Lifestyle

Friday 29 August 2014

Tracy Piggott, riding through the tough times with a winning smile

She has been a fixture on Irish television for 22 years, a popular sports broadcaster who has ploughed her own furrow despite having a famous father. She is also one of Ireland's most tireless fundraisers for charitable causes.

Yet, this week, Tracy Piggott may well have wished she did not have such a public profile after it was reported that she had taken a court injunction against her former fiancé to stop him spreading malicious lies about her and killer Larry Murphy.

Her sworn affidavit, partly reprinted by the Evening Herald on Tuesday, detailed her distress at the malicious and utterly unfounded allegations made by ex-partner Stephen Mahon that she had had an affair with the notorious criminal.

The trauma may have reminded her of another tough time in her life, more than 20 years ago when she watched her beloved father -- legendary jockey Lester Piggott -- jailed for tax evasion. With the entire Piggott family in the media's glare, Ireland would prove to be a welcome refuge for the young Tracy.

After working as a "galloper" for leading horse trainers in the US, the 20-year-old English woman moved to this country in 1986, where she got a job as assistant to one of Ireland's top horse men, Tommy Stack. She also showed her prowess as a jockey by competing at several meets here, although her celebrated surname proved to be both a blessing and curse.

It was RTE's former head of sport, Tim O'Connor, who recognised her broadcasting potential. He had a track record for spotting talent, having brought Eamon Dunphy to the airwaves, and Piggott was seen as a refreshing newcomer to a male-dominated world.

Initially, Piggott concentrated on horse-racing -- it was the sport she knew best -- but she soon proved to be a versatile broadcaster. She has anchored three Olympics, has hosted a chat show and quiz programme and is seen as a go-to figure for such popular fare as The Restaurant.

At the moment, she juggles her racing work with a role as pitch-side reporter for rugby internationals and Heineken Cup matches and she has been called upon to provide coverage for such disparate sports as show-jumping, snooker and greyhound racing.

"Tracy's biggest strength is her common touch and an ability to relate to an audience," says RTE's head of sport Ryle Nugent.

"She is engaging and eminently likeable, and those are qualities that can't be picked up in the journalism schools. You either have them, or you don't.

"While horse-racing is her forte, she has proved to be very adept at taking on other sports. Hosting the Olympics coverage can be especially tough as it requires a knowledge of and passion for a wide variety of sports that are on the margins. Tracy was more than capable of such broadcasting."

Today, RTE's sport department is well represented by women, but that was far from the case in 1988. Nugent believes Piggott helped pave the way for a new generation of female sports broadcasters. "She broke the mould and blazed a trail," he says. "She joined RTE as a very young reporter and hasn't looked back."

An ex-employee at RTE's sports department says Piggott mastered the art of tact from the off. "Unlike other people in the building, she has been careful not to tread on anybody's toes. She was ambitious in the early days, and a quick learner. She listened to advice and took it on board."

"Her gender definitely helped her because the sport area was very much a male domain at the time and so, obviously, did her name," one broadcaster says. "But she wouldn't have survived as long as she has if she wasn't good. She's talented, there's no doubt about that."

A well-known broadcaster from a rival network, who does not wish to be named, is less enamoured. "I think her post-match rugby interviews are disastrous. She doesn't ask a single pertinent question. All she does is stand there with a microphone offering blandishments and receiving blandishments in return.

"Sports people are not usually the most articulate, especially in the moments after the final whistle, but if you're going to get anything worthwhile from them, you have to ask smart questions. Tracy doesn't do that and I get the impression when it comes to rugby, she simply doesn't know her stuff. To be perfectly honest, if her surname wasn't Piggott would any of us have heard of her?"

Yet few would dispute her commitment in the field of philanthropy. Rather than simply lend her name to any number of worthy causes, she has pitched in in spectacular fashion, whether that's cycling from coast to coast in the US, or spending seven-and-a-half hours underwater to swim the nine miles of Galway Bay. Her endeavours have yielded impressive results -- the marathon swim in aid of a leukaemia charity saw her raise £170,000 in 1998.

More recently, she has concentrated her energies on the charity she founded, Playing for Life, which uses sport as a way to raise awareness and funds in the third world.

The charity took seven inter- county GAA stars to Malawi in east Africa to teach local children the finer points of Ireland's national codes. Money was raised to help local agricultural development.

As her broadcasting fame grew, so did the media's interest in her private life. And 2007 would prove to be a particularly tough year. First, she had to contend with her horse trainer fiancé's conviction for animal cruelty -- the Dublin circuit court ordered Stephen Mahon to pay more than €34,000 in damages to the owner of the horse he had mistreated.

Then, the pair attracted further attention when they postponed their wedding, having to quash speculation their relationship was on the rocks.

For Piggott, a happy respite from the unwelcome headlines would arrive in the form of her daughter, and only child, Thea, born when she was 42. But Thea's birth would not solve her relationship difficulties and she and Mahon announced their split in late 2008, when their daughter was just 10 months old.

"Tracy has had a rough old time of it in her personal life," says a colleague, "But not once has her first class professionalism slipped, even though I know the media intrusion has been very distressing for her, as it would be for most people.

"Some might say that's the price you pay when you work in front of the cameras, but Tracy is not someone who has ever courted fame for fame's sake so I think the coverage has been very unfair.

"Having said that, she is one tough cookie and she won't let adversity get her down."

Like father, like daughter.

Irish Independent

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