Lester’s family confirmed he died “peacefully” in Switzerland on Sunday morning. He had been receiving treatment in hospital that week.
Known for his unique and distinctive style, the “Long Fellow”, who was almost 5ft 8in tall, had a background steeped in racing. Lester’s grandfather Ernie was a champion jump jockey, his father Keith a successful jockey turned trainer, and his mother Iris was of the great Rickaby racing family.
Lester rode his first winner aged 12, and his first Derby winner six years later, when he rode Never Say Die to victory at Epsom in 1954. He was champion jockey 11 times, and won a record 30 British Classics.
Tributes have poured in from across the equestrian and racing community. Three-time champion jockey Frankie Dettori said Lester was “the greatest of all time” and described him as his “hero”. Champion trainer Jonjo O’Neill said Lester was a “legend of the sport” and a “true gentleman”.
Presenter Clare Balding described Lester as an “iconic figure” in world sport and British culture.
“He always said the most important attribute for a Derby winner was balance. Having him on board always helped – we will remember him fondly,” she said.
Lester rode 4,493 winners between 1948 and 1995. He often spoke fondly of Crepello, winner of the 2000 Guineas and the Derby in 1957 – the same year he won the Oaks with The Queen’s Carrozza. His other many achievements included winning the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot a record 11 times, and taking the 1970 Triple Crown on Nijinsky. Following a difficult period in his life when he spent a year in prison, in 1987 to 1988 for tax fraud, he made a victorious comeback in 1990, winning the Breeders Cup Mile at Belmont Park on Royal Academy, aged 54. In 1992 he won his 30th British Classic, the 2,000 Guineas on Rodrigo De Triano, and in 1995 he officially retired, aged 59.
In 2018 nine life-size bronze statues were commissioned in honour of Lester’s achievements, 65 years after his first Derby win. They were unveiled at various racecourses around the UK including Epsom.
“Everyone at Epsom Downs is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Lester Piggott. To win nine Derbys and six renewals of the Oaks as a jockey over the course of almost three decades is an extraordinary achievement, which may never be surpassed,” said Phil White, regional director of The Jockey Club’s London region.
“As we build up to this year’s race we will ensure that his passing is recognised in an appropriate way over the duration of the two days. The Lester Piggott gates at the entrance to Epsom Downs and his statue which overlooks the winning line will always honour one of our sport’s great champions.”
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