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Lester Piggott, who has died aged 86, was regarded by many as the finest jockey ever to ride on British turf. His record in major races is unlikely to be surpassed. No other 20th-century jockey came close to his achievement. In all, he rode 4,493 winners in Britain and more than 850 elsewhere during a career that spanned 47 years, with major successes in France, Ireland, the US, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Wherever he travelled, he was feted in a manner unique for a jockey. However, his career was dogged by controversy, leading to a jail sentence for tax fraud in 1987 and the withdrawal of his OBE.
Born in Wantage, Oxfordshire, Lester came from a horseracing family that stretched back over six generations, including such famous names as John Day, Tom Cannon and Fred Rickaby. His grandfather, Ernie Piggott, was a champion steeplechaser who won the Grand National three times, while his father, Keith, was one of the finest National Hunt jockeys of the pre-second world war era and won the Champion Hurdle in 1939 on African’s Sister. He was later to train a Grand National winner, Ayala, in 1963. Lester’s mother, Iris (nee Rickaby), came from the Rickaby racing dynasty.
The young Lester was always determined to ride on the flat, though he was 5ft 7in, with a natural weight of 10st 7lb (67kg) in the 1950s. His inspiration was the great 19th-century jockey Fred Archer, who starved himself to keep his weight down and used brutal purgatives throughout his career before killing himself at the age of 29. Archer was nicknamed “the Tinman” because of his love of money. Money was also to be one of Piggott’s greatest motivations.
Piggott first sat on a racehorse at the age of seven. On his 12th birthday, he became apprenticed to his father, who was now training at Lambourn, Berkshire. His schooling continued privately, two or three days a week; his first ride came on a horse called The Chase at Salisbury on 7 April 1948. Four months later, he rode his first winner on the same horse at Haydock, carrying 6st 9lb (42kg). Nowadays, no one under the age of 16 is permitted to ride in public.
In 1950 he had already become champion apprentice, but his determined, sometimes reckless riding was beginning to aggravate fellow riders and attract the attention of stewards. His first major punishment followed an altercation with the Australian jockey Scobie Breasley at Newbury in October 1950. Piggott’s mount, Barnacle, was disqualified and, to his great indignation, he was suspended for the rest of the season.
His first mount in the Derby came in 1951 on the temperamental colt Zucchero, which finished unplaced. The following year, he finished second on Gay Time, and in 1954 won the first of his nine Derbys on Never Say Die. Already laconic and introspective, Piggott infuriated the press by commenting that it was “just another race”.
Two weeks later at Royal Ascot, he encountered the first major setback to his career when the stewards arraigned him for reckless riding, following a complaint by Sir Gordon Richards. He was suspended for six months and told that he must leave the guardianship of his father, who was considered a bad influence, and be apprenticed to a Newmarket trainer. It took years for Piggott to get over this deprivation, which, like his jail sentence later in life, he regarded as a waste of time.
Related: Lester Piggott – a life in pictures
By now, two characteristics had surfaced that were to become dominant. One was his alleged meanness, which became legendary, even if many of the stories were apocryphal. A fine example involved a stable lad who looked after a horse on which Piggott had recently won.
“Excuse me, Lester,” he addressed the great man, “could you see your way to dropping me £1 for the winner I ‘did’ you?”
“Uh?” replied Piggott.
“Would you give me £1 for that winner I did you?”
“I can’t hear,” muttered Piggott, “that’s my bad ear.”
The lad moved round to the other side, and now emboldened, shouted: “What about a couple of quid for that winner I did you?”
“Can’t hear,” replied Piggott. “Try the £1 ear again!”
His deafness was evident early in life but became worse as he spent increasing periods of time reducing his weight in saunas and flying in light aircraft from meeting to meeting. It also made him increasingly reclusive to all but his family and close friends.
At the end of his suspension, an opportunity arose that was to reshape his life. When Richards retired because of injury, the leading stable of Noel Murless, at Newmarket, was left without a jockey. After three others – one of them Breasley – had surprisingly turned down the job, Piggott was appointed. It was a partnership that was to thrive for 12 years.
Murless was a determined, dedicated trainer of the old school. He was endlessly patient with his horses and would not allow them to be abused by jockeys. Piggott already had a reputation of being ruthless with the whip. Ground rules were laid down and Piggott treated his new employer with the respect that he demanded.
Over the coming years, both men reached the pinnacles of their professions. Murless became champion trainer in four years out of five between 1957 and 1961, and a further four times subsequently. Piggott, meanwhile, set about establishing his classic record, becoming champion jockey for the first of 11 times in 1960. It was always supposed that increasing weight would eventually destroy his career, but Piggott overcame this by largely giving up eating. He existed on the most stringent diet and was still able to ride at 8st 7lb (54kg) at the end of his career, 35 years later.
Piggott and Murless’s first great year together was 1957, when Crepello won the 2000 Guineas and Derby, and Carrozza won the Oaks in the Queen’s colours. Many, including Murless and Richards, felt that Piggott’s ride on Carrozza was the greatest of his career. It certainly endeared him to the Queen, and in 1975 he was appointed OBE.
