Willie Carson, Britain’s champion jockey five times in the 1970s and 80s, led tributes to Lester Piggott after his death in Switzerland was announced on Sunday, describing him as “a person who made us all better, because we had to be better to beat him. We had to up our game to compete with him, because he was so magical on top of a horse.”
Recalling the two riders’ many “ding-dongs” on the track, including a closely-fought finish to the 1977 Derby in which Piggott, on The Minstrel, edged out Carson’s mount Hot Grove, Carson added: “He was confident. He had the confidence, because he didn’t care about others, where normal people worry about doing the wrong thing. That man, for some reason, never seemed to be under any pressure.”
Frankie Dettori, who inherited Piggott’s mantle as the punters’ favourite rider, said that the nine-times Derby-winner was “a hero of mine and a good friend.” He added: “We always tried to aspire to be like him and none of us can do it. I’m not old enough to remember him riding when he was in his peak but I’m talking as a professional jockey, we all grew up wanting to be like him.”
Piggott rode Rodrigo De Triano to win the 2,000 Guineas in 1992, a few months after coming out of retirement. “It was unbelieveable for a young man like myself to have Lester Piggott riding for you,” Peter Chapple-Hyam, the colt’s trainer, told Racing TV. “He was my hero and he was everyone’s hero. And it went like clockwork, Lester and the horse suited each other down to the ground. He [Robert Sangster, Rodrigo De Triano’s owner] wasn’t [sure it was the right choice]. I kept pestering him and in the end he said “righty-ho, get the old man”.”
Sir Michael Stoute turned to Piggott to ride the mighty Shergar in the Irish Derby in 1981 when Walter Swinburn, his regular rider, was suspended. “Lester was a genius on a racehorse, I don’t think there has been anyone better,” Stoute said. “He could be very entertaining when he was in the mood, he had a great sense of humour, but he was tough to talk to at times.
“In 1980, he had the pick of plenty of mine with the hope of carrying that on, but he had fallen out with a few people by that stage. He is an icon, a brilliant jockey. Many have tried to be like him and no one has come close.”
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John Gosden, Britain’s champion trainer four times, recalled that Piggott was “quite mischievous”. He continued: “We’d leave Sandown Park and stop at Hampton Court to get the ice creams and you’d guarantee one thing, he’d get his ice cream but you’d be paying for it.
“Lester liked playing games like that, but he was without doubt, the smartest, cleverest, and he was tremendous company. He’s enjoyed watching his racing right up to the end, I hear. What a guy, we’ll miss him enormously.”