Lester Piggott: Born To Ride

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Lester Piggott | Horsephotos

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There's plenty going on in the world at present, including in Great Britain with the daily-changing tragi-comic farce which masquerades as domestic politics.  We're definitely not in the 'silly season' in which news editors have to look far and wide, including to the back pages, to find the front-page leads.  Within the sports' pages racing no longer holds its prime position of yesteryear, and when the Cazoo Derby is run at Epsom this Saturday, it will have to fight for its few column inches in the national press. Under the circumstances, the fact that the passing of Lester Piggott at the age of 86 in hospital in Switzerland was the first item on the hourly news bulletins on BBC Radio Four on Sunday morning tells us all that we need to know: Lester (no explanatory surname required) was not merely a national sporting icon or international racing hero, but a figure of worldwide significance whose place in the hearts and minds of the public went far beyond the narrow confines of the sport which he dominated for decades.

Born on Guy Fawkes' Day 1935, Lester Piggott was born to ride.  His father Keith was a successful trainer, most notably sending out Ayala to win the Grand National in 1963. Keith's father Ernie had been the leading steeplechase jockey in the second decade of the 20th century, three times winning the National Hunt jockeys' championship and three times riding the Grand National winner.  Ernie's wife Margaret, Lester's grandmother, was the sister of Mornington Cannon, England's leading Flat jockey in the final years of the 19th century when he was champion jockey six times and rode six Classic winners.  Her other three brothers were also successful jockeys, including Kempton Cannon who, like Mornington, also rode a Derby winner. Keith's wife Iris was the daughter of one Classic-winning jockey (Fred Rickaby Sr), the sister of another (Fred Rickaby Jnr) and the aunt of Fred Rickaby (twice Britain's champion apprentice in the early 1930s and subsequently a leading trainer in South Africa) and his younger brother Bill, one of Britain's leading jockeys from the 1930s to the '60s.  She herself was a talented horsewoman, riding the winner of the Newmarket Town Plate in 1928, in the days when that was the only British race in which women were allowed to ride.

This pedigree gave every suggestion that Lester might have the attributes required to become a successful jockey, either on the Flat or over jumps.  What it did not predict, though, was the scope of the success which he would enjoy or the full extent to which he would master his craft.  Even in a family of master-horsemen, he took the art of jockeyship to another level altogether.

Apprenticed to his father, Lester took to race-riding like a duck to water.  He rode his first winner, The Chase at Haydock Park, on 18th August 1948, aged 12.  The following season he rode six winners from 120 mounts.  In his third year, 1950, he rode 52 winners from 404 mounts, finishing eleventh in the jockeys' championship, still aged only 15.  (He had to sit out the final weeks of the campaign, including his 16th birthday, as the stewards had suspended him for the remainder of the season after his ruthlessly competitive streak had begun to reveal itself when he had allowed his horse to interfere with Scobie Breasley's mount in a race at Newbury in October).

Aged 16, Lester rode his first big-race winner at the Epsom Spring Meeting in 1951 when guiding Barnacle (GB) to victory in the Great Metropolitan H. Three months later he scored for the first time at what would now be called Group One level, winning the Eclipse S. at Sandown on the French raider Mystery IX (Fr). The career of the greatest jockey of the 20th century thus far, Gordon Richards, was drawing to a close (in that 1951 season he won the 24th of his 26 jockeys' championships) and it was becoming ever clearer that the boy wonder might be his successor.  However, it was not all plain sailing.

Coming from a family of racing professionals, Lester had been reared to regard it as axiomatic that he would be competing in a hard game where only ruthlessness might guarantee success.  He may have had the boyhood face of an angel, but underneath the surface there lay a core as hard as iron. Richards and his contemporaries were not going to give up their supremacy without a fight but the young pretender was not going to back down either.

Lester had his first ride in the Derby in 1952, finishing second on Gay Time (GB), beaten only by one of the old guard, the 46-year-old Charlie Smirke winning on HH Aga Khan III's Tulyar (Ire).  The following year he rode into the winner's enclosure after one of the major races at the Derby Meeting for the first time, landing the first of his nine Coronation Cups on Zucchero (Ire) and then, still aged only 18, in 1954 he won the Derby for the first time, riding the 33/1 shot Never Say Die, the first Kentucky-bred to take the great race, to victory for 73-year-old trainer Joe Lawson and American owner Robert Sterling Clark.  Never Say Day followed up in the autumn in the St Leger, but Smirke was in the saddle by then as Lester's career was by then at a cross-roads, his never-say-die attitude having brought matters to a head at Royal Ascot.

