Lester Piggott: a rare talent who left his mark on an audience of millions

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: PN2</span>
Photograph: PN2

“Never” is a word to be used with care in a sport founded on uncertainty and chance. But it is safe to say that there will never be another jockey who connects as thoroughly and deeply with the racing and betting public as Lester Piggott during the three decades when he was the dominant force in British Flat racing.

The reason is Piggott’s timing. Not just the split-second judgement that so often put him on the right side of a head-bobbing photo-finish, or allowed him to deliver Royal Academy on the line in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile, at the age of 55 and less than a fortnight after coming out of retirement. He also emerged as the most talented jockey of his, and arguably any, generation at the ideal moment to leave a permanent mark on an audience of millions.

Piggott did not win the first of his 11 Flat championships until 1960, but by then the seeds of his celebrity among racegoers and backers had already been sown. In the 1950s, off-course cash betting was technically illegal but still a hugely popular thread in the fabric of everyday working-class life. Racing accounted for the overwhelming majority of bets and in one sense, Piggott was just the latest in a line of jockeys, from Fred Archer in the mid-19th century onwards, whose name against a horse in the Derby or the Gold Cup at Ascot could set the odds tumbling.

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But Piggott was different. He was the first great jockey of the television age, in a two- and three-channel era when Britain’s most historic sporting events were becoming a widely-shared experience. For two centuries, off-course punters had followed the action through newspapers and occasional newsreels, without ever seeing a live race. Suddenly, it was possible to form an immediate connection with events like Royal Ascot and the Derby, and the mesmerising, stern-faced teenager who always seemed to be in the thick of it.

In a black-and-white era, Piggott’s 5ft 8in frame and backside-up riding style made it easy to pick him out as the field galloped down the hill towards Tattenham Corner. And it was another happy accident of timing that the age of Lester Piggott began as another great career in the saddle was drawing to a close. Sir Gordon Richards had won the Flat jockeys’ championship an extraordinary 26 times between 1925 and 1953 when he finally managed to win the Derby, at the 28th attempt, in Coronation week. Richards retired just over a year later – a few weeks after Piggott’s first Derby winner, as an 18-year-old aboard the 33-1 shot, Never Say Die.

Related: Lester Piggott: ‘A lot of people know I’m going to turn 80 – but I wish they didn’t’

Never Say Die was, by a long way, the biggest outsider among Piggott’s record total of nine Derby winners. He won the turf’s most famous race – and yet the punters missed out. But it also the win that secured his reputation with the betting public. He had announced himself already, having taken his first ride in public at the age of 12 and then riding his first winner at 14. Just a year later, at an age when he would now be ineligible for a jockeys’ licence, he rode in the Derby for the first time, and the season after that, he rode his first winner at Royal Ascot, in the Wokingham Handicap.

But it was Never Say Die’s unexpected success that made Piggott the anointed heir to Fred Archer, Steve Donoghue and Richards, as the jockey that backers would always seize upon to in search of reward or salvation.

Even in the early days of his career, the denial necessary to keep his body at a racing weight was already becoming apparent in the wasting lines on his face. His single-minded determination to get the line in front was also very plain. The punters loved him for his fearlessness, but many of the sport’s rulers and regulators held a different opinion. Piggott received a long ban for what was seen as his role in a fall that ended Richards’s career, which cost him the winning ride on Never Say Die in the St Leger, but jubilant racegoers made it plain where they sympathies lay when Piggott returned with a winner at Newmarket three months later.

Throughout his career Piggott rarely gave interviews, and offered little to interviewers when he did. A speech impediment which muffled his voice and a deafness in one ear from childhood contributed to Piggott’s reluctance to engage with reporters, but it reflected a natural reticence too. Piggott did not court celebrity, living instead for the two minutes in every half an hour at the track when he was using his extraordinary talent. For Piggott, it seemed that fame was not something to seek and defend. It was more of an occupational hazard.

Some said that he existed on lettuce and champagne, others that it was cigars and black coffee – just two among the dozens of tales that attached themselves to “the Long Fellow” to fill the void left by his low profile in the media. Every story, apocryphal or not, embellished the Lester legend.

His love of money – and the reluctance to part with it which would eventually cost him his liberty, his OBE and any chance of a knighthood – were soon part of the legend too. “Lester,” his former weighing-room colleague Bill Rickaby once said, “relishes every crisp fiver like some rare jewel, for money is his staff of life and he ekes it out as sparingly as a man faced with 50 years of unpensionable retirement”.

There were countless rumours too about the ruthlessness with which he would pursue the ride on a big-race favourite, and the quiet word with the owner to plant the idea that his presence in the saddle could make all the difference. In the run-up to the Derby, speculation about which horse Piggott would ride, and also which horse he wanted to ride, was fevered. More often than not, Piggott got his way.

His self-assurance was unshakeable. The backers knew that Piggott’s faith in himself was a strong as theirs in him. He backed himself against any other rider in the game, and at a time when racing accounted for the overwhelming majority of betting turnover, the punters felt the same way. His success over the course of a major meeting like Royal Ascot could be the difference between a winning or losing week for the bookmakers.

Piggott rode 116 winners at the Royal meeting, at a time when what is now a five-day meeting was staged over just four, a record that is sure to remain intact for decades to come. So too will his extraordinary total of nine Derby victories, three more than any other rider in its 240-year history and at least two of which would have been losers for any other jockey before or since.

For generations of backers on and off the track, it was “Come on, Lester” if you were with him, and an exasperated “Bloody Piggott” if he beat you on the nod. But win or lose and for more than a quarter of a century, Lester Piggott was always centre stage, in a fashion that none of those who followed him could ever hope to match.

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