The fall of Kieren Fallon ruined his career and almost took his life. Stage by stage, set up by the News of the World and facing years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Fallon was broken down. A six-times champion jockey – who won the Derby three times, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe twice and the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas nine times – Fallon was always more comfortable in the company of horses than people. He eventually sought refuge in a psychiatric hospital.
It’s a relief to see his recovery and spend the morning with Fallon at Godolphin’s yard in Newmarket, where the retired 52-year-old rides most days for the trainer Saeed bin-Suroor. “I wake up in the morning and want to go to work,” Fallon says in his familiar racing mumble, the County Clare accent hardly changed by his bruising years in England. “I even smile. I take the piss and have a laugh with the lads in the yard. Before this there was nothing. Really, since the Old Bailey, there was nothing left.”
Ten years ago the great trainer Aidan O’Brien voiced his concern. “Kieren is an absolute master … I just hope the most unbelievable talent we have had doesn’t get destroyed.”
Fallon won the Arc on Dylan Thomas, trained by O’Brien, the day before his trial at the Old Bailey began on 8 October 2007. In his riveting and moving autobiography, written by Oliver Holt, Fallon suggests the British Horseracing Authority knew that Miles Rodgers, the gambler whom he was supposedly helping make money, lost £338,000 on those races. Fallon was still banned from racing in Britain. After winning four Classics in his first 14 months as O’Brien’s principal jockey, Fallon won one more before a tarnished end.
From December 2002 to August 2004, the period where he was accused of “stopping” horses, Fallon’s strike rate of winners to rides was 29.4% compared to 19% during the rest of his career. There was even a recording of Rodgers bemoaning the fact that Fallon kept ruining his plans: “Along comes the fucking little fella and, bosh, it happens again.”
Jim McGrath, the respected racing journalist and former Channel 4 Racing pundit, was interviewed by the police about the 27 suspect races and he cleared Fallon – and praised his riding. The prosecution declined to pass on this information to the defence until the jury had been sworn in and relied, instead, on a steward from Australia, Ray Murrihy, whose knowledge of British racing was limited.
Fallon remains incredulous: “I remember asking Ian Winter, one of my barristers: ‘Why is the judge allowing this?’ Ian said: ‘Because he’s a cunt.’ Eventually I asked Jane Glass, my criminal solicitor: ‘What is the worst‑case scenario because we’ve been here nine fucking weeks.’ Jane said: ‘It’s a conspiracy and this system scares me. If one person in the 11 goes down it’s very hard to get anyone else cleared.’ She said the worst-case scenario was six to 10 years. That’s when I started to worry.”
“But the trial itself was brilliant. I’m not saying I enjoyed it but I love courtroom dramas. And I love what barristers can do. Mine were brilliant, even though it cost an absolute fortune and it wore you down not knowing what would happen.”
Did Fallon feel elation when all the charges against him were quashed? “No. There’s a photo of me standing outside the Old Bailey looking like I’m 70. There was no life left in me. The worst part was having to face the trainers [including Sir Michael Stoute, Andrew Balding and Luca Cumani] who came to court to speak on my behalf. I felt embarrassed. The stigma was always there even when I was proved innocent.”
A troublesome ride for Fallon had occurred in February 2004 when he was cruising to victory on Ballinger Ridge at Lingfield. Fallon and his horse were more than 20 lengths clear as he dropped his hands and coasted. It’s a permissible tactic for, if the winning margin is reduced, the horse does not get too heavily handicapped. Fallon’s complacency and a low winter sun meant he did not realise how much the gap had narrowed. It was only when another horse, Rye, was within three metres that Fallon kicked again. The horses were locked together at the finish, with Rye gaining a narrow verdict.
Thirteen years later, Fallon still curses his mistake. “But what do you do when you’re 23 [lengths] up? You ease up. It came down to hardly a nose between us and could have gone either way. Unfortunately it went the wrong way. If I had won, it changed everything.”
Instead, Fallon was under scrutiny and the News of the World’s Mazher Mahmood, the now disgraced Fake Sheikh, pursued him. “They were trying to get me to be racist about black jockeys and to say the Queen knows nothing about racing. I wasn’t having it but that was their tactics. Black jockeys, the queen and prostitutes. I wasn’t interested.”
Does it console Fallon that Mahmood was jailed last year for tampering with evidence in another sting? “Not when you think how many people he has ruined.”
Christopher Stewart-Moore, Fallon’s solicitor, discovered a revealing section of the News of the World tape had not been erased. “They cut off the tape they gave to the police before that. Luckily Christopher heard me being told that the sheikh is going to be embarrassed if I don’t take something. I said: ‘We’re not allowed to receive anything.’”
