09/07/2009 11:00PM

Fallon shakes off rust from long sabbatical


TUCSON, Ariz. - Jockey Kieren Fallon, the bad boy of English racing - and its six-time riding champion - returned to the track last week, after 18 months of banishment for cocaine use.

It was merely the latest chapter in a long history of sad personal errors, and the British racing press, one of the largest, most vocal, and best informed in the world, welcomed him back with open arms.

He is, after all, good copy day in and out, and his return energizes and certainly enlivens the British racing scene.

The coverage of racing in Britain is taken very seriously, and at a slightly elevated level over the American variety. The language that both use is, after all, theirs, and they treat it with skill and respect.

Here, as a small sample, is a paragraph written by racing journalist Chris McGrath on the return of Fallon.

"Admiration for his riding, and regard for his fortitude, together ensure the sport will salute his return to a British racecourse for the first time in more than three years. But no flashbulbs, no snap judgment, can disclose a man whose strengths and frailties are woven in the complexity of genius At 44, one of the great jockeys returns in the knowledge that his pomp has been squandered through ill luck and worse judgment. No cat has ever consumed eight lives quite so unequivocally."

McGrath wrote, "He will be restored to public scrutiny this afternoon much as he left it, in the gluttonous gaze of the cameras. But the last time the world tried to read these same, pale features - supposedly in a moment of relief and vindication, outside the Old Bailey - none perceived the latent despair."

The reference was to a trial in London's famed central criminal court and prison, where Fallon was tried for conspiracy to fix races. The trial collapsed two months later when the judge threw it out of court for what the press called "ham-fisted prosecution." The day before the trial started, Fallon won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris, riding Dylan Thomas. The day after it ended he tested positive for cocaine, for the second time that summer, in France. Both the before and after events were prime examples of the up-and-down life and career of the tempestuous Irish riding star.

John Magnier, one of the most powerful men in world racing, and his partners, had retained Fallon as their jockey, until, immediately after the Old Bailey victory, he received his 18-month suspension for a second cocaine positive in France.

After this suspension, he found employment as an exercise boy with Michael Stoute, for whom he once rode. He had tried treatments for seven years, starting in 2002, in Britain and the United States, including a month at the Betty Ford clinic in Palm Springs, Calif. Recounting the rehabilitation of Garrett Gomez here, who did not ride for 21 months six years ago but returned to become one of the sport's best jockeys, Fallon says he too is changed, mentally and physically. As for what writer McGrath calls "the inept powers who still police the sport" in England, Fallon told him, "There's no point letting them live rent-free in your head."

Fallon rode his first winner at 19, in 1984. Ten years later he was suspended for six months for pulling another jock, Stuart Webster, out of the saddle after the finish of a race. He won the first of his six English riding championships in 1997, at 32. The next year he won 70,000 pounds from the prestigious Sporting Life, which had said he rode a horse dishonestly in losing a Newmarket handicap.

In 2003, at 38, he won his sixth British riding championship, and then, the next year, he was arrested on charges of race fixing, but survived that ordeal.

This month, back in action, it took him 12 races before, without superstition, he won the 13th and resumed his winning career.

After going 1 for 15 in his return to racing, Fallon scored a triple at Folkestone on Monday, riding three winners for Newmarket trainer Luca Cumani.

Fallon is quick to note that Lester Piggot, regarded as the greatest of all British riders, returned to the saddle at 54, after five years of retirement that included a year in prison for tax fraud. Piggot won Britain's riding championship 11 times before disappearing in the mists of retirement. He was talked into riding again by the great trainer Vincent O'Brien, and won what he called his greatest riding victory 12 days after returning to racing, with Royal Academy in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont.

There's a goal for Kieren Fallon to shoot for in his new life. Hopefully he can stay out of trouble long enough to accomplish it.