Kieran Fallon: The unbearable lightness of being a champion jockey

Former champion jockey explored the ‘dark art of starving’ in order to succeed

During his career champion jockey Kieren Fallon resorted to “flipping”, when he would eat a normal meal, then almost immediately stick his finger down his throat and “pop the lot out”. Photograph: Inpho

It's food month in The Irish Times and lots of people are writing about the things they like to eat and drink. All in strict moderation, naturally. Only no one has come near the sports department yet to hear our tales of sauce and sustenance, probably for good reason.

Just because you work in sport doesn’t mean you eat a healthy and balanced diet. And I’m not just talking about the sports reporters.

Actually there may not be a more popular misconception. Anyone who has dipped their toes into competitive sport will tell you the diet of an elite athlete is often unbalanced and far from healthy. (And that’s before they talk about their relationship with alcohol.) At best, it can be fussy or excessive; at worst, it can be dangerous or even fatal.

Most distance runners I know are strangely obsessive about diet and weight. Back in the day, we’d let nothing except black coffee past our lips before our 18-mile runs on a Sunday morning, believing this would best facilitate the fat-burning process. Then we’d hit the college dining hall and devour bowls of cereal and plates of pancakes, outlasting even the linebackers on the football team. Except for the Sundays when we were injured, and stuck only to the black coffee.


And we were the lucky ones. I remember some of the college wrestlers would spend more time in the sauna than the library, and even if my diet is still 90 per cent carbohydrate, my teeth still hopelessly stained from years of drinking black coffee and nibbling on dark chocolate, I’m exactly the same weight as I was in college 25 years ago.

This is nothing compared to the extreme diet laid bare by Kieren Fallon in his new his new autobiography, Form. As British champion jockey six times, riding a career total of 2,253 winners for leading trainers such as Henry Cecil, Michael Stoute, and later Aidan O'Brien, Fallon knows as much as anyone about what it takes to succeed in his sport.

Balancing strength and endurance

I remember Ger Hartmann telling me a few years ago that of all the people he’d treated at his clinic in Limerick, from rugby players to boxers, no one matched the hardy torso of Fallon. So much so that Hartmann reckoned he could drive over him in his Audi Q7, and Fallon wouldn’t even bruise.

Still no other sport demands such an unbearable lightness of being. The added challenge for the jockey is balancing strength and endurance with litheness and leanness, while also withstanding the perils that come with riding a four-legged animal at full pelt.

Fallon was born and raised for this. In Form, he talks about life on the family farm near Crusheen, in Co Clare, suitably nourished by "vegetables from the garden, eggs from the hens, and milk from the cow". He credits the fact he never once broke a bone in his body, despite all the falls, to the full-fat and unpasteurised milk he'd lived off as a child.

Luckily for Fallon those calcium deposits were so strong, because by the time he reached his 20s, he was hardly eating at all – or least not holding it down. Eating an apple and orange for lunch was considering pigging out, and he devotes an entire chapter to the process of “flipping”, or throwing up whatever he’d eaten not long after he’d finished it.

“Like many riders,” he says, “from the time I was in my early twenties, I had been engaged in a constant battle with the weighing scales... the horror of putting up overweight was always with me, but I was starting to learn new tricks.”

And with that he explores the “dark art of starving... getting down to the weight by any means necessary”, known in racing as “wasting”. Fallon hated the saunas so he’d go running wrapped up in several layers of warm clothes, then stay in those clothes on the way to the racecourse, affording himself nothing more than a sip of iced Lucozade, often hallucinating, on the verge of passing out.

Projectile vomiting

Later he resorted to "flipping", when he would eat a normal meal, then almost immediately stick his finger down his throat and "pop the lot out". He reckoned the only side effect was acid damage to the teeth, no big deal as long as he brushed straightaway. And rather than throw up in a restaurant toilet, he would typically head out to the parking lot, describing one night where he met another top jockey projectile vomiting, like a scene from the movie The Exorcist.

Fallon writes this not out of anger but simply because it’s true: “Most of them did it,” he says, “and my guess is that most of them still do”. All this comes with Fallon also detailing his alcohol and substance abuse, the allegations of race fixing, subsequent mental health issues. “And I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says more than once, thinking of the likes of Pat Eddery, Walter Swinburn.

And maybe the likes of Joseph O’Brien too, who at just 24 has moved seamlessly into the gilded stable of his father, Aidan, and earlier this week became the youngest ever trainer of the Melbourne Cup, with his horse Rekindling.

Irish champion jockey in 2012, it’s less than two years since O’Brien retired from that trade, realising he was fighting a losing war against the weighing scales. Other young riders aren’t so lucky, have to spend the rest of their careers exploring the different dark arts of starving.

Fallon must feel lucky too compared to US mixed-martial arts fighter CJ Hancock, who last weekend “died in the cage”, such was his “hard weight cut” to qualify for the fight, only to be resuscitated by medics on the night. It’s only a matter of time before others aren’t so lucky.