Remembering Lester: A Personal Recollection by John Hammond

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Lester Piggott | Scoop Dyga

It was Wednesday morning, 5 December 1990. The phone rang. 'You running anything at the weekend?'. Inwardly I groaned, I knew what was coming. I was running a handicapper slightly past his best in the 2,100m handicap at Saint-Cloud on the Saturday.  An older horse with his issues, not a comfortable ride, Lester had ridden him 11 days earlier when he was a well beaten third. 'Ok, I'll come and ride him'. And so, to my embarrassment, he flew over at his own expense for one, dodgy ride.

It was Lester Piggott who was responsible for my being in France. Returning from America in early 1985, jobless, I had bumped into him and he asked me if I had any plans. I didn't. 

'You should go and work for this Fabre guy in France, he's very good, you know.' 

He wasn't wrong there. It was the year he was to spend much of riding for André so he kindly made the phone call and got me the job. I got to know him quite well, often ferrying him from the airport to the races in my Austin mini. He was fun, chatty. Those in the car park at the races were always baffled by the mode of transport of this icon of the sport but I think it rather amused him. Lester was never about bling; limousines weren't required to go from A to B.

Returning to Saturday, 8 December 1990. It was a miserable day, raining hail. The old horse cocked his jaw, pulled Lester's arms out, came to win then faded to be third. Returning to the unsaddling enclosure dripping wet, freezing cold, Lester got off and gave the horse a friendly pat before trudging off to the jocks' room. There wasn't much to say. 

Back in the car, returning to the airport after his one ride, he said  'He's silly that old horse, he shouldn't pull like that, he could have won, you know.' 

I think most jockeys would have used considerably saltier language about the horse or, more so, the fact that he had paid for his own plane ticket and sacrificed a day to come to France for one average ride in shocking weather. But he wasn't unhappy, more the opposite: I had the impression he'd enjoyed his day.  It was a month after his famous comeback ride on Royal Academy in the Breeders' Cup and he knew how much he'd missed it.

He had a unique empathy, relationship, with horses. It wasn't sentimental, more mutual respect. He would ask for more when they had more to give but not when a horse was empty. He knew the difference, sometimes being unjustifiably penalised for easing one down. Never did I hear him using pejorative language about a horse that, occasionally for understandable reasons, some do. He liked them.

I  feel lucky to have known him.

John Hammond
Chantilly

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