Lester Piggott who died on Sunday aged 86 is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever jockeys and certainly the greatest to be a guest at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
Known as the ‘Long Fellow’ for his height he would keep his weight down by relying on a daily diet of chocolate, champagne and a cigar leading to his stony expression being likened to “a well kept grave”.
He became the ‘housewives favourite’ when it came to placing bets on the Epsom Derby and with good reason as he rode nine winners of the ‘blue riband’ of the turf.
Not bad for this child prodigy whose own mother had dismissed his chances of greatness after winning his first race aged 12 on August 18, 1948.
Iris opined: “He is quite a good rider, but will never be as good as his father. Don’t make a fuss. Lester is a very ordinary boy.”
In all the poker-faced Piggott — whose taciturn nature in part stemmed from partial deafness – guided home 30 classic winners in his famously singular riding style.
A large proportion of those were for the training legend Vincent O’Brien with greats such as Nijinsky, Sir Ivor, The Minstrel and the two-time Arc de Triomphe winner Alleged.
Indeed the 11-times British champion jockey formed racing’s ‘dream team’ with O’Brien and charismatic owner Robert Sangster until they cut the tie with him in 1980 and employed Pat Eddery.
Piggott smarted from this very public sacking — although he remained friends with Sangster till the latter died in 2004 — but in a perfect example of revenge is a dish best served cold he got his opportunity after the 1984 Derby.
For all his reticence Piggott had a wickedly dry sense of humour and when an over-confident Eddery contrived to lose the Derby on hot favourite El Gran Senor — to Secreto trained by O’Brien’s eldest son David — Piggott struck.
– Will to win –
“Did you miss me,” muttered Piggott, who’d finished down the field, as he strode past the distraught Sangster and O’Brien huddle.
With Piggott’s family embedded in racing folklore with grandfather Ernie a three-time Grand National winner and his dad Keith training the winner of the great steeplechase in 1963, he had a will to win unrivalled even among a generation that included Eddery, Willie Carson and Joe Mercer.
Often enough it got him into trouble, most notably in a hilarious incident — that is if you were watching from the stands — at Deauville in 1979.
Riding in the Grand Prix de Deauville Piggott’s whip was knocked from his hand and looking around snatched a replacement whip from the late Alain Lequeux — Piggott was to finish second and his bemused colleague third.
“Well he wasn’t going to need it,” quipped Piggott afterwards — the French stewards didn’t see the funny side at all and slapped him with a 20 day ban.
When it was put to him in an interview last year had he been over the top in his use of the whip on Roberto and The Minstrel in the 1972 and 1977 Derbies he denied it had been that savage.
“You couldn’t have used it (the whip) like that these days,” he told The Guardian.
“But I never really hurt the horses. It seemed like I was whacking them but it never was as bad as it looked.”
Piggott, though, got whacked and badly at that when the British taxman came calling just as he was making a name as a trainer after retiring from the saddle in 1985.
Scrutiny of his accounts showed the great man had been almost as reluctant at paying his taxes on revenue of £3million as he had been at public speaking.
Stripped of the ridiculously minor award, given his achievements, he had received from the noted turfiste Queen Elizabeth II, he got no quarter from the judge at his trial being sentenced to three years in 1987 of which he served just over a year.
“It was stupid, really, to be there. I don’t know how to describe it. It was just unnecessary,” he told The Guardian in 2015.”
However, fortunately for the man and for his adoring public there was to be a quite sensational post-script in 1990.
Piggott returned to the saddle as lead actor with the director his old employer O’Brien, the set was Belmont Park in the United States and the co-star Royal Academy in the million dollar Grade One Breeder’s Cup Mile.
It was quite a call for O’Brien to make as Piggott had only been back in the saddle for 10 days but the old magic was there and he guided home the Irish runner for a tearjerking and memorable win.
His assessment of that day was typically succinct. When asked about it years later by the great racing journalist Brough Scott he said: “You never forget”.
Lester Keith Piggott was born on November 5, 1935. He married Susan Armstrong in 1980 and leaves three children. After separating from his wife he lived out his later years in Switzerland.
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