Just after 10-30 on Thursday, June 4th 1970, I was in the most coveted place on the racing globe – Lester Piggott’s car as he drove to Epsom the day after Nijinksky’s Derby. He was 34. The famous face was lean but healthy behind those dark blue wrap-around glasses. It had been his 5th Derby success. He was at the height of his power. There was a very real sense that the fingers on the wheel had the world by the reins.
He was a mystery but a highly organized one. “Be outside Harrods at 10-30” was the terse answer to the telephone request for a lift from London to a Jockeys Association meeting at Epsom next day. A couple of months earlier I had got my leg snapped in a fall at Worcester and so it was a figure on crutches that Lester would have seen leaning against the Harrods front window. He did not hesitate. The big black Mercedes mounted the Brompton Road pavement in a stealthy move that was half ambulance, half mafia car, and in a trice Lester was helping me into the passenger seat. “The leg’s taken a bit of time,” he said.
For quite a while that’s all he said. But it was a satisfactory silence. Lester had his cigar, a bright day and a clear run on his special traffic-dodging route to the course that he had made his own. I had an extremely superior taxi ride and a unique chance to treasure the moment when a legend comes to life. For in my racing memory, Lester had been there from the very beginning.
At first the child: he was 12 when he won that first race on The Chase in August 1948 and, at three and a half years old I can’t say I remember the fuss about the chubby cheeked pre-teenager that made all the headlines. But I clearly re-call the “Boy Wonder” drama when he rode the blinkered Zucchero (who wouldn’t start) in the Derby three years later when still only 15. Not surprising really because by then Lester was already champion apprentice, had a deserved reputation for attempting and often achieving the impossible, and caused Peter O’Sullevan to dub him “a potential genius with the look of a wilful cherub.”
Today’s race fans are encouraged to laud jockeys in their late teens and early twenties as exciting new hopefuls but Frankie Dettori was 19 when he first rode in the Derby, Ryan Moore 21. Just think what it was like when the “wilful cherub” was second in 1952, won the race for the first time on Never Say Die at the ripe old age of 18, and promptly got suspended for three months (probably unfairly) for a barging match on the same horse in the Edward VII at Royal Ascot.
There was a naked, dangerous challenge about him. Back in the fifties a lot of the senior jockeys were in their forties and horrified at the inspired impetuosity of Keith Piggott’s precocious young son. Such disapproval and the official sanctions from the authorities only increased Lester’s attraction. He may have been ruthless, but we could sense he was brave as well as brilliant. He won the Triumph Hurdle at 18, always thought he would get too heavy and go jumping like his father and grandfather, and so was as idolised, if not feared, by we jumping pilots just as much as he was by his flat racing peers. No one but the hardest of the hard could have won the 1981 1,000 Guineas on Fairy Footsteps 4 days after being trapped in the stalls, or raced again after the 1992 Breeders Cup crash on Mr Brooks when he was already 56 years old.
He was a one off as a person too. The idea of anyone trying to organize his rides for him like today’s agents, is literally laughable. There was the big red book in that immaculate trophy and portrait-lined living room which stood as a temple to his talent. He would sit with it and plot his way through the racing calendar – telling people where they should run as much as asking for rides. As the world knows it got him into a double-booking scrape or two but in the midst of one of these hiatuses he looked up, pulled on his cigar and muttered, “something will turn up, it usually does.” Believe me, he was loving it.
That was something his rather dour public demeanour – Jack Leach’s great line of “a face like a well kept grave” – always kept hidden. Lester had iron discipline and drive. He beat his weight problems by straight mental control. He often beat opponents not so much by sweat as by strategy. “I wanted to settle him,” he finally said about Nijinsky on that never to be forgotten Epsom journey, “but I overdid it a bit and when we turned in he had gone to sleep on me. I had to give him a couple to wake him up. Then he was good.” There was nothing more to say. Piggott and Nijinsky sweeping past Gyr to win that Derby remains one of the defining images of man and horse at the gallop. The genius had spoken.
