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Lester: a jockey’s jockey

If you’ve ever tried riding as short as Lester Piggott, you’ll find it very uncomfortable when your knees knock together across the horse’s withers. Piggott’s seat in the saddle, to accommodate his long legs, was just one of many attributes that have been identified in the many accolades in the week that “The Long Fellow” finally hung up his boots for good.

There’s little doubt that those born into our sport have a head start over outsiders, and Piggott wasn’t just born into it. He was bred for it, from a trainer father who was a champion Jumps trainer in 1962-63, courtesy of a Grand National victory 5 months before I was born, and a mother whose own father had won 3 Classics.

A career in horseracing was thus almost an inevitability.

It’s hard to imagine that he enjoyed his first ride at a time when today’s youngsters are allowed their first pony race. At 12 his first ride was on a filly called The Chase in an apprentice race at Salisbury in April 1948. His first winner was 4 months later at Haydock on the same horse. This was the first of 4,493 British winners, but Piggott was as celebrated abroad too. There are another 800 or so winners all around the world.

Yet another gallop through his famous winners would only be a poor replication of many more comprehensive obituaries and memories published over the past few days. Everyone has their favourites, from Nijinsky’s Derby to that last Breeder’s Cup victory on Royal Applause at the age of 55, near the end of a 40 year career in the saddle.

The character of the man is a more interesting dimension. Piggott was not one to let his emotions run away with him. In television interviews, he made for dull subject matter, never giving much away, his answers peppered with mumbles and laconic replies. This was in stark contrast to the loquaciousness of rival Willie Carson. Small wonder Carson became a presenter and team captain on Question of Sport, whilst Piggott was better behind the scenes.

If there are two character traits that stand out, they are his indomitable will to win, and his attitude to money, both of which got him into considerable trouble.

A memorable example of the first involved a race at Deauville, in which Piggott had accidentally dropped his own whip, and grabbed that of rival jockey Alain Lequeux during the finish. In the subsequent Stewards’ Enquiry, Piggott claimed he’d asked for the whip as Lequeux was beaten.  This was a complete fabrication, as Lequeux spoke no English, Piggot no French. The two had finished third and second respectively, so you can imagine the Frenchman’s indignation. The Stewards concurred and banned Piggott for 20 days.

Things didn’t always go Piggott’s way. The axis of power in the seventies and eighties was around one Vincent O’Brien at Ballydoyle (sound familiar?). Among the top owners there was Robert Sangster, of the Littlewoods pools family. In the high stakes merry-go-round that is jockeys’ retainers, Piggott was displaced in 1980 by Pat Eddery.

Four years on, Eddery contrived to lose the Derby on the much-vaunted El Gran Senor to Secreto, trained by David O’Brien. Piggott, riding an also-ran in the same race, was able to quip to O’Brien Snr as he passed, “Miss me did you?” This, a reference to Piggott’s aptitude for Epsom, which had won him a record ninth Derby the previous year on Teenoso.

That will to win was never better personified than during Roberto’s Derby victory in 1972. Stories of a rat-tat-tat machine-gun volley of 7 strikes with the whip to galvanize the idle Roberto  misunderstand the response that resulted from them, but there is no doubt that in today’s world, the same treatment would not just mete a punishment from within the Stewards’ Room, but from a broader social media audience.

It is well known that Piggott had an issue with money. Not that he didn’t have enough of it; in his heyday, he was certainly the sport’s best paid performer, and in an era when footballers earned a fraction of today’s earnings, very likely in the top rank of British sportsmen per se. However, he was notoriously stingy.

Julian Wilson’s 1985 biography relays a hilarious story of a stable lad who had looked after a winner that Lester had ridden, and was still waiting some weeks after for the expected present from the rider. Finally, he confronted Lester straight on.

Excuse me, Lester, but could you see your way to dropping me that pound for that winner I did you? Lester feigned deafness.

The man repeated his request. “I can’t hear you, that’s my deaf ear,” came the reply.

The old boy moved round to the other side and spoke again, “What about a couple of quid for the winner I led up for you?”

“Can’t hear! Try the one pound ear again,” replied the dead-pan Piggott.

That “issue with money” sent Piggott to gaol in 1987 for tax fraud, although he spent less than a third of his sentence behind bars. Along the way, he was stripped of his OBE. It also put an abrupt halt to his fledgling training career.

Yet the adulation on his return was remarkable, prompted by former employer and friend, Vincent O’Brien, who suggested he do what he does best and return to race-riding. He did so, spectacularly, winning at the Breeders’ Cup meeting with one of those by-a-whisker finishes that were his trademark. Three years on from that 1990 comeback, he signed off with the last of his 30 – yes, 30 – British Classics, when Commanche Run won the St Leger.

As a rider, Lester was a “Marmite” jockey. You either loved him or hated him, depending on whether he rode for you, or whether he’d stolen your ride! He was a most unlikely “housewives’ favourite” insofar as he lacked the charm and sparkling good looks of a Dettori, and his utterances were monosyllabic, only in part due to his speech impediment. He was, put simply, much more of a communicator with horses than humans.

But for all that, the public loved that will to win that made his mounts almost unerringly favourite in the betting. If Lester was on board, he was worth backing. Rather like our monarch this past weekend, the years had treated his reputation kindly, and in racing circles, he acquired sainthood long ago.

RIP Lester. We may never see his like again.

 

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