KIEREN FALLON has always been effusive when it comes to North Light, the champion colt who confirmed his greatness when completing the Dante-Derby double 15 years ago.
“A horse I loved...Sir Michael Stoute trained him and it was a long-term plan,” recalled Fallon, whose confidence at York was such that he even persuaded Dickie Bird, the legendary cricket umpire, to place a very rare bet.
Yet North Light’s success also came to epitomise Fallon’s uncanny ability to demonstrate the very best horsemanship during those periods in a controversial career when he paid a heavy price for his naivety.
A beguiling character, the now retired Fallon once told this correspondent, at length, how the most crucial part of the Epsom Derby – still Flat racing’s most celebrated contest – was the canter to the start and whether a horse settled or not.
He then went on to explain how a mount’s ability to handle the roller-coaster descent to Tattenham Corner, and the track’s unique undulations, came second to the preliminaries.
And Fallon – who won three Derbies in a celebrated career – said another significant factor was making sure that an Epsom contender did not have an unduly hard prep race because these were three-year-old thoroughbreds who were still growing and maturing.
On North Light, I could relax. He was a lovely big individual and I won the Dante at York with him a few weeks before the Derby.Kieren Fallon
Victorious at Epsom in 1999 on Oath for the late Sir Henry Cecil before prevailing on Kris Kin four years later for the aforementioned Stoute, he deployed this racecraft to perfection when it came to North Light’s prep race in the Dante.
The year had started badly for Fallon who had served much of his formative years on the Flat learning his trade at Malton under the tutelage of the late Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning trainer Jimmy Fitzgerald.
The then-reigning champion jockey, who hailed from Ireland, had already been under intense scrutiny for his ride on Ballinger Ridge at Lingfield – the runaway leader was beaten when Fallon appeared to drop his hands and ease up prematurely, prompting near-hysterical calls from TV pundit John McCririck, amongst others, for a six-month ban.
This was the precursor to a famous ‘sting’ operation by the now defunct News of the World in which its now infamous investigative reporter Mazher Mahmmod – the so-called Fake Sheikh – had posed as a potential investor in racing after setting up a meeting at London’s exclusive Dorchester Hotel.
The front-page banner headline – ‘The Fixer’ – and allegations of race-fixing became part of a subsequent Old Bailey trial in which Fallon was cleared of all charges.
This was the backdrop to the 2004 Flat season in which North Light, running in the colours of Ballymacoll Stud, headed to York on May 12 to make his long-awaited reappearance following two promising runs the previous year.
In a wide-open 10-runner race, the mercurial Fallon managed to hold up the exuberant North Light before hitting the front on the turn for home. Quickening again at the three-furlong pole, this decisive move provided sufficient margin over Godolphin’s Rule Of Law who took time to respond under the rider’s great rival Frankie Dettori.
Briefly, it appeared Dettori might prevail – and leave Fallon with even more questions to answer – but the reality was that his mind had already turned to Epsom. His confidence was such that he tried, on returning to the tree-lined winner’s enclosure, to persuade the aforementioned Bird, a longstanding acquaintance of North Light’s cricket-loving trainer, to re-invest his winnings on the Derby.
But while this particular task proved to be a lost cause, the victory – and prospect of a third Derby win – provided a welcome distraction for Fallon whose son, Cieren, is now one of the country’s top apprentices.
And it is this affinity for a horse, and North Light in particular, which shone through in Fallon’s autobiography Form which many of today’s riding stars, like last year’s Dante winner Oisin Murphy, regard as racing’s ‘bible’ because of its insight on horsemanship.
“On North Light, I could relax,” he wrote. “He was a lovely big individual and I won the Dante at York with him a few weeks before the Derby. Going to York takes more out of them than you think, especially with a big horse like that, because it’s four hours there and four hours back in the box and I didn’t want to ride him any harder than I needed to.
“In the last furlong of the Dante, we were winning fairly comfortably from Frankie Dettori on Rule Of Law, but you want to save as much energy as possible for the Derby so you try to win as cosily as you can.
“I probably overdid it a little bit in easing up at the end and Frankie nearly got me on the line. And if he had, the Derby would have been gone for me because I wouldn’t have been riding him any more.”
Fallon headed to Epsom on Derby day in a confident mood despite his personal turmoil. He had already won the Oaks on Ouija Board and North Light was “unflappable” in the big race preliminaries. “I was beset by troubles by then, but that ride on North Light was a glorious island of peacefulness of calm. Of all my wins, it was probably the one I enjoyed most,” recalled Fallon. “I always loved North Light. I couldn’t see him getting beaten in the Derby. I knew he would stay the trip (one-and-a-half miles). He has enough speed to be anywhere in the race.
“He was big enough that if he got in some hurly burly, he would be okay. I could have made the running. I could have done anything. He was the best colt I rode around Epsom. With North Light, there was no thinking.
“I only had to point him. I think that was why I remember that ride with so much fondness. I could just enjoy it. It was nothing like the ride on Kris Kin, nothing like as complicated or as tactical. Or with as much luck. It was easy.”
Kicking on with three furlongs to go, North Light had more than a length in hand over the pursuing Rule Of Law at the finish – confirmation of the York form and the Dante’s prestige as the pre-eminent Derby trial. “It was the best feeling I’ve ever had,” said Fallon.
North Light is one of 10 horses to have completed the Dante-Derby double – the first was St Paddy in 1960 and the most recent was Golden Horn in 2015.
The colt never won another race. Second in the Irish Derby, and fifth in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, he was retired to stud after finishing second in Sandown’s Brigadier Gerard Stakes in May 2015.
But he will never be forgotten by Kieren Fallon, now 54, who added: “That win on North Light represented a beacon of achievement in a year that was disfigured by scandals, a year where I won the Derby and Oaks on successive days but people started to talk more about things that were happening to me off the track rather than on it.”
The one that got away for gifted jockey
KIEREN FALLON, who rode 2,253 career winners before retiring in July 2016 so he could seek treatment for depression, was one of the most gifted Flat jockeys in history.
He began his career in Britain with Malton’s Jimmy Fitzgerald and admits to being out of shape on his first day as stable jockey. “Who are you?” the trainer is reported to have said to his new recruit.
Born in County Clare, Ireland, Fallon went on to dominate the sport at the turn of the century and was champion jockey on six occasions between 1997 and 2003 – he only missed out in 2000 after a horrific fall at Royal Ascot which saw him trampled on by another horse in front of packed grandstands.
Yet the fact that he rode at least 200 winners in four of his title-winning seasons points to a rider who was equally adept on the big stage and at the lesser meetings.
His three Epsom Derby wins – including North Light’s imperious success in 2004 – were part of a haul of 16 domestic Classics. Yet one of the very few big races to elude Fallon was Doncaster’s St Leger. Most recently, he has been riding out for some of Newmarket’s top trainers while overseeing the career of his son Cieren who could be in action at York this week.