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Obituary: Lester Piggott, outstanding jockey who rode to victory nine times in the Derby and won a string of other Classics before being convicted of tax evasion

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Lester Piggott displayed a mental toughness and a ruthless will to win his competitors could not match. Picture by Fiona Hanson/PA

Lester Piggott displayed a mental toughness and a ruthless will to win his competitors could not match. Picture by Fiona Hanson/PA

Lester Piggott displayed a mental toughness and a ruthless will to win his competitors could not match. Picture by Fiona Hanson/PA

Lester Piggott, who has died aged 86, was one of only a handful of jockeys in British racing history to cross the boundaries of their sport to become a household name.

Piggott rode 4,493 winners in Britain and won 30 English Classics, among them an extraordinary nine victories in the Derby, a record which still stands today. He won eight St Legers; six Oaks; five 2,000 Guineas; and two 1,000 Guineas. He rode 116 winners at Royal Ascot and was champion jockey on 11 occasions — in 1960, in every season from 1964 to 1971, and in 1981 and 1982.

As with all sportsmen of the highest class, sheer talent was not the whole story. Piggott displayed a mental toughness and a ruthless will to win that none of his competitors could match. There is no question that Piggott was one of the greatest jockeys ever to grace the flat racing arena.

He was, at 5ft 7in, tall for a jockey, and had he had a lighter natural weight he might have notched up even more winners; as it was, he was competing at around 21lb under his natural weight, a remarkable achievement in itself and one demanding extraordinary self-discipline. When riding he appeared to subsist on coffee, chocolate bars and cigars. His favourite food was ice cream.

Like Fred Archer, the 19th-century champion, Piggott had the advantage of a racing family background, giving him the opportunity of making a quicker start than great jockeys such as Gordon Richards or Steve Donoghue; and both in build and in temperament, the lean, withdrawn Piggott resembled Archer much more closely than he did the stocky, determined Richards or the charming but mercurial Donoghue. 

Archer’s life ended in suicide, and the evening of Piggott’s career was marred by his conviction for tax evasion and consequent prison sentence.

His carefulness with money was well known, and medical evidence at his trial in October 1987 suggested a link between years of strict dieting and the tendency to hoard money for its own sake rather than for the pleasure of spending it. 

Lester Keith Piggott was born at Wantage, Berkshire, on November 5, 1935, the son of Keith Piggott and Iris Rickaby, both of whom came from well-known racing families. From childhood he suffered from a slight deafness, which led him to appear shy and aloof with other children; but his affinity with horses became apparent when he and a New Forest pony called Brandy began to win prizes at local gymkhanas.

He sat on his first racehorse at the age of seven, by which time he was dividing his daylight hours between school and his father’s stable. He made his debut as a jockey aged 12 on April 7, 1948 at Salisbury. His first win came at Haydock four months later, and his flair was soon attracting notice. His determination to win, however, occasionally made Lester reckless, and his first serious suspension followed his horse Barnacle’s disqualification at Newbury in October 1950.

Barnacle also gave Piggott his first notable victory, in the Great Metropolitan Handicap at the Epsom spring meeting of 1951. That July saw his first success in a major European race when he took the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park on the French-trained Mystery IX. In the summer of 1951 Piggott had his first ride in the Derby, finishing unplaced on Zucchero.  

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When he did win his first Derby, on the 33-1 chance Never Say Die in 1954, Piggott became the youngest 20th-century jockey to win the race.  

Piggott believed that “balance” was the most important quality in a Derby horse, owing to Epsom’s demanding gradients and adverse camber.

He once explained: “If [the horse] loses balance he loses speed and direction, and that might cost him the race … the horse has his own centre of gravity just behind his shoulders. The jockey has a centre of gravity. But the jockey can shift his and the horse can’t. At every stride the horse’s centre of gravity is shifting in relation to the jockey’s. Getting a horse balanced means keeping your balance, every stride, every second, to suit his.”

The retirement, through injury, of Gordon Richards in July 1954 left Noel Murless’s powerful stable without a regular jockey, and Piggott was appointed to the role from 1955. For the next 12 seasons they formed the most powerful team in British racing. Piggott’s next two Derby victories, on Crepello (1957) and St Paddy (1960), were for Murless. He also rode the stable’s brilliant filly, Petite Etoile, to win the Oaks and other big races.

The Queen’s Carrozza, in 1957, was another Oaks winner trained by Murless during this period. Her triumph at Epsom, and Roberto’s Derby victory in 1972, were widely regarded as the most forceful of Piggott’s many great rides at that racecourse.

His association with Murless, though occasionally revived, ended in 1966. Relations were already strained that summer when Piggott chose to ride Valoris, from Vincent O’Brien’s stable in Co Tipperary, in the Oaks, rejecting Murless’s Varinia; Valoris proved an easy winner, Varinia finishing third. Piggott then officially went freelance, but in effect he became O’Brien’s regular big race jockey. Nijinsky (the 1970 Triple Crown winner), Sir Ivor (1968), Roberto (1972) and The Minstrel (1977) were the four Derby winners he rode for O’Brien. 

Alleged, twice successful in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, in 1977 and 1978, also helped to make O’Brien and Piggott the most successful partnership in European racing.

By 1980, however, Piggott’s relationship with O’Brien had worn thin, and that summer they parted company. The following year saw Piggott become first jockey to Henry Cecil, who had succeeded Noel Murless (his father-in-law) at the Warren Place stables at Newmarket. This new partnership got off to a fine start when Fairy Footsteps won the 1,000 Guineas. Ardross, another star of the Cecil stable, provided Piggott’s 10th and 11th Ascot Gold Cup victories, in 1981 and 1982.

Piggott was champion jockey in both those years, his first championships since his run of eight successive titles between 1964 and 1971.

He left Cecil at the end of the 1984 season to go freelance. He said goodbye to his career as a jockey on October 29, 1985, at Nottingham, where Full Choke provided him with a winner. He had won his ninth, and final, Derby on Teenoso in 1983.

Piggott operated as a trainer from 1985 to 1987, winning at Royal Ascot in his first season with Cutting Blade. At one time he had 97 horses, but in 1987 his training career was interrupted when he was sentenced to three years in jail for tax evasion. In the end he served 366 days.

He was stripped of the OBE he had been awarded in 1975, and in 1994 finally settled with the Inland Revenue by paying them £4.4m. 

When Piggott returned to his yard after his release only a handful of horses remained, and he decided in 1990 to resume race riding. Within days he had won, at the age of 54, the Breeders’ Cup Mile, one of America’s most prestigious races. In 1992 he suffered multiple injuries when his mount, Mr Brooks, broke a leg during the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in Florida. Two years later he had another potentially serious fall at Goodwood and he retired for a second, and final, time in September 1995. 

Lester Piggott married Susan Armstrong in 1960. Both their daughters, Maureen and Tracy, became skilled riders. Piggott also had a son, Jamie, a bloodstock agent, with Anna Ludlow, who had worked for his wife.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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