Legends of the sport: All-time great Flat jockey Lester Piggott

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  • The Flat jockey’s killer instinct, unique style and tremendous race record secured him a place with the all-time greats – despite a chequered personal life, writes Julian Muscat

    It was a sight as distinctive as it was reassuring. When Lester Piggott was still standing bolt upright as jockeys around him crouched low into their saddles, his legion of backers would start counting their money. Never mind that there might have been another furlong left to run. Piggott’s silhouette in cruise control always told its own story. Then he would shift his weight imperceptibly and his mount, duly prompted, would gallop away to victory.

    You couldn’t mistake the “Long Fellow” for anyone else. Uncommonly tall for a Flat jockey at more than 5ft 7in, Piggott developed a riding style that was all his own. He had an aquiline presence: perched high above the withers, motionless and unblinking, poised to strike with deadly effect.

    That’s why Piggott held the nation in thrall, from owners and trainers right through to housewives having their annual flutter on the Derby – a race Piggott won a record nine times.

    No other equestrian pursuit is as immersed in betting as horse racing. It was an act of blind faith for punters to entrust their hard-earned to the man in the saddle. But then, Piggott and his fans were united in a single cause. Winning was all that mattered.

    So much so that Piggott’s gilded career would also trawl the depths. Disdainful of authority and impervious to anything in his path, he would pay a heavy price. In 1987, he served the first of a three year jail sentence for tax evasion after he was less than forthcoming with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, prompting Her Majesty to strip him of the OBE he’d been awarded 12 years earlier.

    That royal censure torments him to this day. As the late Sir Peter O’Sullevan, one of Piggott’s closest confidantes, told me when discussing the jockey in 2013: “Going to prison really changed Lester because it was like imprisoning a wild bird in a cage. He coped with that, but what really upset him was losing his OBE. He felt the tax matter wasn’t at all connected to his other achievements.”

    That sorry chapter was as sad as it was almost inevitable. O’Sullevan’s “wild bird” analogy is apt for a man who was intensely groomed for saddle life from the day he was born. It would bear fruit, even if his upbringing was woefully short of human empathy.

    A landslide record

    Most records in racing are broken because the fixture list keeps expanding, in the process providing jockeys with increased opportunities. Yet Britain’s five Classic races have endured for more than 200 years. Piggott’s haul of 30 remains a landslide record. Furthermore, Piggott won 14 of the 15 Classics in Britain, Ireland and France. No other jockey has come close.

    His record alone speaks volumes, although riding prowess was only part of the equation. Piggott’s public persona – diffident and truculent, uncommunicative and curmudgeonly – was a legacy of the burning ambition his mother fostered in him.

    Iris Rickaby hailed from a family steeped in jockeys. “It was all down to the way Lester was brought up, with his mother putting the brakes on all the time,” O’Sullevan said. “As a Rickaby she had seen jocks fall by the wayside and their extravagant excesses. She was determined the same wouldn’t happen to her son.”

    O’Sullevan’s view is corroborated by Jimmy Lindley, much of whose riding career overlapped with Piggott’s. “From a very young age, Lester’s mother could see he was going to become quite tall,” he says.

    “She ran much of Lester’s early life, especially his diet,” Lindley continues. “I think he would have become too heavy and lost interest were it not for his mother. His life was very restricted; he never had a childhood. Nothing ever came into his life except horses.”

    Nor was his father Keith, a jockey-turned-trainer, any sort of mitigating influence. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    “Keith was absolutely terrified the flame [in Piggott] would be extinguished,” O’Sullevan said. “When Lester rode over hurdles in his youth, Keith encouraged him to put other jockeys through the wings.

    “If Keith was coming to the last in a hurdle race and was lying 14th of 15, he’d put the jockey behind him through the wings as a matter of course. Keith was a hard man. He wanted to bring up a hard son to do the job.”

    Between them, Piggott’s parents inclined to overkill in their tutoring. The fact that Piggott was an uncommunicative child was not entirely down to partial deafness in one ear and a slight speech impediment.

    This, then, was the backstory to a man whose ruthless exploitation of his gifts would see him rewrite the prevailing master/servant relationship between trainers and jockeys. It was a detail that resonated with blue-collar punters: he was their champion, a man in fear of nobody, least of all crusty racecourse stewards, in a career that spanned five decades.

    A rough school

    He rode his first winner when he was 12. Six years on and he’d won the first of his nine Derbys aboard Never Say Die, in 1954. By then, aged 18, he was already a weighing-room mainstay, riding at a time when patrol cameras monitoring the action did not exist.

    In those days, race-riding was a rough school, more akin to the Wild West. And the loner with a face of stone was the deadliest gunslinger in town.

