Lester Piggott on his extraordinary life in racing

  • Aged 81, Lester Piggott remains one of horse racing’s most recognisable figures
  • Piggott compiled 4,493 winners, including 30 Classics, nine of them Derbys
  • He is often portrayed as monosyllabic but has a large stock of deadpan humour
  • Piggott still struggles to explain what made him the master of racing

Marcus Townend for the Daily Mail

The answer is fired back as a thin smile breaks out among the mountains and valleys of one of the best known faces in sport. ‘I think we are the best looking ones, aren’t we?’ says Lester Piggott.

The man many argue was and will always be the greatest jockey has been asked why over two decades since he stopped riding, and at the age of 81, he remains one of the sport’s most recognisable figures alongside Frankie Dettori.

Piggott, stereotypically portrayed as a monosyllabic old stone-face, has a unexpected stock of deadpan one-liners and stories in his armoury. You just have to listen extra carefully to hear them.

At the age of 81, Lester Piggott remains one of horse racing’s most recognisable figures

At the age of 81, Lester Piggott remains one of horse racing’s most recognisable figures

At the age of 81, Lester Piggott remains one of horse racing’s most recognisable figures

Piggott rode the Queen's first classic winner, Carrozza, in the 1957 Oaks

Piggott rode the Queen's first classic winner, Carrozza, in the 1957 Oaks

Piggott rode the Queen’s first classic winner, Carrozza, in the 1957 Oaks

Piggott, stereotypically portrayed as monosyllabic, has a large stock of deadpan humour

Piggott, stereotypically portrayed as monosyllabic, has a large stock of deadpan humour

Piggott, stereotypically portrayed as monosyllabic, has a large stock of deadpan humour

Like about the 1970 September day at Doncaster when he rode Vincent O’Brien’s 2,000 Guineas and Derby winner Nijinsky to success in the St Leger, to become the last colt to complete the Triple Crown.

‘Vincent didn’t really want to run in the St Leger but his owner Charles Engelhard wanted to win the Triple Crown.

‘In the first race of the day, I was riding another one of Mr Engelhard’s. As I came out on to the track, it got rid of me. When I came back Engelhard said “did you see the bullet?”

‘Someone had phoned the racecourse to say they were going to shoot me. I was OK but I then had a police guard all day.’

Piggott also talks of the ‘stroke of luck’ that that saw him win the Breeders’ Cup Mile on O’Brien’s Royal Academy, 10 days into his sensational 1990 riding comeback after a year in prison for tax fraud.

O’Brien had planted the idea in Piggott’s mind after he had finished second to Jonjo O’Neill in charity race in Co Tipperary.

Piggott said: ‘I had never thought about it. It was very lucky for me, John Reid was riding for Vincent, had an accident and broke his collarbone. He couldn’t ride Royal Academy in the Breeders’ Cup. It was a stroke of luck and a lot of fun too.’

Piggott still struggles when asked to explain just what made him the master of racing

Piggott still struggles when asked to explain just what made him the master of racing

Piggott still struggles when asked to explain just what made him the master of racing

PIGGOTT BY NUMBERS 

12 – age when he rode his first winner on The Chase at Haydock in August 1948

9 – times he won the Derby

5 – wins in the 2,000 Guineas

30 – wins in Classics

11 – times he was champion jockey

69 – the number of times he rode in either the 1,000 or 2,000 Guineas

4,493 – his career total of winners

54 – age when he made his comeback, 12 days before winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile

Where Piggott still struggles is when asked to explain just what made him the master of dropping a horse’s head in front right on the line better than virtually anyone else.

Just as West Indies batting legend Viv Richards probably couldn’t explain why he so effortlessly could whip a ball from outside off stump through midwicket, or Seve Ballesteros pinpoint why he could plant a seven iron inches from the pin whether his drive had landed in the middle of the fairway or the car park, the Piggott brain cannot compute an answer to explain his knack behind compiling 4,493 winners, including 30 Classics, nine of them Derbys.

He just did it in his own unique style, perched precariously high on the back of a galloping thoroughbred.

‘I never really thought about doing anything else. I just got on some good horses and loved to ride,’ he says.

Piggott rode more good horses than most. Despite Nijinsky’s record, Piggott nominates Sir Ivor, the 1968 Derby winner trained by Vincent O’Brien, when pressed on the one which topped the pyramid of equine brilliance.

Piggott compiled 4,493 winners, including 30 Classics, nine of them Derby victories

Piggott compiled 4,493 winners, including 30 Classics, nine of them Derby victories

Piggott compiled 4,493 winners, including 30 Classics, nine of them Derby victories

‘Sir Ivor was a terrific horse, but the Derby didn’t do him any good,’ he says. ‘It jarred him up. I think he probably was the most professional horse I rode. He was the complete racehorse. I think I said to Vincent after he won as a two year old in France this is a racing machine.’

