THERE is one near-certainty in horse racing: write off Kieren Fallon – the six-time champion jockey who served his apprenticeship in Yorkshire – at your peril.
He is the man who never knows when he is beaten – whether fighting back from his Old Bailey trial exactly five years ago when cleared of race-fixing or denying reports earlier this month of his impending retirement.
Perhaps it is apt that the 47-year-old, racing’s seemingly indestructible ‘man of steel’, should be aboard the battling Steeler in today’s Racing Post Trophy, the final Group One contest of a tumultuous 2012 Flat campaign that will be remembered for Frankel’s brilliance and Camelot’s failed bid to land the iconic Triple Crown.
He knows what it takes to win the Doncaster feature; he was, after all, aboard Motivator who won the 2004 renewal of the one-mile test before going on to conquer the Epsom Derby undulations the following season when ridden to Classic glory by Johnny Murtagh.
The comparison between Steeler – trained in North Yorkshire by Mark Johnston – and Michael Bell’s Motivator is a legitimate one, says Fallon. “They’re very much in the same mould,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
“When Motivator won his Newmarket maiden back in 2004, I knew then that he was a Racing Post horse. And so it proved. He went to Donny next time out and won comfortably.
“It’s the same with Steeler. When I rode him for the first time at Glorious Goodwood, and won, he struck me as a Racing Post horse.
“The one difference is that he comes to Doncaster with more races under his belt, and he has done nothing but improve.
“I should have won on him at York’s Ebor festival – I wouldn’t mind riding that race again but the winner, Dundonnell, is one of the favourites for the Breeders’ Cup next weekend so the form is still good.
“Last time out, he won the Royal Lodge at Newmarket on what was quickish ground. I actually think he will be a better horse with a bit of give in the ground.
“Another big plus is Mr Johnston. He is very straight-forward to ride for, he doesn’t tie you down with too many instructions and you know the horses will be fit.
“Though it could be significant that Aidan O’Brien has only one runner, Kingsbarns, having entered loads, it’s still tough to win this contest after one outing. I wouldn’t swap my boy for anything.”
Despite being the most consistent of trainers over the past two decades through a phenomenal accumulation of winners that has never been properly recognised, or acknowledged, by the wider horse racing fraternity, Johnston is still seeking his first win in the Racing Post Trophy – a contest for two-year-olds that has seen six of the last 11 victors progress to land the Derby, including Camelot, 12 months ago.
Johnston’s Mister Baileys, who won the 1993 renewal of the Royal Lodge before landing the 2000 Guineas of 2004 and finishing fourth in the Epsom Derby, bypassed the Doncaster feature.
Another factor is that many of his better horses are quickly snaffled up by Godolphin, and the Middleham maestro must be hoping that the Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum-owned colt does not make a similar switch this coming winter.
Johnston expects Steeler to shine over middle distances next season and is unconcerned about the ground.
“He’s been progressing with racing and we were very pleased with his win last time,” said the trainer who is close to surpassing the career-best 216 victories that his yard recorded in 2009.
“It looks like all the main protagonists are lining up, so it’s a more competitive race than it has been in recent years. Our horse is bred to come into his own over middle distances next season and traditionally they are what win this race. The ground isn’t as bad as I feared it was going to be, they are saying good to soft in places, so it’s the same for them all.”
As well as Kingsbarns, Trading Leather – from the yard of Aidan O’Brien’s mentor Jim Bolger – is another eye-catching entry from Ireland.
Bolger’s Zip Top chased home Camelot 12 months ago and he admits that this year’s renewal has more strength in depth.
Trading Leather sprang to prominence for next year’s Derby by winning the Autumn Stakes at Newmarket on Future Champions Day.
“He’s very well. It’s an attractive Group One and as he came out of the Newmarket race very well, he deserves a shot at a race like this,” said Bolger. “Kingsbarns won his maiden at Navan well, but they are all dangers.”
Kingsbarns was not the only horse to be supplemented for the race with Richard Hannon’s Van Der Neer also added to the field.
Unbeaten in two races at Yarmouth and Leicester, champion jockey-elect Richard Hughes jumped off him last time and encouraged owner Saeed Manana to stump up the fee needed to go for Group One glory. Van Der Neer is the first horse Manana has had in training with Hannon.
“He has a great attitude and he showed at Yarmouth and Leicester that he can quicken,” said the handler. “It was soft ground at Leicester so we aren’t worried about the underfoot conditions and, though this is a jump up in class, he deserves his place at the top table.”
As for Fallon, he hopes today’s race is the stepping stone to even bigger prizes. He is still hopeful of riding in the Breeders’ Cup and intends to spend the winter campaign in Dubai.
He says he is motivated by the prospect of riding horses like Steeler next week, as well as Society Rock, who landed Haydock’s Betfred Sprint Cup and Luca Cumanai’s Margys. Second at Newmarket on Future Champions Day, Fallon says this filly is a very strong candidate for next year’s 1000 Guineas.
Fallon, however, accepts that it will be almost impossible to become champion jockey for a seventh time. He says aspirants need the firepower of one of the major trainers, hence Hughes running away with this year’s title because he has the pick of the Hannon horses.
“You’ve got to have a big yard if you want to be champion, I was very fortunate to have either Sir Henry Cecil or Sir Michael Stoute,” added the rider who spent his formative years near Malton with the late Jimmy Fitzgerald.
“To be honest, I’m just happy having good horses – Steeler, Society Rock and winning the St James’s Palace this year on Most Improved. I’d been five years without a Group One win. I certainly don’t want to wait another five years.”