Two weeks after the Derby, Lester rode Never Say Die in the King Edward VII S. at Ascot.  It turned out to be one of the roughest races ever seen at the Royal Meeting as Lester refused to give up without a fight when he found himself trapped in a pocket by Gordon Richards (by then Sir Gordon Richards) at the top of the straight. The stewards decided that he alone was responsible for the interference that ensued, concluding their inquiry with the report that they had 'taken notice of his dangerous and erratic riding both this season and in previous seasons, and in spite of continuous warnings he had continued to show complete disregard for the Rules of Racing and the safety of other jockeys'. They withdrew his license to ride and let it be known that no consideration would be given to its renewal for at least six months, and that in the interim he must work for a trainer other than his father. Consequently Lester came to Newmarket and worked for Jack Jarvis, to whom his cousin Bill Rickaby was stable jockey.

As we now know, Lester managed to temper his ruthless will to win with the degree of prudence required to keep on the right side of the authorities.  His license was restored in 1955 and, succeeding Richards (who had retired the previous summer) as stable jockey to Noel Murless, he rode a century of winners for the first time, finishing third to Doug Smith in the championship with 103 victories.

At that stage, the stewards did not prove to be the only potential obstacle in the way of Lester's progress to the very top of the riding tree. His size was also becoming a problem.  He was continuing to grow, eventually reaching the height of 5′ 8″, which doesn't seem too much nowadays but was then regarded as unfeasibly tall for a Flat jockey.  He was naturally as adept at riding over jumps as his pedigree suggested, and in the winter of 1953/'54 he had ridden regularly over hurdles, scoring at the National Hunt Meeting at Cheltenham (now the Cheltenham Festival) on Mull Sack and winning the Triumph Hurdle (now a Grade One race at the Cheltenham Festival but then run at the now-defunct Hurst Park) on Prince Charlemagne.  However, showing the iron self-disciple which was to become his hallmark, he managed his weight well enough to be able to do Flat-race weights throughout his career. In later years it became part of the Piggott myth that his breakfast was 'a cough and a copy of the Sporting Life' augmented by cigars, plus the luxury of a cup of black coffee if he wasn't riding light that day.

By the time that Lester attained his majority, therefore, he was well on the way to race-riding greatness.  His partnership with Murless was proving to be the first of the three great relationships which defined his career.  (The second of them was with Vincent O'Brien in the '60s and '70s and the third with Henry Cecil in the '80s).  At the ripe old age of 21, Lester enjoyed a true annus mirabilis on Murless' horses in 1957, taking the 2,000 Guineas in the spring on Sir Victor Sassoon's Crepello (GB) and then completing the greatest double of all at Epsom where Crepello followed up in the Derby and Queen Elizabeth II's Carrozza (GB) won the Oaks. He and Murless won the Oaks again two years later with Prince Aly Khan's Petite Etoile (GB) and over the next two seasons that charismatic grey filly proved herself to be one of the greatest and most popular horses whom he ever rode.

In 1960, the year in which Petite Etoile and Lester won the first of their two Coronation Cups, Lester won the first of his 11 jockeys' championships, riding 170 winners from 640 rides during one of the several season-long duels which he had with Scobie Breasley during that period.  His association with Murless' Warren Place stable seemed like a match made in heaven, while he was he clearly the jockey whom everyone wanted to use when Murless did not have a runner. This was never more clear than at Royal Ascot in 1965, where he rode three winners for Murless and took the Gold Cup on Fighting Charlie (GB) for Freddie Maxwell, the Coventry S. on Young Emperor (Ire) for Paddy Prendergast, the New (now Norfolk) S. for Fulke Johnson Houghton on Tin King (GB), the Chesham S. for Eddie Reavey on Swift Harmony (GB) and the King George V S. for Walter Nightingall on Brave Knight (GB).

All good things come to an end, though, and Lester's insatiable desire for success eventually meant that he outgrew Warren Place.  He had been taking occasional rides for Vincent O'Brien since 1958, when he won the Gold Cup at Ascot, the Goodwood Cup and the Ebor H. at York on Gladness (GB).  In 1966 Murless had Varinia (GB) in the Oaks but Lester reckoned that O'Brien's Valoris (Fr) had a better chance.  He therefore took the ride on the latter and, needless to say, won. Murless read the writing on the wall and, although Lester won some good races for the stable later in the season including the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth S. at Ascot on Aunt Edith (GB), the Royal Lodge S. on Royal Palace (GB) and the Cheveley Park S. on Fleet (Ire), at the end of the season it was announced that henceforth Lester would be riding as a freelance and Murless would be retaining the great Australian George Moore as his stable jockey with the Scottish teenager Sandy Barclay, who had been champion apprentice in 1966, riding as second jockey.  That arrangement lasted one year, with Barclay promoted to stable jockey in 1968.

