'To be honest, most of the trouble I've brought on myself'
The former champion jockey is back in the saddle, where he feels happiest
Racing's blue-eyed boy. It might be a stretch to attach that description to Kieren Fallon, but there he is glowering out from the cover of his autobiography, his eyes the cornflower daydream of a Photoshop expert, his face a study in barely concealed scorn.
Never judge a book's subject by its cover, eh? Fallon doesn't really look like that. Yes, his eyes are blue, but a subtler shade, and now and again the bones of his face fall easily into an attitude of vexation, but he's smiling today, turning his book over in his hands, wondering why the publisher didn't put the happy photo that adorns the back cover on the front instead, saying he'd have preferred it that way.
He likes the book though, approves of it, is full of praise for his ghostwriter Oliver Holt. The title of the book is Form, a double-entendre that neatly covers the narrative within; form, you know, jockeys and horses, form, you know, nudge, nudge. So much has happened to Fallon, good and bad, that it's a surprise to discover that 302 pages is sufficient to embrace his life.
"I enjoyed doing the book," he says in that familiarly creaky County Clare mumble, now and again hinting at a hidden talent for ventriloquism. "I'm not a very good reader but I enjoyed the way it comes across. I'd have liked longer to do it but deadlines, you know. Most people who have read it say it's really good, and they like that there's lots of different things in it, the wasting, the flipping, the riding, the court cases.
"Christopher Stewart-Moore, my lawyer since the Stuart Webster incident more than 20 years ago, he's always been there through my difficult times, my shenanigans, whatever you want to call them, helped me with a lot of the things I'd forgotten.
"And doing it helped me figure out a lot of stuff about myself. It was therapeutic, you'd say. Getting it all out there."
Form doesn't read like a confessional, although any conversation with Fallon has a whiff of incense about it. The six-time champion has lived a life that would tax the imagination of any Delta bluesman, and as he says, almost unnecessarily, "to be honest with you, most of the trouble I've brought on myself".
It has been written of him that if he goes to a party, within ten minutes of arrival he'll be talking to the only two people in the room that he really shouldn't be talking to. Fallon's judgement of people is inversely related to his judgement of horses – on the back cover of Form, above the happy photo taken after Dylan Thomas won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, are the words 'I find people hard. When I am on a horse, I'm happy'. It's an outlook that has shaped his character from the beginning.
"I grew up in the rural west of Ireland. Our nearest neighbours were a mile away, it was isolated. There were only three other kids in my class at school – when I was growing up I never had a great deal of contact with other people.
"During the summer my father would be working all day, seven days a week, my mother would be working around the house, and us kids all had our own jobs to do, milk the cow, feed the chickens, whatever. You had to be happy in your own company. Even at secondary school I didn't have a lot of friends, it wasn't until I went to Kevin Prendergast's yard at the age of 17 that I really began to hang out with people.
Fallon in numbers
2578 wins in Britain
6 jockeys' championships
221 wins in a calendar year (2003)
49 age when winning the 2,000 Guineas on Night Of Thunder
22 Classic wins in Britain and Ireland
30 Royal Ascot wins
730 days suspended after positive drug tests
"When I walk into a room and there are people there, I start sweating, I find it uncomfortable. Now I'm doing book signings, I'd rather run 20 miles than sign 20 books, anything to get away, but I have to do it. It takes an hour before I feel comfortable, start enjoying it.
"And when I was riding – I was all right going from the weighing room to the paddock, but I found it hard, found it embarrassing, getting from the car park through the people to the weighing room, especially somewhere like Royal Ascot. It made me uncomfortable if I was on my own. All I wanted to do was get inside.
"When I'm walking around the paddock, I'm on my own with a horse. That's different from being on my own, and I don't feel on my own."
Like many an ex-jockey – Fallon retired last summer – he would feel lost without horses, cut adrift in a world of humankind and not so kind. He was a bona fide master in the saddle, a danger to himself out of it – if he hadn't become a jockey he might not have become anything. A snatch of insight from his schooldays – "I got an A+ once, for carpentry, I had to make a square with a different joint at each corner, and it was perfect. I did it in two hours, too – the exam was actually four hours long but I turned up late" – is purest Fallon, brilliance almost fatally betrayed by the confines of normality, the archetype of wayward genius.
Luckily he still has his horses, his new role as a work-rider for Saeed Bin Suroor maintaining the connection. He mutters about being among the oldest in the yard at 52 – "I don't feel it" – but is clearly delighted about the situation.
"I'm riding out every day, I still get the contact with horses, and there's all the banter between the lads. Before, I would have my head down. Now, I find I can open up more."
Last year Fallon went public about suffering from depression, too often a taboo subject in the sports pages, and the image of his head down, caught in the circling, tightening noose of depression, is a vivid one. He has lifted it up, opened up. The diagnosis, as is common, was laboriously reached.
"Nothing was the same after the Old Bailey trial [of 2007] even though I was third in the jockeys' championship one year. I wasn't getting the same rides, I didn't feel as good, I wasn't eating well, I couldn't sleep, all the blood tests came out fine but there was something wrong.