Fallon still made many mistakes and, a day after his courtroom vindication, it was announced he had tested positive for cocaine while riding in France. His 18-month ban, aged 43, followed the reckless behaviour that marked his racing life.
Fallon talks casually now of the days when he could drink a bottle of vodka in the two hours it took to be driven home from a track. “I wish I could’ve been like Johnny Murtagh and Richard Hughes and had the willpower to knock it. Richard Hughes and I were laughing about it the other day. When we were in India, in this huge apartment, I saw Johnny pick up the ashtray and start pissing in it. Me and Richard say: ‘Fuck sake, Johnny!’ He put it down and picked up another one, pissed in it, put it back on the table and went to sleep. Total madness. If someone said I’d done that, I would never drink again. Richard was in a really bad car crash and that’s when he knew it was time to stop. You have to hit rock bottom before you really stop.”
Does Fallon still drink today? “I do but I don’t fall around and get pissed. I can take it or leave it. But it took me a long time to get over alcohol.”
Fallon is benefiting from no longer flipping – the term used by jockeys for vomiting up food as a way of keeping their weight down. “I was helping out Georgia Cox as she’s a good jockey. Georgia said: ‘Jesus, Kieren, what are the lads going to think now you’ve spoken about the flipping thing?’ I said: ‘Georgia, I got fed up going in the toilet and seeing lettuce leaves floating around.’ I’m not saying they’re all doing it but a lot of them are.
“If you’re in a restaurant, there’s often only one toilet. So it’s easier to skip out the back and flip in the car park. None of us like to admit it, and we don’t do it in front of each other, but you have to do it.”
He flipped for years but insists: “It’s not as bad for you as the sauna. That’s like being cooked in an oven. The only thing is, when you start flipping, you get throat problems because of the acid. Obviously you get used to it and as soon as you eat you flip straightaway so the acid doesn’t come. The more you do it the easier it is. You only have to touch your stomach and it’s all gone. Whereas when you start your eyes are popping out of your head and you’re crying. But there’s a big difference between flipping and bulimia. We’re flipping to ride.”
Fallon’s eyes fill with tears when he remembers how, on 10 June 2016, his second-last ride ended in catastrophe at York. He and “a lovely four-year-old called Vilman” were leading when the horse snapped a leg and fell. Fallon got up and held the horse while it writhed in agony. “It took so long [to put the horse down] because they were worried about the public. They don’t care about the horses. The poor trainer was crying and the vets were doing their best. But we had to wait for the screens to be put around us. It’s not right. I held him while he died. I was trying to soothe him. Once he was gone I just thought: ‘It’s over.’”
Depression had already taken hold during the traumatic trial. Thoughts of suicide became even more acute in retirement and Fallon suggests that, if he was braver, he would have killed himself. He finally sought help and spent six weeks in St Patrick’s hospital in Dublin. “They give you fancy names for treatments but it’s basically a mental hospital. All that was keeping me going was the kids [Brittany, Cieren and Natalie]. That was my lifeline – and I knew Cieren wanted to be a jockey.”
Other retired jockeys were less fortunate. In the past 10 months Walter Swinburn and Pat Eddery have died. Eddery was an alcoholic and Fallon asks: “Did you see Pat before he died? Remember Alex Higgins when he got cancer? He looked exactly like Pat did at seven stone. I brought Pat to Aiseiri, the clinic I went to in Ireland, because his daughter asked me to help. Aiseiri means resurrection. I brought Pat there to try help him. But, well, you know …”
Fallon shakes his head. “At least I’ve got Cieren coming through and he looks the part. He’s 18 and becoming a jockey is all he wants. I’ll be able to steer him clear of pitfalls.”
Meanwhile, his greatest rival, Frankie Dettori, has just had one of the best years of his life. The respect between them has always been deep and mutual. “It’s amazing what Frankie has done,” Fallon says. “We’re still great friends – even if we wouldn’t go out for a drink. I’d be too quiet for him and he’d be too fucking loud for me.”
Fallon asks if I fancy a drive. He wants to show me the Godolphin gallops and where he rides out every morning. We drive up to Warren Hill, where another of his former trainers, the late Henry Cecil, used to live. Some lovely, battered old songs by The Pogues play in the car. Early afternoon sunshine lights up the hill as songs of drinking and heartache, beauty and hurt drift over us. At the top of Warren Hill, Fallon looks down at the rolling green gallops where he has ridden so many great horses.
“What do you think?” he asks. “It’s beautiful.” “Yeah,” the little jockey says softly. “That’s the word …”