Not far behind Sir Ivor in Piggott’s pecking order would be Crepello, the chestnut bred to stay the two and a half miles of Ascot’s Gold Cup but a colt possessing so much speed his trainer Noel Murless wanted to run him in the six furlong July Cup sprint.

Piggott, who now lives in Switzerland, will be at Newmarket for Saturday’s 2,000 Guineas, although Rivet, the Group One Racing Post Trophy winner trained by his son-in-law William Haggas and which he part owns, looks almost certain to run in the French Guineas the following weekend even though he remains among the entries.

Piggott gained his love and knowledge of racing at a very young age and maintains it today

Piggott gained his love and knowledge of racing at a very young age and maintains it today

Piggott gained his love and knowledge of racing at a very young age and maintains it today

It will be 60 years from the day Crepello, the colt restricted to only five runs because of his fragile legs, gave Piggott the first of his five wins in the first Classic of the Flat season and 25 years after Rodrigo De Triano gave him his last win in the race.

Crepello’s half-length win Guineas win from Quorum – the colt who went on to sire three-time Grand National winner Red Rum – was followed with victory in the Derby beating Ballymoss, who went on to win the Irish Derby, Eclipse, King George and Arc.

Piggott, whose first 2,000 Guineas ride was on unplaced Manhattan in 1951 when he was 15, said: ’Crepello was a great horse really. I don’t think we ever saw the best of him. I used to ride him out nearly every day. He always wore stockings to help him. He was being trained for the King George at Ascot but it rained so much that it was bottomless going and he didn’t run in the end.

Piggott rode his first winner in 1948 at the age of 12 - this photo was taken when he was 15

Piggott rode his first winner in 1948 at the age of 12 - this photo was taken when he was 15

Piggott rode his first winner in 1948 at the age of 12 – this photo was taken when he was 15

Piggott as an apprentice jockey at his father's training stable at Lambourn in 1950

Piggott as an apprentice jockey at his father's training stable at Lambourn in 1950

Piggott as an apprentice jockey at his father’s training stable at Lambourn in 1950

‘We had to go to the St Leger then because that was the obvious thing. He was working fine but two or three weeks before he broke down.’

For the Derby win, Crepello’s owner Sir Victor Sassoon gave Piggott his Lincoln Continental car, but this particular gift horse did not prove to be Piggott’s safest conveyance during a rain storm on the Great West Road.

‘It didn’t stop,’ says Piggott. Well, not until it hit the car in front. Faced with the prospect of mounting costs for the American gas guzzler, the jockey donated it the Duke of Bedford’s car museum.

Piggott's father Keith (left) was also a successful jockey but his son's achievements dwarfed his

Piggott's father Keith (left) was also a successful jockey but his son's achievements dwarfed his

Piggott’s father Keith (left) was also a successful jockey but his son’s achievements dwarfed his

Crepello’s Derby win was one of only three rides Piggott, who at the time seemed to be losing his battle with the scales, had at that season’s Derby meeting. They all won and also included The Queen’s Carrozza in the Oaks.

Piggott knew he had to adopt the regime that most of us would classify starvation rations to remain almost two stone under his natural weight. Otherwise his flat racing career was over.

Despite having regularly schooled his father Keith’s 1963 Grand National winner Ayala and Triumph Hurdle winner Prince Charlemagne being one of his 20 successes over hurdles, Piggott wanted a career on the flat.

Piggott still keeps up with the sport and calls AP McCoy the greatest jockey he has ever seen

Piggott still keeps up with the sport and calls AP McCoy the greatest jockey he has ever seen

Piggott still keeps up with the sport and calls AP McCoy the greatest jockey he has ever seen

‘You either did the weight or didn’t ride. I would have had to go jumping. I fancied it but it was not the same. There is no comparison really,’ Piggott says.

His steel-eyed focus and dedication meant there was little but racing in his life. There was no time for anything else but he has no regrets.

‘I read a bit but I haven’t got any hobbies like a lot of people have. For all those years I was so wrapped up in racing. I do miss it but you can’t do much about it.’

Piggott still keeps up with the sport. He thinks Dettori is ‘great’ and Ryan Moore is ‘very good … anyone can see that’, but he gained greatest pleasure watching AP McCoy, the 20-time champion jump jockey with Piggott like focus. 

‘He was terrific. From the second last hurdle he was unbeatable,’ he says. It’s a word plenty will forever associate with Piggott.

The 2017 QIPCO British Champions Series starts at Newmarket on Saturday 6 May with the QIPCO 2000 Guineas. 

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