names until he finally remembers that of Stewart-Moore, who has become a personal friend after years of navigating the jockey through the extreme turbulence his career generated.
But the best legacy of that book is that Fallon found it therapeutic in his efforts to rebound from the wreckage his life had become. He spent the early months of his retirement getting out of bed at 11am and breakfasting on alcohol. "My life wouldn't have lasted long if I'd carried on like that," he reflects without a flicker of emotion.
"I thought the Old Bailey trial was the most interesting part of the book," he says. "I love watching documentaries on television and court cases, with barristers summing up. It's great drama."
Perhaps, but this was hardly a movie. Had he been found guilty of corruption, as was alleged by the prosecution when he was charged in July 2006, he was looking at between six and ten years. "My lawyers didn't tell me that until towards the end of the trial," he says, as though the prospect of serving time would have been just another episode in the saga.
"Actually, I never felt that that would happen," he maintains. "The trial went on and on but we couldn't understand why the judge hadn't already thrown the case out. It was a disgrace."
In 2005 the News Of The World's now-discredited Mazher Mahmood, aka the Fake Sheikh, made allegations that would culminate, three years later, in the collapse of that Old Bailey trial which effectively finished Fallon's career. And what a career it was: the only man whose prowess led to him riding as stable jockey to Sir Henry Cecil, Sir Michael Stoute and Aidan O'Brien. No big race was safe from his clutches.
Even now, however, there is too much associated baggage for Fallon to bask in former glories. "I get more of a buzz watching those big races on YouTube than I did when I rode in them," he says.
"I never got a buzz out of riding; I saw it as part of my job. I don't miss race-riding at all, and I'm a lot happier riding out for Saeed [Bin Suroor] than I was in those days. I love going up the gallops with one or two for company but I couldn't get in among 20 horses on a racecourse."
It's tempting to feel remorseful for Fallon that a glittering career was obfuscated by the treadmill that removed any pleasure while his life disintegrated around him. However, to feel remorse would be to miss the point, since Fallon himself feels none at all. He is genuinely glad it's over, that he is looking in from the outside, that the dissipated images from all that success are being replaced by simple truths.
For a start, it has allowed him to properly embrace fatherhood. He occasionally saw his children when he was working, and thus in wholly inappropriate circumstances.
He'd be driving back from the races, a hat-trick in the bag but consumed by the winner that got away, with Natalie and the younger twins, Cieren and Brittany, in the back of his car. He couldn't handle the conflicting emotional demands.
"To be honest, I didn't want to see the children then," he says. "When they came I was always in bad form; I don't know why. They'd say, 'You've ridden three winners; why aren't you happy? How come you never smile?' They understand better now, of course. They understand better what I was going through."
Not all of the broken shards have reassembled into a coherent picture. There is no woman in the life of a man who got divorced 13 years ago. Is that by choice?
"To be honest with you, I don't know what I want," he replies. "I have always found it hard to settle. I always thought I'd go back to America and train horses because I love it there, but Cieren is going to take out his jockeys' licence soon. I couldn't be away while that was happening.
"I am looking forward to it, but dreading it at the same time," he continues. "I won't be able to do anything else except watch him for the first few weeks. Normally I'm not a worrier but this has been on my mind."
Cieren is indentured to William Haggas and has inherited his father's talent in one respect. "He can ride a difficult horse and make it look easy," Fallon says. "That's a good sign. Whether he has a racing brain we'll see in time but he has one thing going for him. He is very professional, whereas I was a lunatic."
It will be interesting to see where Fallon is in five years' time. By then Cieren will have flown the nest, saddle in hand or otherwise. And perhaps Fallon's memories of his own saddle life will embrace more of the successes than the scandals.
Reminders of those successes abound in Newmarket, never more so than on the long drive into the Rowley Mile racecourse, where Fallon once reigned supreme. Every 50 yards there hangs a pennant commemorating Newmarket Classic heroes. Fallon rode nine Guineas winners, which is more than any jockey since the 19th century.
"You see all the 2,000 Guineas winners driving in and all the 1,000 Guineas on the way out," he says. "It's nice to be reminded of it. When you see those names you think, 'Well, I didn't too badly'."
And on the subject of redressing balances, Fallon still has work to do. He gave over one hour of time to this interview, insisting throughout that there was absolutely no rush even though he was called regularly by somebody who was plainly expecting his presence.
We duly concluded at a leisurely pace, talking some more as we ambled gently towards our cars. Having jumped into the driver's seat and said farewell, Fallon then drove off at high speed, doubtless trying to minimise the lateness of his arrival at his next appointment.
It's a classic symptom of passive-aggressiveness. He still needs to learn how to say no.
North Light the best of Fallon's Derby winners
Kieren Fallon rode three Derby winners among a haul of 15 British Classics and has no hesitation in advancing North Light as the best of them. "He was so easy, the only one of the three I was able to enjoy," he says of the Michael Stoute-trained colt who triumphed in 2004.
"North Light was a beautiful ride. You could put him where you wanted and he was big enough that he was never going to be bullied. The Derby Oath won [in 1999] wasn't a great race but he did everything right. I was drawn in the coffin box [stall one] but he took me where I wanted to be after four furlongs. It was straightforward from there.
"Kris Kin should never have won [in 2003]. I don't care what anyone says: he would never have won for another trainer. Stoutey had a chuckle that night: how the hell did this horse win the Derby? He was lazy and unsound; he was lame three days before the Derby but Stoutey patched him up brilliantly."
Of the other equine stars he rode, he nominates Ouija Board, Dylan Thomas and George Washington as the pick.
"Ouija Board was magic, a real machine. She beat the boys in the Prince of Wales's Stakes, when I would have ridden her if they [the Coolmore syndicate] hadn't decided to run Ace at the last minute. Ouija Board should have won three Breeders' Cups but Jerry Bailey had her too far back [in 2005] the year after I rode her to win the Filly & Mare Turf.
"Dylan Thomas was the toughest horse I rode. He ran every month in the year he won the Arc . He should never have won that Arc because he was gone by then. He was all out at the two-furlong pole, had nothing left, but kept on sticking his head out. He fought to the line that day.
"And George Washington was an amazing horse. Nothing could go fast enough to lead him. I'm not saying he'd have beaten Frankel but I'd love to have ridden George against him. He'd definitely have given Frankel a race."
Kieren Fallon's award-winning autobiography Form is available in hardback, priced £20, from racingpost.com/shop
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