It’s a big, big word but in Lester’s case I believe that it is the right one. He qualifies on the premise that talent is doing what other people aspire to, genius is what other people can’t even dream of. At his peak he could achieve things with the thoroughbred racehorse beneath him and the rivals around him that no one else could contemplate . His short- stirruped style occasionally did not give enough leverage, have a look at Alleged’s St Leger defeat in 1977, but he had an unmatched mix of equine understanding, athletic balance and competitive nerve, and the range of his talent was unique. No one was better at finessing a volatile filly like Petite Etoile or Park Top; yet at the same time no one could outpower him. Think The Minstrel’s Derby, Athens Wood St Leger, or, a personal favourite, the utterly implacable ride he gave the grey Saritamer to win the July Cup in 1974. I can see him coming past me now, head down, whip cracking, his whole body coiled into a raw compulsive effort of mind and muscle. Defeat was not an option.
When he came back after retirement and jail, he had lost a bit of that power and the protective aura it gives. Yet it meant that the roots of his genius were more apparent. It was in the saddle and behind the ears that he found fulfilment. He was Yehudi Menuhin reunited with his violin. Even then no one could roll a horse as instinctively beneath him as he did with little chestnut Rodrigo de Triano in the Guineas and The Champion Stakes. Lester was a force, a fixer, a man of finesse, and a Centaur too.
A couple of summers after that Nijinsky car trip my own inadequate riding career came to an abrupt end and for about three years I became a rather chaotic Boswell to Lester’s unlikely Dr Johnston. Getting an article a week was sometimes blood out of a stone but overall he was very kind. He liked to correct the spelling of French horses’ names with his silver pen, would say “thank you” very quickly if you offered to pay the lunch bill, and travelling with him all over and as far as Singapore was an extraordinary insight into the man.
At that stage he may have had the world by the reins but as Aristotle said “there is no great genius without a touch of madness.” One day he was riding at Dieppe and I had hired a huge car to drive us on to Ostend. After some good smoked salmon for lunch, he slid home a horse called Ramilles in the Grand Prix as slyly as a conjurer’s card and we hammered off northwards for Ostend. After a long, tedious haul we reached a set of canals and corners. “Stop the car” said Lester and took the wheel. For half an hour he gave the big Chevrolet the sort of treatment Saritamer remembered to his grave. Then, just as suddenly, he stopped the car, padded round to the passenger seat, lit his cigar and muttered “ that’s better.”
He was a man who had mastered his own universe but it was his and our tragedy that he crashed so horribly to earth when applying his own interpretations to the rules of the Inland Revenue. Whatever the justice, there was real poignancy in what he said as we walked a final time down The Rowley Mile a week before his trial. It was, “I can’t see the point of locking me up.”
That is why his eventual return to the saddle was so therapeutic for us all; and why the 28th October 1990 will always remain the favourite memory. That was Breeders Cup Day at Belmont and what had become an afternoon of horrors, three horses killed and Dayjur’s victory lost by shadow jumping, was saved by Lester Piggott and Royal Academy , the greatest comeback in history.
Even now it is almost impossible to chronicle it. He was 54 and just 12 days in from a five year lay-off, over a year of which had been spent in prison. He had dropped his horse in last along the rail and then swung out in the straight to gun the leader down in the final fifty yards just as he had Sir Ivor in his pomp. The whole choreography had a poetic inevitability about it, and when he flashed past to win with whip-cracking certainty, it is the absolute truth that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.
It could not have happened but it had. The ghost of all those adventures past had come back from Hades to land the richest race of his whole career. As he was led back, only the feet out of the stirrups betrayed the strain; and as he came over to do the interview, something much stronger than the TV arc lights lit his face from deep within. There was Belmont mud in his smile but there was something immortal in his answer to the impossibility of it all.
“Ah no,” said Lester Piggott, “you never forget.” Neither should we.