"Dr Adrian McGoldrick got me into St Patrick's Hospital in Dublin and now I'm on medication and feeling so much better. My son Cieren is coming along well, that's helped, we're going to Dubai for the winter, that's something to look forward to, and doing the book has helped. A lot of little things, you know.
"Racing doesn't really take much notice of depression, and I don't think it really cares. Racing could do more. Look – everybody thinks a jockey makes loads of money, has a great life, but they don't realise the pressure of getting a job and then keeping it, of staying safe, of coping with family life when you aren't hardly at home, then the weight, the travel . . .
"It's only now I've stopped that I've seen how crazy I was when I wanted to get to a race meeting, up the hard shoulder for five or six miles, running in all out of breath to ride in a two-grand claimer, seven days a week. I remember Kevin Darley saying that jockeys shouldn't ride at two meetings in a day – at the time I thought if you don't want to ride, then don't, but now I've stopped I see that Kevin was right."
The mention of his son brings animation to his voice. Cieren Fallon – the name may sound familiar – is 18, riding out for William Haggas, is a late developer like his father. A riding dynasty beckons.
"I want him to be a jockey. You won't get a better sport than racing. I want him to do better than I did. He has a similar character to me – I used to be very annoying when I was young, mischievous, and he's the same . . . but I don't like that now! He's been brought up differently than me, though.
"Sometimes I sneak around when I know he's going up the gallops for Mr Haggas, I'll watch him, and he seems to be comfortable, and he can ride. He rang me telling me how good he was on this horse who was trouble in the stalls – he's thinking he's great, I'm thinking about how he could have got hurt.
"I'll be able to guide him now. I wish I'd had somebody to guide me. I can give him advice, alert him to all the potential pitfalls."
Ah, the pitfalls. Cieren couldn't have a better teacher. You know all the stories – Stuart Webster, Top Cees, being sacked by Henry Cecil, Ballinger Ridge, the Old Bailey, the cocaine – and if you don't, they're in the book. Fallon hasn't left any dirty washing in the laundry basket. He says that he doesn't really want to go into it now, recognises the inevitability with a sigh.
"The worst part wasn't the nine weeks in the Old Bailey, it was the three and a half years waiting to get there. That killed me, that was the worst part. It was almost enjoyable in the trial itself, because I like a good courtroom drama, and it was brilliant to see the barristers destroying [Ray] Murrihy and [Paul] Scotney.
"It's wrong what they can do, what they did. They didn't have any evidence. There wasn't anything there."
An aside about the possibility that racing has never been that fair to Fallon leads to the aforementioned comment about bringing most of it on himself. "It started with Webster, that didn't look good, it was all on camera. And Ballinger Ridge."
The saddest words, it might have been. Fallon was 15 lengths clear on Ballinger Ridge in a nothing race, eased up, got caught, got beat. For the want of a nose, the race was lost. For the want of a race, the reputation was lost. For the want of a reputation, the man was lost. "If I'd won . . . it's a different world.
"Ballinger Ridge wasn't one of the 'laid' horses, he wasn't in the trial. But it looked bad, didn't it. No, I don't let it eat away at me now. Chris Catlin [rider of Rye, the horse who beat Ballinger Ridge at Lingfield] rides out for Godolphin too and we have a laugh about it, because that's all you can do. There are bigger problems people have had to face. My problems aren't so big in comparison. The easiest way to solve a problem is to talk about it, but we just bottle it up. I could have done with someone to talk to."
It has taken long enough to get to Fallon the jockey, six titles, King's Best, more than 2,500 winners, North Light, three Derbys, Hurricane Run, two Arcs, Ouija Board, nine Guineas, the last a record he is particularly pleased with. In any reckoning Fallon is one of the greatest jockeys of the last 50 years, an instinctive genius, tough, strong, confident, nerveless, a Classic winner for all-time hall-of-famers Sir Henry Cecil, Sir Michael Stoute, Aidan O'Brien. We don't always see beyond the silks, though; Fallon's successes aren't dwelt upon in his book, aren't relished, the impression left that these glories were never quite enough to fill the soul.
"I rode a five-timer at Lingfield one day, my other two rides were placed I think, but driving home I was annoyed by the ones that got away more than I was pleased with the five that had won. That's the way I always was. My children were there for King's Best's Guineas, but driving them home I was just annoyed. 'Why don't you smile, daddy?' That's what they used to say to me when they were growing up."
He says he was happiest as a jockey in his apprentice days with Prendergast, or later with O'Brien, when he and TJ Comerford lived in a little cottage just inside the Ballydoyle gates and went off chopping their own firewood, "fun things like that which they didn't do in England".
The poignancy is profound. Simple things, the sort of thing he spent his childhood doing. A jockey is a man first, of course, and before that he was a boy. We sometimes forget what we should remember. How does Fallon think he'll be remembered? The question makes him uncomfortable.
"I don't really care what people think, how they remember me," he says, after a while. "I enjoyed doing it while I was doing it, but it's a bit sad because I know without all the things that happened I could have done much, much more."
But how will people remember you, Kieren? Another long pause. "He was what he was." Pride and pain have never been better expressed within five words. And would you do it all again, if you could? This time the answer comes as though he had been waiting a long time to be asked.
"Yes. I'd love to. I'd really love another bite of the cherry. I'd change a few things, mind." And those blue eyes gleam.
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