'I know where I get my highs now and it's from winning'
Kieren Fallon has put his demons behind him, but hasn't lost his determination, as he tells Marie Crowe
It's 27 years since Kieren Fallon left home. The champion jockey picks me up just outside the town of Bishop's Stortford and pretty quickly he's the one asking the questions. He has just come from a concussion test, but there seems to be only one thing on his mind now: home.
He immediately begins recalling his favourite memories, detailing the nights spent playing outside the pubs of Tubber listening to the strains of Joe Cooney as his parents went for an evening drink. He remembers going to the Ennis market on Saturdays to sell collie puppies and the day-long drive to Dublin in the summers to visit his grandmother.
Perhaps caught up momentarily in the memories, a few wrong turns follow as Fallon tries to navigate his way out of unfamiliar territory. He assures me he has an excellent sense of direction, always had, and we eventually set off on the right road to Wolverhampton.
There's a hint of sentimentality about his reminiscences for Clare but it would be wrong to stretch this to a longing to return. "I miss home," he admits, "but there's nothing there for me." And there's the rub. "It wouldn't be possible for me to come back because the way I ride over here suits me -- with lots of racing. Ireland is more of a National Hunt country."
Nor does it help that the country he left behind to go in pursuit of winners has changed, he says, beyond all recognition. "There used to be a nice easy-going way of life there but things have changed and changed for the worse I think."
The jockey's life now seems far removed from his childhood in Crusheen but on closer inspection it has almost gone full circle. When he left Ireland, Fallon set himself big goals, he knew he wanted to be the best. Fast-forward 20 years and Fallon is off the rollercoaster his life had become and he wants to put the past behind him and be the best again. He's starting afresh.
"My demons are gone, I don't have them any more so I'll never resort to them. I now look forward to racing again, to getting up in the morning and finding good horses, to the big days like Epsom and Chester. I was starting to get lazy towards the end the last time but now I want it again and I appreciate things.
"I have to put everything that happened in the past to bed. It's boring and people are bored of it. It's going to be exciting, it's going to be tough and obviously I will have days where I will be disappointed. I have to try and move on but if I can't win today then I will the next day; it's what keeps me getting up. I know the consequences and I know where I get my highs now and it's from winning."
As we wind on towards Wolverhampton, he nibbles on a few sweets, manages half a packet of Walkers crisps and a few gulps of Lucozade, and that concludes his food quota for the day.
"I can eat and drink what I like if I'm riding eight or 10 times a day and the weather is hot but right now I'm a little fat. When I was 17 and dressed, I was five stone. Now I'm about 8-3 and I need to get it down."
* * * * *
The busy Friday traffic and roadworks have made the journey longer and more frustrating than usual but we still have time to spare. He has ridden here countless times but still Fallon surveys the scene before him. With the first race still over two hours away, Fallon's only ride of the night, for trainer Linda Stubbs, is almost three hours away.
He may be a former champion jockey, and one of the most gifted of his generation, but on this quiet Friday night in Wolverhampton one ride on a horse without a win in a year is his lot -- for now at least.
It is seven years since he won the last of his six British jockey titles. Ryan Moore won it on 174 last year; Fallon has had 200 four times. It's getting the good horses and the rides that is the problem. The recession is hitting everyone and, as a freelance jockey just back from an 18-month ban, it's even harder. When Fallon arrives at a stable to ride out in the morning, there could be three or four top jockeys there all hustling for the rides.
"I would like to say I can see myself winning the jockeys' title but I don't have the same ammunition behind me as Frankie Dettori or Ryan Moore but I do have more determination. It's important to me but it's more about doing well and getting back the confidence and trust of the trainers and the owners. And getting back to where I was before and riding in all the big races. If you don't have a good horse to ride, it's not the same. I'm used to riding good horses, championship winners. If I wasn't it might not be too bad. I'm still riding winners but if you don't have a good horse you almost feel empty."
It was a rocky road back to the track for Fallon. There was a big part of him that wasn't sure if he would ever make it back this time. The charges pertaining to race-fixing allegations dragged on for over two years and Fallon's freedom hung in the balance. He was eventually exonerated but the ordeal took its toll. He abstractly refers to the fear that gripped him, the thought that he may spend time in a cell, locked up in a small space. It was a dark time and he resorted to extreme means to block it out. The result was catastrophic in its own way -- an 18-month ban for failing a drugs test in France.
He was with Coolmore at the time, riding the best horses and living every jockey's dream when his world came crashing down again. It took the support of all those around him to get him back on track. In his last week there, Aidan O'Brien told him what he needed to do.
"Aidan (O'Brien) told me that it will be a quick 18 months and what I needed to do was take a year to get my head right and six months getting myself fit and back riding. He is a very clever man, and his approach was the right one to take. I couldn't see it then. I couldn't see myself getting back riding again. He was able to see what I couldn't."
And Fallon stuck to the plan, riding every morning for Michael Stoute, working out in the afternoons with a personal trainer and playing squash in the evenings. In the process, he discovered something that he loved, a possible career option for the future, managing horses in a big stable.
Once he got his licence back last September, he rode 50 winners in the space of a couple of months, reigniting the old determination and hunger that had first forced him to leave Ireland and to reach the heights he did. He has regrets, many of them that will haunt him for the rest of his life. He doesn't think he will ever ride for Aidan O'Brien again but he definitely wants to.