Murless' success continued unabated, most obviously with both Royal Palace and Fleet winning Classics under Moore in 1967, but Lester did even better. Although O'Brien initially continued to retain Liam Ward as his jockey in Ireland, Piggott became his overseas jockey and a torrent of triumph followed, most notably with four Derby winners in 10 years thanks to the superstars Sir Ivor, Nijinsky (Can), Roberto and The Minstrel as well as the dual Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe hero Alleged. In the 1970 Triple Crown hero Nijinsky, Lester seemed to have found a partner to match his own unparalleled brilliance, although he was reportedly heard once to claim that Roberto (who, like The Minstrel, seemed to need all of his jockey's supreme skill to secure his Derby victory) was the most talented of them all.

Eventually Pat Eddery, whose maternal grandfather Jack Moylan had ridden winners for O'Brien in the 1940s, was offered a retainer for Ballydoyle. The upshot was that Lester, by now well into his 40s, found himself back at Warren Place, where Murless' son-in-law Henry Cecil was now the trainer. Willie Carson, Pat Eddery and Joe Mercer had been the champion jockeys since Lester had topped the table for the ninth time in 1971, but in 1981 and '82 the Piggott/Cecil team was so dominant that Lester won his tenth and eleventh (and final) championships.  His toughness was particularly evident in 1981 when, aged 45, he suffered a horrific injury at the Epsom Spring Meeting when his mount in a sprint burrowed out from under the front of the starting-stalls. He looked set for a lengthy spell on the side-lines but, impervious as ever to pain, was back in the saddle the following week to guide Jim Joel's home-bred Henry Cecil-trained filly Fairy Footsteps (GB) to victory in the 1,000 Guineas. Arguably the greatest horse whom he rode for Cecil during  this period, though, was Charles St George's peerless stayer Ardross (Ire).

As he closed in on his 50th birthday, Lester continued to be the man most in demand on the big occasions, riding his ninth Derby winner in 1983 on the Geoff Wragg-trained Teenoso; winning both the Oaks and St Leger in 1984, on the John Dunlop-trained Circus Plume (GB) and the Luca Cumani-trained, Ivan Allan-owned Commanche Run (Ire) respectively; and the 2,000 Guineas in 1985 on the Michael Stoute-trained Shadeed.  Eventually Father Time brought his career to a halt at the end of the 1985 season. Or so we thought.

Lester had always been full of surprises and the next few years contained enough plot-twists to fill the most inventive of novels.  He took up training in his Eve Lodge stables in Newmarket's Hamilton Road and, almost inevitably, got off to superb start when Cutting Blade (GB) won the Coventry S. at Royal Ascot in 1986 under Cash Asmussen. However, a trip to prison when convicted of tax evasion (a conviction which saw him stripped of his OBE) intervened and eventually, bizarrely, led to a return to the saddle.  Vincent O'Brien's jockey John Reid had been injured at Longchamp on Arc Day in 1990 and, needing a rider for July Cup winner Royal Academy in the Breeders' Cup Mile, the veteran trainer suggested that his former jockey should re-apply for his license. The process was rushed through and the ultimate fairy-tale followed as Lester, just nine days short of his 55th birthday and having had minimal time to hone his fitness, rode the race of a lifetime to force Royal Academy's nose to the front in the shadows of the Belmont Park winning post.

Lester continued to ride for another four years, notably gaining his record 30th and final British Classic success when taking the 2,000 Guineas in 1992 on the Robert Sangster-owned, Peter Chapple-Hyam-trained Rodrigo De Triano. There was not a dry eye in the house when Vincent O'Brien, aged 76, led Lester, aged 57 and wearing the silks of the trainer's wife Jacqueline, back into the winner's enclosure at Royal Ascot after the Cork & Orrery S. (now Platinum Jubilee) S. in 1993 on College Chapel (GB). Lester's final season riding in Great Britain was in 1994, his final domestic ride coming on the unplaced Sally Hall-trained Mr Confusion (Ire) in the November H. at Doncaster on his 59th birthday. Fittingly, however, for someone who had become the ultimate international jockey and had enjoyed extensive success as well as massive popularity and respect all around the world, he actually rode his final winners in Australia, in the early months of 1995.

It is nearly 500 years since John Donne wrote in 1624 “… send not to know for whom the bell tolls.  It tolls for thee”. When the bell tolls for Lester Piggott, it does indeed toll for all of us because, even for the 99.9% who never knew him (if, indeed, anyone ever did really know this human enigma who was more revered for his reserve than anyone ever could be loved for volubility) he was a massive part of all our yesterdays.  It is doubtful if there will ever be another sportsman as synonymous with his sport, or a jockey as respected the world over. He will, though, be most missed by those closest to him, including Maureen (Haggas) and Tracy (his daughters from his marriage to Susan) and his son Jamie. The TDN sends our condolences to his loved ones and to his friends.

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