Racing Heroes: Lester Piggott
Mike Deasy adds Lester Piggott to the line-up in our Racing Heroes series
Is it incongruous to have as a hero someone who spent a year in prison for tax fraud?
It’s not something you can gloss over but, for this tribute, rose-tinted glasses are going to be worn because Lester Piggott was, for me, a sporting hero who took race-riding to new levels.
So, let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way. It was stupid, disappointing and not altogether surprising. Piggott’s disregard for rules had already been demonstrated, albeit in less serious circumstances.
In the 1979 Grand Prix de Deauville, about a furlong from home, he “borrowed” Alain Lequeux’s whip and the French stewards subsequently relegated him from second to third place. Piggott said he didn’t think Lequeux needed the whip.
Having quit the saddle at the close of the 1985 Flat season, Piggott took up training and sent out 34 winners from a string of 97 horses at Eve Lodge Stables in Newmarket. But what seemed a promising start was brought to a shuddering halt when he was convicted of tax evasion and jailed.
He described his year in prison as a waste of time, and I wouldn’t disagree, but he’d only himself to blame.
But let’s rewind to the time when his sporting prowess started to make an indelible impression on me.
From the mid to late sixties there were sportsmen whom I was lucky enough to see live and in their pomp. With either one or both of my parents, I’d be taken to see Manchester United’s Best and Law when they played at London grounds. At the Oval, it was Ted Dexter. And, at Brands Hatch, it was Graham Hill.
They were all charismatic and flamboyant. You could just about describe Lester Piggott as charismatic, insomuch that there was something fascinating about him, but flamboyance was not an apposite description.
Yet, when I was old enough to go to sporting events on my own, I’d head to the races and if Piggott was riding the day would be extra special. What’s more, unlike watching other sporting heroes at a relative distance, Piggott would be only metres away, especially if he was making his way from the weighing room to the parade ring.
There were few opportunities to get that close to the world’s greatest sportsmen. And that is what he was.
By the time I went to my first Derby, in 1972, he’d already won the race five times, the first on Never Say Die in 1954, aged 18. He won his first race ever when he was 12.
Needless to say, he was on the winner of my first Derby – in Roberto. The short-head victor was due to have been ridden by Bill Williamson, but he’d suffered an injury 10 days earlier and wasn’t going to be fit to ride until Derby day itself.
Piggott made his move to take the ride, which upset many at the time, and the winner was only confirmed after a stewards’ enquiry, with Roberto holding off a fast-finishing Rheingold. The crowd was not unanimous in its appreciation of the winner. Later that year, Piggott rode Rheingold to win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
I’d see him win the Derby three more times to take his tally to a record nine, for five different trainers.
To make him a worldwide sports star, he’d had two winners in the Washington DC International, on Sir Ivor in 1968 and Karabas a year later.
There were numerous wins too in Ireland and France, plus Canada, Germany, Italy, Singapore and Slovenia. The roll-call of major wins, including 24 British Classics, is far too long to list.
Lester Piggott quit the saddle in 1985 and for the next Flat season going to the races was not quite the same. There were plenty of other top-quality Flat jockeys to watch, but none had the same star-attraction.
It also meant an end to the stories – who knows which ones are apocryphal – which demonstrated Piggott’s arid sense of humour and preference not to spend money.
Asked what he thought of Brighton racecourse, where he once had a spill, he said “If you don’t pull up quickly you end up in the f*cking allotments.”
He once gave the feckless but charismatic journalist Jeffrey Bernard a lift in a private plane and days later Bernard received the bill.
When, in turn, Piggott got a lift back from the races, he told his driver about a short-cut, which turned out to be nothing of the sort. But the route did go past a shop that sold Piggott’s favourite ice cream, and he returned to the car with said confection, but not one for his host.
There was more than one permutation of the tale of requests to Piggott for a tip or loan. On being asked by a groom for a £5 tip, Piggott, who had a hearing difficulty, feigned deafness and told the lad to try his “good ear”. This time the request was for £10 and Piggott replied “try the other ear again”.
If cautious with money, Piggott was also cautious with words due, in the main, to his poor hearing and a speech impediment. Nevertheless, when ghosted columns by sports stars were all the rage in Fleet Street, he was signed up by the Evening Standard for his views on racing.
The journalist assigned to capture his thoughts, I think it was Brough Scott, might only have had a couple of dozen words a week from the great man with which to weave the column.
One Piggott response which is on the record is to a journalist who asked him when did he think he’d got the 1969 Washington DC International on Karabas won. Piggott replied “about two weeks ago.”
After his retirement as a jockey, Piggott had the spell as a trainer and the spell in jail. But five years later he came out of retirement and achieved one of his greatest riding triumphs.
Just 10 days back in the saddle he won the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Royal Academy, trained by Vincent O’Brien.
Piggott carried on with his second term as a jockey in Britain until 1994, when his last ride was in the November Handicap. He rode overseas in the winter of 1994/95, including a winner in Canberra, but did not ride in Britain again.
Piggott had been a sensation from the 1950s, was the “housewives’ favourite”, and was one of the world’s best-known sportsmen. He was five foot, eight inches tall, earning the nickname “the Long Fellow”, and seemed only to have a cigar for nourishment.
As with many a jockey, he had a lifelong battle with the scales, and rode at eight stone, six ounces. But, his dedication meant that he was champion jockey in Britain eleven times.
In 1992, with a fifth 2000 Guineas under his belt, courtesy of Rodrigo de Triano, a record-breaking 30th Classic win, Lester Piggott had another opportunity to demonstrate his wit.
He was 56 and, after dismounting in the Newmarket winner’s enclosure, was asked how much longer he could go on. Piggott replied “I’ve still got a ride in the sixth.”
Racing Heroes series
Lester Piggott http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3Yo
Kieren Fallon http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3Ua
The Aga Khan http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3SB
Best Mate and Kauto Star http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3Rk
Persian Punch http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3Px
Sir Peter O’Sullevan http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3NB