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Lester Piggott – a legend of the Turf whose like we will never see again

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Lester Piggott, 'the greatest jockey of the 20th century' whose Classic haul included nine Derby victories, has died at the age of 86. Photo: PA Wire

Lester Piggott, 'the greatest jockey of the 20th century' whose Classic haul included nine Derby victories, has died at the age of 86. Photo: PA Wire

Lester Piggott, whose Classic haul included nine Derby victories, has died at the age of 86

Lester Piggott, whose Classic haul included nine Derby victories, has died at the age of 86

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Lester Piggott, 'the greatest jockey of the 20th century' whose Classic haul included nine Derby victories, has died at the age of 86. Photo: PA Wire

Lester Piggott, the greatest jockey of the 20th century, with a record nine Epsom Derby wins, died peacefully in a Swiss Hospital yesterday aged 86.

Nicknamed ‘The Long Fellow’ and once described as having a face like a “well-kept grave”, Piggott’s 46-year career was unsurpassed in terms of success, longevity and incredible narrative.

After being a teenage riding sensation, he had decades at the top and a spell in jail for tax evasion before he completed one of sport’s greatest comebacks. On top of it all, he had to overcome being partially deaf.

Piggott was born into a racing dynasty – his grandfather Ernie rode two Grand National winners, and his father, Keith, trained one. At 5ft 8in, he was tall for a jockey and maintained a weight of 8st 6lb on a diet of cigars and Champagne – something no self-respecting modern top jockey would consider.

He was also born with a healthy disregard for authority, convention, and quite a few trainers and journalists. He was a remarkable jockey with a singular personality, and while his record of 4,493 winners, including 30 domestic Classics, speaks for itself, if the mark of a great sportsman is to alter his sport, then in that respect he achieved greatness by changing the way jockeys rode.

When Piggott rode his first winner, The Chase at Haydock in 1948 aged 12, most jockeys still rode hunting (long) length. But gradually Piggott shortened his stirrup leathers until, with incredible balance, he was perched on the horse’s withers with his famous derriere in the air. His style was often described as inimitable but every jockey since has tried to copy it.

It is for his association with the Derby that he’ll be best remembered. For most of his career, “international” racing meant France and Ireland, although European runners were starting to explore valuable opportunities in the America towards the end of his career, and Hong Kong was coming on stream.

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Which was the greatest or most important race could be debated all night long, but in Piggott’s time there was no argument – it was the Derby. London emptied to Epsom for the day and at the start of each June there was just one question; what will Lester ride?

His first Derby ride came as a 15-year-old, a year before any modern jockey could get a licence, on Zucchero for Ken Cundall.

It was before starting stalls, there were 33 runners and Zucchero, a temperamental starter, had to be led in by his trainer but got left at the start and finished down the field behind Arctic Prince. In the King George at Ascot, Zucchero finished six lengths in front of Arctic Prince. Piggott always considered it to be “the one that got away”.

He didn’t have to wait long before triumphing on Never Say Die, aged 18, in 1954, and for the next three decades no one mastered Tattenham Hill’s contours like Piggott, who had an uncanny knack for imposing his will on horses.

His next two were for Noel Murless on Crepello (1957) and St Paddy (1960) but his link with Vincent O’Brien led to his most productive spell when he won it five times in 10 years.

O’Brien trained four of them, Sir Ivor (1968), Nijinsky (the Triple Crown winner in 1970), Roberto (1972) and The Minstrel (1977).

In between, he rode Empery (1976) for Maurice Zilber and his last winner was Teenoso (1983) for Geoff Wragg. In all, he rode in the Derby 36 times at a strike-rate of one in four. Twice, in narrow wins, it could be argued that had the jockeys been swapped, there would have been a different result.

“I could have ridden two or three more Derby winners if things had panned out differently” Piggott said in 2015. “If I’d stayed with Vincent O’Brien a bit longer, or stayed with Noel Murless a bit longer, it could easily have happened.”

Having been replaced at Ballydoyle by Pat Eddery, after El Gran Senor’s narrow defeat by Secreto, Piggott supposedly walked back past O’Brien and owner Robert Sangster, who were licking their wounds in the second spot, and muttered: “Do you miss me?”

His run-ins with authority were legion. He was cautioned or suspended for bumping four times as a 14-year-old, although it may have been a case of the Jockey Club’s “old farts” putting the upstart jockey back in his box. In 1950, he was suspended for three weeks by the Jockey Club for riding “with disregard for other jockeys”. In no Piggott incident, however, was anyone hurt.

But whether it was stealing another jockey’s whip after dropping his own mid-race, or pinching another jockey’s mount a few days before a big race, often bypassing the trainer by going straight to the owner, Piggott was never far from the headlines.

He was a man of few words and long silences, but what he did say was often very astute or highly amusing. When Ben Leigh, a small operator, told Piggott after a race that he would never ride for him again, Piggott mumbled his reply: “Well, that’s me finished then.”

Piggott often said that a good jockey did not need instructions and that a bad one could not carry them out anyway. On another occasion, riding for Johnnie Haine, he was told to put the horse’s head in front on the line. With total disregard for the instruction, Piggott set off in front, made all the running but was caught in the shadow of the post. Haine was furious. “You were quite right, y’know,” said Piggott as he dismounted and walked away.

In 1985, he retired to start training in Newmarket but he was convicted of tax evasion – mainly because the cheque he paid the Revenue with came from an account he had not declared – and served 366 days in prison while his wife, Susan, trained.

On his release after five years out of the saddle, and encouraged by O’Brien, whose stable jockey John Reid was injured, he started riding again. He had been back in the saddle for 10 days when he won the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Royal Academy, turning into the straight well off the pace and sweeping past the leaders to get up on the line.

He was not finished, he teamed up with Sangster again to win the 1992 2,000 Guineas on Rodrigo De Triano and after riding the horse in a pre-Derby gallop with his stable companion Dr Devious, he tried his old trick of swapping mounts for Epsom. Dr Devious won under Reid.

His career finally fizzled out in 1995 when he retired for the second and last time. He spent much of his retirement in Switzerland.

A brilliant career in numbers

Lester Piggott was British champion jockey on 11 occasions and is the winning-most rider in the Derby with nine victories. Here is his career in numbers:
1935: The year Piggott was born.
12: The age at which he rode his first winner.
191: The number of winners in his best ever season in 1966.
4,493: The number of British Flat winners.
1954: The year in which he rode Never Say Die to his first Epsom Derby, aged 18.
11: UK champion jockey titles.
5: English 2,000 Guineas wins.
9: Epsom Derby wins.
6: Epsom Oaks wins.
8: St Leger wins.
30: English Classic wins.
15: Irish Classic victories.
7: King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes wins.
11: Ascot Gold Cups.
3: Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes.
116: Royal Ascot winners.
54: The age at which he rode his last winner.
1985: When he initially annouced his retirement.
1990: The year Piggott emerged from retirement to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Vincent O’Brien’s Royal Academy.
1994: The year Piggott had his last winner in Britain.
1995: His final retirement.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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