I have no doubt that there are more than two aspects to the sad news that Kieren Fallon is retiring from the saddle, but in the interests of focusing on what I hope are the two most important elements of this news today, I will limit the remit of my thoughts.
One is his brilliance as a jockey. We talk nowadays of Moore and Dettori but for many of us around the turn of the century, in the post-Piggott era, it was Fallon and Eddery who had us gripped. He was famous for his piercing whistle, delivered to rival jockeys in the final furlong or so of a race when Fallon knew he was coming to mow them down.
Dettori calls him the “assassin” and his skill in the saddle was never more evident than at Epsom when his abilities on that unique course were seen to best effect. Throw in half a dozen champion jockey titles, a couple of Arcs for Ballydoyle a decade or so ago, Royal Ascot winners on the likes of Yeats and Bosra Sham and I wonder if anyone dare dispute that Fallon was one of the best we have known, out of the very top drawer and nothing short of a wizard in the saddle.
The second part of the story is, to my mind, far far more important. It is about depression. When news broke of his retirement earlier this week many of us were instinctively stunned that mental health had been cited as the reason for Fallon’s retirement.
Sure, we knew he was complex: here was a guy who had seldom been far from controversy in the past couple of decades — he’d served bans, made mistakes, acted stupidly and been a victim too of being with the wrong folk at the wrong time. But mental health wasn’t on the radar, it wasn’t discussed, so we were surprised. But now Fallon’s retirement has shone the light on depression.
Barely a few months ago we lost Pat Eddery — a fierce rival and great adversary of Fallon — to alcoholism. It ought to have been a wake-up call for the sport as to how we look after our heroes once they have slipped from the daily gaze. We failed Eddery and if we fail Fallon now in his time of need we don’t deserve our heroes in their pomp.
Depression is not something people can snap out of, it’s not being a bit miserable, it’s not selective and it’s certainly not weaselly. It is a debilitating illness that can consume both the sufferers and those who love and care for them.
Fallon will need support in the coming days, weeks, months, years; he may never be free of the illness although I gather the medical advice he has finally received suggests that his prognosis is good. That is a relief and a cause for positivity; the other reason to be upbeat is that severe depression is being spoken about.
Racing has an undistinguished record of pushing to one side the most challenging illnesses — whether they be depression, addictions of any kind or even kinds of social disability — and we need to change it urgently.
All the fast horses and fantastic racecourse feats and memories count for absolutely nothing if we shirk our responsibilities to show compassion to those in need at their time of need. Perhaps we can’t all directly help Fallon, but if we can make it our business to comfort and support those elsewhere in our lives who are suffering, we can look ourselves a little more confidently in the mirror.
Mental health transcends racing, transcends sport and transcends all the leisure pursuits we hold so dear. Today is another wake-up call we dare not snooze through.
On a lighter note, at Sandown on Saturday we had the pleasure of Hawkbill extending his unbeaten run to six of the best with victory under William Buick in the Eclipse.
Buick has been a naughty boy of late and is about to begin a 30-day ban for telling the French stewards precisely what he thought of them in a moment of madness last month. His barmy behaviour out of the saddle was in sharp contrast to his cool-headed skill in the saddle at the weekend as he held off the challenge from Ryan Moore and The Gurkha to hand Godolphin one of their most significant Group Ones of recent times.
Godolphin enjoyed a Royal Ascot of rare headiness last month but it was the sight of their royal blue silks in fierce battle with a Ballydoyle favourite that evoked memories of a glorious era around the turn of the century when the likes of Galileo and Fantastic Light or Montjeu and Daylami would lock horns in mid-Summer.
It is far too early to predict whether or not the appointment of John Ferguson as head honcho of operations at Sheikh Mohammed’s operation is heralding a sea change in the fortunes of the racing superpower, but Ferguson appears to have done little wrong: he is likeable, knowledgeable and sharp as a tack. We must hope for many more clashes this year and in the years to come as Godolphin return to the ascendancy that held us in thrall not so very long ago.
This week, we look forward to one of the smaller but prettier jewels in the Summer calendar as we head to Newmarket’s July course for their biggest week of the year.
Of the many beautiful aspects of Flat racing, few can compare with the dappled shade of the pre-parade ring on a sunny afternoon in July at Newmarket.
The racecourse is often host to the biggest Friday night bands in the land and rocks to the beat of modern day music but on race days it exudes a quiet, cool air of sophistication. The July meeting never seems to try too hard, and yet often delivers its fair share of stories.
We are looking forward to Usherette confirming her Royal Ascot supremacy in Friday’s prestigious Falmouth Stakes against Jeremy Noseda’s unlucky Nemoralia while Saturday’s feature — the Group 1 July Cup — looks a terrific renewal with Ascot winner Twilight Son locking horns with Magical Memory, Profitable, Limato and the horse I’ve been waiting for since evermore — Don’t Touch.
Richard Fahey’s horse made a lasting impression on me a couple of months ago at Haydock and might just be the forgotten star in a hot renewal. 14/1 looks good enough for me to have an each-day dart on one of the busiest Saturdays of the year.