    “Back then, Lester would try to win at all costs,” says Joe Mercer, another contemporary of Piggott who was champion jockey in 1979. “When he was an apprentice, the senior guys got very upset because he showed them no respect. He filled every hole, did everything he shouldn’t do.”

    Piggott’s repeated acts of daring came to a head at Royal Ascot two weeks after Never Say Die’s Derby triumph. Riding the same horse, he was adjudged to have caused serious interference after Sir Gordon Richards, the doyen among jockeys who’d been knighted the previous year, pinned the blame on Piggott during a stewards’ inquiry.

    In consequence, Piggott was banned indefinitely and made to work away from the stable of his father, whom The Jockey Club perceived as a bad influence. Soon after Richards retired, the stewards suggested Piggott should reapply for his licence and he returned after a 12-week hiatus with typical defiance. He rode a winner on his comeback ride at Newmarket.

    In Mercer’s eye, that four-month stint at Newmarket with his uncle, Jack Jarvis, had the desired effect. “He was a bit of a rascal, but after that, he seemed to grow out of it,” Mercer says. “It did him good, but he was still a tough cookie.”

    If anything, the explosive talent of a man born on Guy Fawkes Night – 5 November 1935 – was heightened by his enforced absence. He may have ridden less aggressively, but he was still consumed by desire. He was also courted by Noel Murless, who trained at Warren Place Stables, in Newmarket.

    Theirs was an alliance that would span 12 seasons punctuated by a herd of signature horses. Crepello, sometimes cited by Piggott as the best horse he rode, won the 2000 Guineas and Derby in 1957. In that year, Piggott also won the Oaks aboard The Queen’s Carrozza.

    Yet the horse that defined the Piggott/Murless axis was the dappled grey filly, Petite Etoile. A three-year-old in 1959, Petite Etoile won all six of her starts that season, among them the 1000 Guineas and Oaks, together with the Yorkshire Oaks, Sussex Stakes and Champion Stakes. Doubtless abetted by Piggott on her back, she built up a devoted public following. All of which served to render the 1960 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes the most contentious of races. It saw the settling of some private feuds among jockeys. Piggott was the victim.

    Between them, Scobie Breasley and Geoff Lewis ensured Piggott and Petite Etoile had no racing room throughout the race, in which Aggressor, ridden by Jimmy Lindley, made the running on rain softened ground that was not to Petite Etoile’s liking.

    “Scobie and Geoff were great mates,” Lindley relates. “They both had the needle with Lester, who’d done something to upset them. In the race, they gave Lester no quarter and I rumbled this as I rode along out in front.

    “I heard shouting behind me as we went into the home turn,” Lindley continues. “I sensed trouble so I kicked as hard as I could. Aggressor was a good stayer and the advantage I poached saw me home after Lester had become trapped on the inside.”

    Piggott was roundly slated for his ride after Petite Etoile finished second at prohibitive odds of 2/5. “To be fair to him, he never said a word about it,” Lindley recalls. “Not a single word of complaint.”

    On that day, Piggott reaped what he sowed. Despite his links with Murless he rode for a spate of other trainers, often dislodging other jockeys from regular mounts on big days.

    “He became the ruthless killer that he was, taking rides from everybody,” says Steve Cauthen, the crack American jockey who came to ride in Britain, aged 17, in 1978. “If a trainer didn’t want him on a horse, he’d call the horse’s owner.

    “He could get away with it because he was so phenomenally gifted. They used to call him ‘JC’ in the weighing room. He could walk on water; he could get people eating out of his hands.”

    That was Piggott in a nutshell. Just about every other jockey lived in daily dread that Piggott would “jock them off” their best rides. As Vincent O’Brien, the trainer for whom Piggott rode a succession of great horses, replied when asked about the merit of having Piggott riding for you: “It means he isn’t riding against you.”

    Cauthen cites several facets to Piggott’s all-round brilliance. “There’s no question he was an exceptional horseman through and through,” he says, “but that’s only part of it. He was the best at getting on the best horse, and when he did, he rode them with great confidence.

    “He also knew the strengths and weaknesses of the horses he was riding against, and he had the killer instinct and raw desire. Desire is probably the most important thing. It doesn’t necessarily make you happy, but it makes you the most successful. For Lester, that was everything.”

    The cold eye of an assassin

    Then there was Piggott’s intimidating aura. This was amplified vividly by the late Hugh McIlvanney, the signature sports writer in Britain for four decades. He put it to me thus: “When Piggott walked into the paddock before the Derby, it was like seeing Marlon Brando on the screen. You couldn’t look at anything else. It wasn’t that he was so much taller than any of the jockeys; there was that sense of aloofness, almost a kind of aura of superiority.”