The trainer and jockey enjoyed notable success with Prince Aly Khan’s brilliant grey filly Petite Etoile, but her defeat in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes evoked huge controversy. At the time, Piggott was accused of giving the filly too much ground to make up, but many years later Breasley claimed that he pinned Piggott to the rails to settle an old score. In fact, both versions were greatly exaggerated. The truth was that Petite Etoile failed to stay the distance.
Piggott was perhaps at the height of his powers in 1965, when he rode eight winners at Royal Ascot and cost bookmakers millions of pounds. He was increasingly in demand, notably by the Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien. A conflict arose between his desire to ride for O’Brien and others in big races, and his retainer to ride for Murless. As always, Piggott wanted the best of both worlds, but Murless would not countenance his demands to be “let off” when required. The partnership ended in 1966 and Piggott, soon after, reshaped the future of riding contracts.
Between 1967 and 1974 he rode as a freelance all over Europe, while in 1977 he tied himself to riding for Robert Sangster. Until then, jockeys’ contracts with owners rather than trainers were rare, whereas now they are the norm in the case of wealthy Arab owners. Piggott’s vision earned the top jockeys millions of pounds in the 1980s and 90s.
A side-effect of Piggott’s freelance status was an upsurge in his predatory nature. No jockey was safe on a Derby runner if Piggott was without a fancied ride. His rapacity came to a head when he contrived to secure the mount on Roberto, trained by O’Brien, in 1972, on the grounds that O’Brien’s jockey, Bill Williamson, was unfit following a shoulder injury.
Piggott rode a brilliant race to win in a photo-finish, but opinions were divided over the morality of his engagement, and Williamson never forgave him. Piggott had already ridden two Derby winners for O’Brien in Sir Ivor – “this is a racing machine,” he told O’Brien – and Nijinsky, arguably the two best colts he ever rode. His mastery of the unique Epsom course was famous and his riding of The Minstrel for O’Brien in 1977 became part of Derby lore.
He was less successful in Europe’s richest race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, and it took 17 attempts to secure his first success, on Rheingold in 1973. But on Alleged, trained by O’Brien, he won the great race in 1977 and 1978, showing masterful judgment on both occasions.
Despite the success they had shared, by 1980 O’Brien and Sangster, his principal patron, had become weary of Piggott’s whimsical ways, personal agenda and excessive financial demands. To Piggott’s chagrin, they ended his contract and employed the much younger Irishman Pat Eddery.
Piggott, predictably, bounced back and secured the position as stable jockey to Henry Cecil, who had been champion trainer in three of the past five years. For Piggott, it meant not only a return to the Warren Place stables at Newmarket, which Cecil had inherited from his father-in-law, Murless, but also a return to being champion jockey for the first time in 10 years.
However, the success of the new team over the next three years led to Piggott’s downfall. A copy of a letter written by Cecil to his owners in 1982 relating to special payments and rewards for Piggott was sold to a Fleet Street newspaper. Its publication led to punishment for Cecil, but also the prosecution of Piggott for tax evasion.
This volcano took five years to erupt. Meanwhile, Piggott split with Cecil in 1984 following a rift with the Wildenstein family, a leading force in French racing, who demanded that other jockeys should ride their horses. Piggott spent what he intended to be his final year as a jockey riding as a freelance, and brought down the curtain at Nottingham on 29 October 1985. He was granted a licence to train under Jockey Club rules and set up his new business at the Eve Lodge Stables, Newmarket, which he had built several years earlier.
Within three months his world was to fall apart. His home was raided by police and Inland Revenue officers, and accounts and documents were seized. He was arrested and charged with making a false statement, and in October 1987 the case came to court at Ipswich.
There were 10 charges, alleging that Piggott had failed to declare income of more than £3m on which he had evaded tax of around £1.7m. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, a record for tax evasion. He spent his incarceration at Highpoint prison, near Haverhill, less than 20 miles from Newmarket, and was released after 12 months.
While Piggott was in prison, the racing stable was managed by his wife, Susan (nee Armstrong), the daughter of a Newmarket trainer, whom he had married in 1960. She continued to hold the training licence upon his release. Piggott was outwardly unemotional throughout his ordeal, but was bitterly hurt by the withdrawal of his OBE.
For the following two years, he kept a relatively low profile, but in October 1990 he stunned the racing world by applying for a renewal of his jockey’s licence. He resumed riding at Leicester the following week, rode a winner at Chepstow the following day, and within 12 days had ridden one of his greatest races to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park, New York, worth $500,000, on Royal Academy, trained by his old ally O’Brien.
His comeback was a rollercoaster lasting a further four seasons, and in 1992 included a 30th classic success on Rodrigo de Triano in the 2000 Guineas. In the spring of 1995, he did not renew his licence and finally, in September of that year, he admitted that his career was at an end.
As Piggott entered his ninth decade there were calls from some in the racing fraternity not only for the restoration of his OBE, but for him to be knighted. Though neither of those things happened, at the 2017 Royal Ascot meeting there was a warm greeting from the Queen which suggested that she had, personally at least, forgiven him.
In 2012, Piggott left the marital home to live with Barbara FitzGerald in Geneva, an arrangement to which his wife gave her public blessing. He is survived by her, by Susan, their daughters, Maureen and Tracy, and his son, Jamie, by his former assistant Anna Ludlow.
• Lester Keith Piggott, jockey, born 5 November 1935; died 29 May 2022
• Julian Wilson died in 2014