"If I was lucky, and if there is a God, I would love to ride St Nicholas Abbey but that's Aidan O'Brien's and Johnny Murtagh rides him. There might be hope but I'd say I'm tenth on Aidan's list to ride him."
Fallon knows that the desire to succeed, and the control and calmness he displayed under pressure in big races, never extended to his personal life. His bad judgment and easy-going nature frequently landed him in trouble, and still through it all he rarely faltered on the track. Winning the Arc in 2007 on Dylan Thomas the day before the start of the Old Bailey trial was typical of him. He also knew about the drugs storm that was coming down the track.
"I look forward to the big days and I ride better on them too. If you look at my Classics record, you can see that. I like the pressure of the big stage. I concentrate better. I always set myself high goals; if I could just pick up where I left off, I'd be flying it.
"I love the spotlight, everybody does, there would be something wrong with you if you didn't. I have a lot of confidence in myself. I just love the excitement of the big day. I feel great and hopefully it transforms to the horse. If you can get that combination right and get it flowing, you can walk on water.
"The reason I coped with the pressure of everything that happened to me was because I know there is always people worse of than me. All I have to do is turn on CNN and see the pictures from the Third World and then I appreciate what I have. I think people get cornered and have no escape but I look at myself now and I thank God that I'm alright. It's about trying to get a perspective and that works for me."
Fallon finishes a disappointing eighth on Five Star Junior in a race won by a 33/1 outsider. Fifteen minutes later, as we leave the track, his disappointment is evident. Back in the jeep, he goes over the race again, piecing it together, figuring out why he didn't win. "There was no pace in the race, and that annoys me because if there was I could have won. I would have liked to have won it for the owner -- she is a nice lady."
We get back on the road again and Fallon is still brooding. This is the side of racing you don't see. The relentless driving from yard to track, track to yard, the pressure of trying to keep everyone happy -- owners, trainers, agents -- and the disappointment of not winning. The whole day was spent getting to the track for one race, the day before was the same but Fallon missed the start by one minute and had to turn around and go home without making a penny.
As the traffic stretches out ahead of us, Fallon reveals the extent of his determination. Going to the races for one ride will cost him money. The six-hour round trip will leave him out of pocket and tire him out. But he wants to be on these horses again, to have his chance when the big day comes. So he has to make the sacrifices now, show his determination and build back up the confidence of the owners and trainers who have supported him since he came back. He knows that not everyone is on his side. Walking into the weigh room to face the jockeys was one of the hardest things he had to do on his comeback. Rejoining his counterparts, people he will take rides and winners from, was never going to be easy. He knew some weren't happy to see him back.
"The most difficult thing was getting that 18-month ban and coming back riding the first couple of days, having to face everyone again not knowing what they were thinking. I can imagine how Tiger Woods felt with all the crowds. Tiger had it all round him for five miles or whatever it is at Augusta. He had people watching him all around the course. I can hide away, try get my head right instead of having people asking me why I couldn't lead a plain and simple life? Tiger had to go around the four miles of Augusta with crowds following his every move. When you are in the situation, you don't think about the consequences until you wake up and it's happened and you have to face the repercussions. It's hard really when you think about it, other people suffer besides you. Friends and family suffer but you don't think about it at the time."
Fallon has learned the hard way. He still lives in Newmarket, but keeps to himself more now and doesn't really go out. In a way, he can't. "If a lad was out in the pubs around Newmarket and then didn't ride well in a race, you would have other lads saying that it was because he was pissed the night before and I don't want to have to deal with that anymore."
As we drive through a deprived part of Wolverhampton, he reveals how lucky he now feels. "I have choices. The people that live here what options do they have? Despite everything that has happened, I know that I'm the lucky one."
The return leg of the journey is littered with phone calls as he looks to organise his morning ride-out. It will be a 6.0am start as usual but he just needs to find out where. Fallon is subdued on the drive back, he still doesn't eat as he wants to ride light in the morning. He forgot his back brace and goggles, they are left in Wolverhampton, more calls are made to get them dropped somewhere that he can pick them up at the crack of dawn. While waiting on a call from Luca Cumani, the trainer he does most of his work for, Fallon recalls some recent advice he got from his old boss Henry Cecil.
"I met him a while back at a stable and he asked me who I was going riding for. When I said Luca (Cumani), he told me I was mad. He picked up the paper and flicked to the racing pages, he went through all the trainers and prize money and Luca had nothing. He told me that I'd be crazy if I joined that yard.
"But the way I look at it is I've been lucky. When I went to (Jimmy) FitzGeralds and Coolmore, they were on a bit of a downturn but when I got there they picked up again, maybe that will be the case with Luca. I hope the next time a journalist asks me a silly question like 'what's the worst piece of advice I ever got' that I can tell them what Henry Cecil said to me."
* * * * *
Fallon still has no confirmation of his morning start time. He is tired but all that's left for him to do is head home and start the process all over again tomorrow. "My kids always ask me why I don't smile," he quips, "they don't understand that this is my work."
And his work is riding winners. "It's tough at the moment. The last few days cost me money to go all the way to Wolverhampton but I want the rides and if I refuse them and someone else gets on the horse then I've lost my chance for when the big day comes around."
The following day he rides a winner at Lingfield, dashes off to Wolverhampton again for the evening meet and rides two more winners. Life goes on for Kieren Fallon.