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Fallon saga

Shows you how quickly things can change. Kieren Fallon thought that he had the choice of two good rides in Saturday’s Derby, and he ends up watching the race from the weigh room. Ibrahim Araci thought that Fallon would ride Native Khan, Aidan O’Brien thought that Fallon would ride Recital, and both men end up using other riders. Pat Smullen probably thought that he was settling in for a nice quiet Saturday afternoon, doubtless watching the Derby on the telly, and he ends up high-tailing it to Epsom on Saturday morning and playing a pivotal role in the jamboree.

An hour is a long time in racing.

How did it come to this, a Derby morning judicial decision that determined who would and who wouldn’t ride in one of the most famous horse races on earth? Jockeys make commitments to trainers and trainers make commitments to jockeys all the time. Better horses come available for jockeys, better jockeys come available for horses, switches are made and the world keeps turning.

Different story here though: a written contract and an owner who is intent on enforcing it. It is hardly surprising. If an owner goes to the trouble of drawing up a written document and having a jockey sign a piece of paper, if he brings consideration (funds) to the table, you have to assume that he will want the jockey to honour his commitment to ride his horse.

What was Kieren Fallon thinking when, in the knowledge that he had a contract to ride Native Khan, he decided that he would ride Recital instead? In all probability, he wasn’t. All the evidence suggests that it was a decision that was borne out of thoughtlessness, not maliciousness. He had an agreement in place to ride one horse, a better horse in his eyes was offered, he chose the better horse.

If Fallon had thought about it even a little, though, he had to have managed the situation differently. He may not have signed a contract in the first place, and he surely wouldn’t have ridden Native Khan in the Breakfast With The Stars gallop at Epsom nine days before the Derby. We don’t know precisely at what point he let Ed Dunlop or Ibrahim Araci know that he was intending to ride Recital, but reactions suggest that it wasn’t too long before the media knew last Monday. At best, that is poor expectations-management.

There was probably a bigger picture on the rider’s horizon as well: the opportunity to ride for Aidan O’Brien again, the re-building of a bridge that went beyond Saturday’s Derby, back via Viscount Nelson to Dylan Thomas and Arc de Triomphe day 2007, and all the potential that goes with St Nicholas Abbey and So You Think and Await The Dawn and no stable jockey in place. Certainly, the fact that Fallon rode Wonder Of Wonders, the shortest-priced of the Ballydoyle Oaks quartet, suggests that he was high on Aidan’s list, at least for foreign expeditions.

Only time will tell if Native Khan-gate will militate against Fallon’s prospects of riding for Ballydoyle in the future. Certainly, it can’t be a positive. The jockey was asked to ride Recital in the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown last month because it was exactly that, a Derby trial. Christophe Soumillon was asked to go to York to ride Seville in the Dante for the same reason. Plan to succeed. For an operation that could give Philip Kotler a lesson in strategic planning, the recruitment of a new rider for a horse on Derby morning doesn’t even make it onto the what-to-avoid page.

It is interesting that Ibrahim Araci sought an injunction to prevent Kieren Fallon from riding against his horse in the Derby, as opposed to seeking specific performance, an order that would force the jockey to ride Native Khan. It is also interesting that the High Court judge on Friday decided not to grant the injunction, suggesting that the matter could be remedied with damages. It was only on appeal that the application was successful. You have to conclude, then, that it must have been a marginal call.

Fallon was impressively matter-of-fact about the whole situation, likening it to being knocked out in the first round at Wimbledon. The bad news is that the awarding of damages for breach of contract is still a possibility. The temperately good news is that he could have been staring down both barrels of an even more daunting situation. If Native Khan had been beaten a short head in the Derby, could you have argued that Fallon over Murtagh would have made the difference of that short head? And if you could have, what is the magnitude of the damages that could have been awarded? The difference in prize money between first and second? The difference in the colt’s value as a stallion prospect?

When you take any sport out of the norms of that sport and into a courtroom, there is no knowing where you will end up, and there is a chance that a precedent will be set here. A verbal contract is as binding in law as a written contract, the only difference, of course, being that it is more difficult to prove that it exists. So in future, if a rider verbally agrees to ride a horse in a race and then changes his mind, will a trainer be able to legally force him to ride it, or, if he doesn’t, seek damages if the horse gets beaten?

It has a long arm, this legal business.

© The Racing Post, 7th June 2011