    And then there was Piggott’s initial connection with a horse when he was legged aboard in the paddock. Having stared down the opposition with the cold eye of an assassin, he would turn his attention to his mount.

    By any definition, Julie Krone is the most successful female jockey of all time: so far the only one to win a US Triple Crown race, and the only one to ride a Breeders’ Cup winner. She rode more than 3,700 winners in her 22-year career.

    Krone had a handful of rides at the Breeders’ Cup meeting in 1985, when Piggott was also in action. She resolved to take a closer look at the man about whom she had read and heard so much, but had never previously seen in the flesh. She went down to the paddock before the Breeders’ Cup Turf, in which Piggott was riding Theatrical.

    “All the stuff I’d read about him; he’d been such a huge image in my mind and when I saw him, he was no different in person,” she recalls. “That wily personality and that tom-cat physique; and from the moment he started moving towards his horse in the paddock, he was like liquid mercury.

    “He got a leg up and sat purposefully soft,” Krone continues. “You could see the quality of his horsemanship in every movement: his lower back all relaxed, but at the same time his upper back not collapsed at all. Whatever he had, it looked to me like he had it from the first moment he ever sat in a saddle.

    “Going to post, he sat dead still. He let that horse use its whole body. And the horse broke from the gate, quite a hard-pulling horse, and he fed it the reins. Before you knew it, he had his position, the reins were loose and the horse was totally relaxed. It was beautiful to watch, just beautiful.”

    The fact that Piggott finished nearer last than first was totally academic. Krone had seen for herself why Lester Piggott stood alone.

    Steve Cauthen on Piggott

    “Lots of rides stand out, but one summed him up that was typical and very funny,” says Steve, Piggott’s American counterpart. “In a finish at Deauville, Lester had his whip knocked out of his hand, so he leant over and snatched [rival jockey] Alain Lequeux’s whip from him. Lester went on to finish a close second, so it nearly came off. Just the thought of anyone doing that: that will to win, and raw desire.

    “He used to make us laugh like crazy. He was one of the richest guys in the world, but he’d do anything to avoid having to pay his way. He’d never pay for the ice creams and would get lifts to the races with guys who could barely afford to drive. He was a funny bird in that way. I doubt we’ll ever see another like him again.”

    “You had to admire him secretly,” says Jimmy. “He’d nick a ride from you, but have no issue with asking you about the ins and outs of the horse before he rode it.

    “For me, his best ride was winning the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile on Royal Academy. He’d only had a handful of rides, having just come out of retirement at the age of 54. He’d been off for a few years, so to come back with the edge he showed that day was extraordinary. He was probably the all-time great. There’s no one thing you can put your finger on; it was the all-round package.”

    Julie Krone on Piggott

    “He rode so differently to most jockeys I grew up riding with in America,” says Julie. “He just pinched on his horse and let his reins go: there’d be no scrubbing or rowing. The horse would feel him change his weight, and that was its cue. The fire of his body heating up, and his focus on getting the horse to go faster: horses just ran for him like it was magic.”

    Joe Mercer on Piggott

    “Lester and I were apprentices together,” says Joe. “I’ve known him since I was 14 and he hasn’t changed at all. When he first went to America, he came back with goggles and raised his stirrups a couple of notches. Everyone copied him, although his riding style was unique.

    “He rode so many big-race winners, but one that stands out was when he won the 1972 Derby on Roberto by a whisker. It was spectacular. The way he hit that horse was like machine-gun fire. People say he was hard on the horses, but he’d hit them on the top of their flanks, not under the girth as you see today. His horses always came back for more.”

    Piggott’s career in numbers

    • Champion jockey in Britain 11 times
    • Won a record 30 British Classics, among them a record nine Derbys
    • Won the Derby’s equivalent in France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Singapore and Slovakia
    • Won the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot a record 11 times
    • Won the 1970 Triple Crown aboard Nijinsky, the last horse to achieve it
    • Rode 4,493 winners between 1948 and 1995

    Greatest horses he rode

    1957: Crepello, winner of the 2000 Guineas and Derby

    1959: Petite Etoile, winner of the 1000 Guineas, Oaks, Sussex Stakes, Yorkshire Oaks and Champion Stakes

    1968: Sir Ivor, winner of the 2000 Guineas, Derby, Champion Stakes and Washington DC International

    1969: Park Top, winner of the Coronation Cup and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes

    1970: Nijinsky, winner of the Triple Crown

    1972: Roberto, winner of the Derby

    1977/78: Alleged, winner of consecutive renewals of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe

    1981: Ardross, “stayers” Triple Crown and Prix Royal-Oak winner

    Ref Horse & Hound; 18 June 2020