How Lester Piggott beat the odds to become the punters’ best friend

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<span>Photograph: Chris Cole/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chris Cole/Getty Images

The New York Times published a piece about Lester Piggott in 1985, marking what proved to be only the first of the great man’s retirements. Reflecting on his accumulation of fans over the previous three decades, the paper declared: “They’d bet Piggott no matter what the odds on his horses were. In Britain, where one can hardly pass a bellhop or chambermaid or housewife who doesn’t have at least a few quid on a nag with their local turf accountant, Piggott became an idol of huge proportion.”

One can only guess at the sheer number of bellhops whose gambling habits were familiar to the author. Still, there is not much doubt that Piggott, who has died aged 86, was an overwhelming favourite with casual gamblers for much of his career, and it became habitual for journalists to call him “the housewives’ choice”, particularly in the build-up to the Derby.

Related: Lester Piggott: a rare talent who left his mark on an audience of millions

It was a time when “most famous jockey” was not a weak compliment. TVs had three channels and two of them showed horse racing at regular intervals. If you liked a flutter, you were practically compelled to take an interest in racing, your opportunities to bet on football or other sports being heavily restricted. “Lester” was one of the few sportsmen who could be referred to by just their first name and almost any listener would be expected to know who was meant.

“Backers have lost the best friend they ever had,” mourned The Spectator in response to the same news that got the New York Times quizzing chambermaids about their favourite jockeys. Piggott was endlessly reliable, pushing home 4,493 winners. Most significantly, he won the Derby nine times, more than Frankie Dettori, Kieren Fallon and Ryan Moore put together. He did it in an era when the weighing room was not short of stars, repeatedly beating the likes of Willie Carson, Joe Mercer and Pat Eddery. At the start of his career, he faced Scobie Breasley and at its end there was Walter Swinburn.

“You know, I could do the job but it would never look easy,” Carson reflected, after both had quit the saddle. “It would look hard work for me. But for him it was just so easy, so matter of fact. Everything was just rolling along like a train on the rails.”

Piggott was 18 when he rocketed to fame on Never Say Die, an unexpected Derby winner in 1954. Even then, his choice of mount for the race had made a headline the previous month, when Peter O’Sullevan told Daily Express readers: “Never Say Die will no longer be 100-1” because Piggott had been booked. O’Sullevan drily remarked many years later: “I did not appreciate how limited would be future opportunity to obtain three-figure odds about L. Piggott riding the winner of the world’s premier classic.”

When the jockey got his second Derby three years later, Crepello was returned at just 6-4, the shortest-priced winner of the race for 22 years. A decade after that, when Piggott climbed aboard the classy Sir Ivor, the available odds were just 4-5 and the pair duly became the first odds-on Derby winners for half a century, the jockey leaving his challenge until about five seconds after the last sensible moment and being rewarded with an extraordinary burst of pace.

“Whenever I rode a big winner, the postbag would be full,” Piggott later reported of this most productive period. After Sir Ivor, even his dentist was moved to send a telegram: “HEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS STOP THANK HEAVEN YOUR RIDING IS OF A HIGHER QUALITY THAN YOUR TEETH”.

Nijinsky’s Derby success in 1970 cost the bookmaking industry a collective £3m according to one headline. Bookies having been as cagey then as they are now about their finances, it’s hard to be sure of the true figure; £3m was probably an exaggeration but evidently a believable one, in the eyes of at least one reporter.

“If in doubt, the punters always backed him,” recalls Mike Dillon, a longstanding Ladbrokes staffer. “If he won, then we lost. When the Derby came around, they never looked at the horse names, they looked for their jockey. He cost us fortunes over the years.”

There was something compelling about Piggott’s moody silences, which seemed to reek of an arrogance that was indeed reflected in the way he would shoulder aside other riders to get himself booked for the best horse, and also in his refusal to bend the knee to authority. “One of the grandest sights in racing has always been to see Lester hauled before the stewards,” opined the jockey Bryn Crossley. “He goes in there like Clint Eastwood and he comes out like Clint Eastwood. Lester doesn’t give a monkey’s.”

But Piggott’s popularity was in some doubt in the controversial build-up to the 1972 Derby, when he replaced the Australian Bill Williamson aboard the favourite, Roberto. Williamson had suffered a fall 11 days before the race and his pleas that he was fit to take the ride could not stop owner and trainer from preferring Piggott.

Many onlookers felt Williamson had been shabbily treated and Piggott was reportedly the subject of occasional booing that day. But he delivered perhaps the most forceful ride of his life to get Roberto home in front by a short-head, prompting the bookmaker John Banks to say: “Old Bill is a great jockey but he couldn’t have done that job. No one but Lester could.”

Jeffrey Bernard was eventually moved to propose that Piggott should replace Florence Nightingale on the back of the £10 note. He had, Bernard wrote, “rescued more people at Epsom than she shone lamps at in the hospital in Scutari”.

Piggott smiled at his popularity but rarely courted it and did not have a high opinion of public judgement. He complained to The Observer’s Kenneth Harris: “You ride a damn good race and get beaten by a short-head when you thought you’d be lucky to get within three lengths of the leader, and you may get booed. You make a mistake in the race, get shut in, or your horse does something silly, or you’re unlucky, and you win by a short-head when you should have won by a length and a half – and they clap. It’s not your riding. It’s whether you win or lose.

“But I don’t pay much attention. I think you only pay attention if you care about what people think of you. And you only care if you think a lot about yourself. I don’t think about myself much. I think about racing. I don’t brood about how I look to other people. I ride as well as I can, and they can clap or boo - it’s all the same to me.”

“Is that,” Harris asked, “why even when you’ve won a big race you come in with a face like marble?”

“It’s got something to do with it,” replied Lester.

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