Ordeal at the Old Bailey leaves Fallon facing the greatest challenge of his life
The trial on corruption charges of the brilliant Irish jockey began yesterday. Chris McGrath fears for the future of the sport
It began, as these things must, in scrupulously prosaic fashion, with a 23-minute pre-trial hearing. Kieren Fallon was not even required to be present. But nobody could be under any illusions. In its long history – rich as it is in romance and scandal, kings and vagabonds – horse racing has seldom embarked upon the sort of drama that began in the Old Bailey yesterday.
In the person of Mr Justice Forbes, the starter has finally mounted his rostrum, dispatching a talent with few precedents on the Turf into a contest that surely has none. Fallon, six times champion jockey, is one of six defendants in this trial, the result of a long investigation by City of London Police into allegations of corruption in horse racing. These include two other jockeys, Fergal Lynch and Darren Williams, likewise charged with conspiracy to defraud punters between December 2002 and September 2004, by interfering with the running of horses to ensure they lost. All protest their innocence.
The charges are infamous enough. But the involvement of Fallon, a great rider still at the peak of his powers, raises the stakes enormously for horse racing. In its parish, conservative and introspective as it can be, Fallon's name is as big as that of Wayne Rooney or Andrew Flintoff in theirs.
Whatever the outcome, this will be an excruciating ordeal for the sport. Racing can afford to be indulgent about the picaresque flavours in its reputation, so long as they are confined to Dick Francis or 19th-century memoirs. In this instance, however, the process of establishing unpalatable fact or grotesque fiction cannot fail to be a grievous one.
It is hard to envisage a happy ending for racing. Somewhere along the line, it has been betrayed. If the defendants are found guilty, then the breach of trust could hardly be more obvious. If they are exonerated, equally, it may be too late to avoid mutilation of their sport's good name. Of course, it may prove that some are found guilty, and others not. Regardless, the point is that Fallon, at 42, is one of the towering figures of the modern Turf – and here he is before a court more accustomed to dealing with murderers or rapists.
The Irishman's journey, as is well known, has already been long and tortuous. In September 1994, still fairly anonymous 10 years after his first winner, he dragged another rider, Stuart Webster, off his horse at Beverley racecourse. It was the sort of spectacular transgression that would have ruined most careers. To Fallon, it opened the door to stardom.
Suspended for six months, he passed the time exercising horses in the United States, where the emphasis on timing introduced a new subtlety to his riding. Within two years Fallon had been appointed stable jockey to Henry Cecil, a job that at the time almost guaranteed the riders' championship.
Those surprised by his promotion were eager to find fault in Fallon's riding and, like all jockeys, he gave them the odd opportunity. By 1999, however, when he won both the Derby and Oaks for Cecil, he was recognised as the obvious foil to Frankie Dettori – an unruly, watchful Celt standing up to the glib, animated Italian. Soon after their Epsom double, he fell out with Cecil, but promptly joined Sir Michael Stoute.
Before they were to win the Derby together, Fallon would first have to recover from a career-threatening shoulder injury, sustained in a fall at Royal Ascot, and then from a more insidious difficulty. In January 2003 he admitted to a drink problem and spent 30 days in a rehab clinic, but on his return seemed more indomitable than ever.
That June, Kris Kin landed a terrific public gamble in the Derby, and confirmed his rider as the modern master of Epsom, the true heir to Lester Piggott.
Sure enough, Fallon won both the Derby and Oaks the following year, but then appeared the fissure that has opened into this abyss. In September 2004 he was one of several people detained by police investigating race-fixing allegations. His bail was renewed repeatedly until finally, in July last year, he was told that he would face trial.
In the meantime, he had been recruited as stable jockey at Ballydoyle, the Co Tipperary stable owned by John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore Stud. Fallon has been a prodigious success there, and has been rewarded with total loyalty from his employers, despite the many complications arising from this saga.
As soon as he was charged, the British licensing authorities suspended Fallon, arguing that the sport's reputation here could suffer if he were permitted to ride pending his trial. This did not seem terribly equitable, but they emphasised that they had not examined any of the evidence against Fallon.
In Ireland, meanwhile, it was felt that suspension would infringe the basic tenet that a man remains innocent until proven guilty. As a result, Fallon and his employers have been in a peculiar limbo. He has been able to ride at every level in Ireland, France and many other countries, but not in Britain. Indeed, he may yet ride in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, in Paris on Sunday week, one of the world's great races, in which he would certainly be on one of the favourites.
His patrons will first have to decide whether daily attendance in court is eroding the physical and mental sharpness necessary to such an assignment. Few men could hope to perform at their best in that kind of crucible. Throughout his trauma, however, Fallon has shown remarkable mental fortitude.
Even when he compounded his problems by failing a drugs test last year, condemning him to a six-month worldwide suspension, he was able to return in June with total, immediate assurance. He has won a series of big races since, notably the Irish Derby for the third year running. Now, however, he has begun the most momentous challenge of his life.
It is, by any measure, a sensational affair. Over the past couple of years, the racing authorities have punished a number of other jockeys for passing information for reward. But they dealt with them according to their own internal powers, procedures, and standards of evidence.
The three separate trials resulting from police investigations will presumably shed some light on the regulators' decision that their suspicions, this time, might take them beyond their competence.
In turn, a judge and jury must now try to penetrate the opaque world of racing, and be sure that they have correctly interpreted the way either set of lawyers may try to explain its mysteries. Four months have been set aside for that process. In the chronicles of the Turf, their conclusions will never be forgotten.