Lester Piggott, the outstanding jockey of the postwar era and a figure who transcended the sport of racing when the popularity of the Derby was at its height, has died aged 86.
Piggot’s son-in-law, Derby-winning trainer William Haggas, said: “Sadly we can confirm that Lester died peacefully in Switzerland this morning. I really don’t wish to add much more than that at this stage, although [my wife] Maureen will be making a statement later.”
Frankie Dettori, the only jockey since Piggott to share similar fame as a jockey, was quick to pay tribute. He told Racing TV: “Lester was very special and was one of my heroes. I was one of the lucky ones [to have ridden alongside him]. I was in that [Breeders’ Cup] race when he won on Royal Academy [in 1990] and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. A month out of retirement and he did what he did – it proved what a legend he was.
“I kind of got close to him personally, because obviously we were both good friends with [trainer] Barney [Curley], and Lester was a good friend to me. He will never be forgotten.”
Piggott earned the nickname “The Long Fellow” because of his relative tallness among jockeys at 5ft 8in but became popularly known as “the housewives favourite” during a period when he won nine Derbys and the Epsom Classic was the most famous race in the world. Piggott’s influence on racing was such that he spawned a new “shorter” race-riding style with pulled-up stirrup leathers which changed the art of jockeyship.
His father Keith, a former champion jumps jockey turned trainer, provided his son with his first public ride in 1948 at the age of 12. The boy, whose shy exterior resulting from partial deafness and a speech impediment masked a ruthless streak and a fiercely competitive will to win, was successful on The Chase at Haydock, laying the foundations for a glittering career in the saddle.
Piggott won his first Derby at 18 on Never Say Die and was champion jockey 11 times between 1960 and 1982. Despite his height there was no more natural rider in the saddle during a golden age for the sport which included rivals Pat Eddery and Willie Carson.
Carson said on Sunday that he felt like a part of him had died with the most iconic racing figure of the 20th century. “I feel as though I have lost part of my life in way, as Lester has been part of my life ever since I came into racing,” said an emotional Carson.
“I came to his in-laws as an apprentice and he was part of my life right from the word go, until the end. He was an iconic figure in the horse racing world. He is a legend. We had the luck of some ding-dongs on the track and he was 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.”
Controversy never strayed far from Piggott during and after his career on the Turf and he was banned from the track “until further notice” for what the stewards labelled his “dangerous riding” on Never Say Die at Royal Ascot, a few weeks after his Epsom victory. He returned six months later and in 1955 replaced the retired Sir Gordon Richards, his only rival for the outstanding jockey of the 20th century, in the top riding job in British racing as jockey to Noel Murless.
Piggott’s association with Murless and his subsequent ones with Vincent O’Brien and Henry Cecil were the basis of his domination of the upper echelons of the sport, which included completing in 1970 the Triple Crown of 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger on Nijinsky, an achievement that has still not been equalled.
His association with the Ballydoyle stable of O’Brien during the most successful years of the 1960s and 70s became a key part of his glittering career and the current incumbent Aidan O’Brien, no relation of his predecessor, said: “Lester was a very special man and his knowledge was second to none. He didn’t say a lot but every word you hung on to. He had so much natural ability to assess a horse. We are so sorry that he has passed.”
Piggott retired for the first time in 1985 but his burgeoning training career was cut short when he was sensationally jailed for tax fraud. He was stripped of his OBE before being released on parole after a year in 1988. He then stunned the sporting world when returning to the saddle in 1990, a comeback which spawned a fairytale story within days when he executed an audacious ride on Royal Academy to win at the Breeders’ Cup in America.
The famously taciturn Piggott won his 30th and final Classic on Rodrigo De Triano in the 1992 2,000 Guineas but only finally hung up his boots for good in 1995.