Racing has lost one of the biggest names in the sport’s history with the death of Lester Piggott at the age of 86.
Piggott died peacefully in Switzerland May 29 after having been in hospital recently. He was known throughout the world after a hugely successful riding career that lasted the best part of 50 years and remained Britain’s most famous jockey long after he quit the saddle.
That was in part due to the longevity that allowed him to ride a phenomenal 4,493 winners, the third-highest tally in British racing history behind only Sir Gordon Richards and Pat Eddery, and an amazing big-race haul. He won the Epsom Derby (G1) a record nine times, including on 1970 European Triple Crown winner Nijinsky.
And it also owed something to the way a 5’8″ man nicknamed “The Long Fellow” fought to ride at 30 pounds below his natural body weight. Then there was his uncanny knack of getting out of trouble on and off course, most famously when he returned from retirement and a spell in prison to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1T) on Royal Academy at the age of 54 in 1990.
Sir Ivor scores a decisive win in the 1968 Epsom Derby with Lester Piggott in the irons
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Piggott was as well bred for the job as the choice horses he rode. His grandfather Ernie Piggott rode three Grand National winners, and his father, Keith, won the Champion Hurdle as a jockey and the National as a trainer.
The greatest of all time. My hero.
Rest in peace my friend. pic.twitter.com/3N4YwrhZFr
— Frankie Dettori (@FrankieDettori) May 29, 2022
He rode his first winner at the age of just 12, on The Chase at Haydock in 1948, and the triple champion apprentice won his first Epsom Derby at 18 on Never Say Die in 1954.
Piggott was champion jockey 11 times between 1960 and 1982 and scored a record 30 British Classic wins, many for legendary Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien.
Having initially retired in 1985, Piggott’s training career was cut short by the conviction for tax fraud that earned him a year in prison, and he rode on for another four seasons after his shock return to the saddle.
Piggott’s former weighing room colleague Willie Carson paid tribute to the legendary rider, describing him as “magical on top of a horse.”
Carson said: “Lester was an iconic figure in the racing industry and changed the way things were done from his early days until he retired. Most jockeys were better off for his endeavors as we all had to up our game because of him.
“He was magical on top of a horse. He had this confidence about him and didn’t care about what people were going to think about him—he just got on and did what he thought was the right thing on a horse, and it normally was.
Alleged and Lester Piggott win the 1978 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Paris Longchamp
“He had an empathy for the animal and knew what a horse was thinking. He knew what a horse wanted, be it tough, soft, holding up or using his stride, and he always seemed to get it right.”
Carson shared an insight into what Piggott was like in the weighing room and said he had a caring side beyond his aura.
He said: “Lester walked about with an aura about him and he was always in charge. Everyone looked up to him and watched him. He was also a very caring man. If a jockey sustained injury and ended up in the hospital, he would be one of the few to turn up and visit them.
“We had battles galore over the years, and I look back with such fond memories.”
Coolmore chief John Magnier labeled Piggott “the greatest” and recalled a tale around the victory of the Michael Jarvis-trained Green God in the 1971 Vernons Sprint Cup.
Magnier said: “Obviously, it is a sad day, and there are so many stories and great memories for (my wife) Sue and I.
“I remember meeting Lester in the parade ring before the 1971 Vernons Sprint Cup. A group of us had bought into Green God a couple of days before, and Lester was up for what was to be the horse’s final race.
“‘Don’t be looking for me at the furlong pole, I won’t be there until the line,’ he told me, and sure enough he produced him with his trademark impeccable timing.
“At this time of year, MV (Vincent O’Brien) was regularly frustrated by Lester playing musical chairs of what he would be riding in the Derby. But he said: ‘You have to put up with him, otherwise you give the opposition a 7lb advantage!’
“He really was the greatest. His family are in our thoughts today.”
Piggott rode the most Classic winners for O’Brien, whose son and trainer Charles paid tribute to “an exceptionally good horseman.”
O’Brien said: “I think Lester and my Dad developed a sort of second sense for each other. They always managed to get their points across very succinctly. There was an awful lot of mutual respect between them, and that’s probably why their relationship lasted so long—they both knew the other was as good as it got.
“I believe he first rode for my Dad in the late 1950s, and Gladness, who won the 1958 Ebor and Gold Cup, was one of their first major successes. That was a bit before my time, but Lester was a constant around the place when I was growing up.
“He was an exceptionally good horseman, which I feel perhaps gets somewhat overlooked at times.
“In terms of instructions, there was never really an awful lot said. That was partly because there wasn’t much point giving them, as he’d ignore them anyway! Secondly, he was well able to judge a race himself.”
Lester Piggott guides Royal Academy (outside) to victory in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park
Royal Academy’s Breeders’ Cup victory at Belmont Park is the race that sticks in the memory for O’Brien. “That’s the standout day for me,” he said. “I was working full-time at Ballydoyle then and went over there, with my Dad not traveling at that time.
“Funnily enough, I think it was the first time I’d seen Lester nervous before a race. Normally, he was absolutely ice-cold, but this was a big deal as a 54-year-old. He was definitely anxious but rode a brilliant race. It was a very special occasion.”
Trainer John Gosden believes there “will never be another” like Piggott and said: “Lester was an extraordinary and totally unique man and jockey. I first knew him well in the 1970s when he was riding for Sir Noel Murless and Vincent O’Brien. They listened to and savored everything he said, which could be quite minimalistic.”
Piggott’s son, Jamie, speaking from Switzerland, said on Sunday night: “He was both a wonderful father and a legend who we were all fortunate to witness.”
Jockeys gathered in the paddock for a minute’s silence between the two group 1 races at Longchamp on Sunday with an image of Piggott shown on the big screens.
Riders sported black armbands for the third race on the card and had the option of wearing them throughout the day.
A minute’s silence also took place before racing at Fontwell and Uttoxeter in Britain on Sunday and before the second race at Punchestown in Ireland, with riders wearing black armbands at all the domestic meetings.