The Lester Legends only grow. So they should for no other top athlete ever lasted so long in any discipline and it is now 60 years since his first Derby ride on Zucchero at just 15. No one person ever held racing so completely in his thrall. At times it wasn’t very good for either him or us. It certainly didn’t seem so for the little group in the old Fleet Street days of the Evening Standard in the May of 1974.
It was 8.30 in the morning with hardly a fortnight to Derby Day and literally minutes away from deadline for the first edition. In its wisdom the Standard had hired Lester to do a column every Thursday with me as ghost writer. By then he was 20 years, five winners and 17 rides on from his first Derby victory on Never Say Die and the “What will Lester ride” question was the racing calendar’s hardiest perennial and something for which the man involved would take good money. The trouble, that deadline pressed Thursday, was that the answer, promised on bill boards all across London, was still to come.
The hot horse at Ballydoyle that year was Apalachee. After winning the Observer Gold Cup (Racing Post Trophy) the previous autumn the hype machine had been in overdrive. Vincent O’Brien and Lester Piggott had won three of the last five Derbies and Vincent was even quoted as saying that Apalachee “might be a horse apart.” Then he blew out at 4-9 in the 2,000 Guineas and this gallop was the last chance to book his place for Epsom. Then as now Ballydoyle had everyone sworn to secrecy. But Lester had promised us and we had promised London.
His solution was that on the stroke of 8-30 I should ring Ballydoyle and ask for him saying I was “Mr Robinson”. Our plan was to have two different stories already set, one saying “Yes, I ride Apalachee, he worked brilliantly etc” and the other “No, Apalachee disappointed this morning and its back to the drawing board.” On the nod from Lester the correct story would be ripped from the typewriter and in those weirdly old fashioned, Heath Robinson (no relation) days wrapped in something like a shell cartridge and despatched off on a strange tube system with a large shout of “Boy” as it rattled off above us round the office to be typeset.
The phone call was made. The “Mr Robinson” alias was accepted, and as the great man came to the phone, the anxious hacks next to me craned in to overhear. “He – (inaudible something) – run” came the famously familiar mutter down the line. “So he does run?” I asked back . “(Inaudible inaudible) run” said Lester in what seemed like exasperation and put the phone down. “What’s he say?” asked the hacks. I tossed the coin in my head and said, “he doesn’t run.” Mercifully I had guessed right and my scribbling career continued.
Ryan Moore laughed when I told him this and some other Lester stories at Sandown on Wednesday. For two hours that morning he and Michael Stoute had done a non-stop media turn about Carlton House making the Queen’s “annus mirabilis” even more wonderful at Epsom. Those observers who still think that Ryan is a touch sparing in his answers should have tried dealing with Lester Piggott. At times he did not so much ignore the press as positively insult them. And yet we loved him for it. We always have.
The roots go back to the very beginning. He was a headline prodigy from the start. He rode his first winner at twelve years old. Twelve for heavens’ sake – that’s literally in short trousers. By the time he rode Zucchero in that 1951 Derby he was already champion apprentice and a month later he would win the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown on a French outsider and then finish second on Zucchero in the first running of what was to become the King George VI and Queen Elisabeth Stakes at Ascot.
“He was always the Housewives Favourite,” remembered Peter O’Sullevan a week ago, “although even by the time of Zucchero he had collected more suspensions than David Beckham has hair styles. There was something about him. The feeling that he would do his own thing whatever anyone said. But what he did over the years was truly amazing. The discipline and courage
needed to keep himself at the top and his body in shape with so ruthless a regime was astonishing.”
Of course Sir Peter is pretty astonishing himself. A week ago on Thursday, at just 93 years young, he made the 175 mile journey to Leominster, took a glass of champagne and some fine white Burgundy with dinner, spent almost three hours of detailed Piggott and other recollection on stage and then insisted we drove back to Chelsea as he had a hospital appointment in the morning. We are still trying to contact his specialist to get a little of whatever he is on.
Long journeys are what first linked Piggott and O’Sullevan into a professional association and private friendship which continues to this day. On the stage at Leominster he recalled how in March 1950 Keith Piggott had rung up to ask if he could “give the boy a lift from Lincoln to Aintree” and of how he then watched the child he had described as “a potential genius with the face of a wilful cherub” develop into the most extraordinary race rider the world has ever seen.
On the hammer home to London O’Sullevan did not sleep but let his mind travel back to the young Lester sweeping all before him and terrifying other jockeys a full 30 years his senior. As this paper pays tribute it is worth trying to imagine quite the impact the teenage Piggott made in the 50s. Second (on Gay Time) in the Derby as a sixteen year old and would have objected if he hadn’t been unseated after the line. Winning (on Never Say Die) as an 18 year old but then banned for 6 months for a barging match at Royal Ascot before being appointed stable jockey to the great Sir Noel Murless even whilst still suspended. Ryan Moore is a wonderful talent and when you get to know him a fine and amusing citizen. But by Lester’s standards he has hardly started.
He certainly, and no doubt gratefully, has little of the drama with which Lester would cloak himself both consciously and unconsciously. It was the Piggott way of dealing with unwanted attention and making a virtue out of a problem. The media might not have been as intrusive back then but being partially deaf and having a heard-to-hear voice could still make things difficult. Lester solved it by only hearing what he wanted and giving out words as sparingly as he spooned in food to that lean and hungry face.
When you got used to it, he became rather good company. Because as he would not say anything unless he had to, the words that came out were right on the button and often quite funny. One day I was driving him back to London from Sandown and the silence which had lasted all the way to the Robin Hood roundabout was suddenly broken by him looking up from the financial pages and saying “you ought to get into gold you know.” There was a pause and, with that funny snuffling laugh he looked at me and said “suppose it might be difficult for you.”
By then, in his late thirties, he was at the absolute height of his powers and he knew it. The wrap around blue glasses, the fat cigar , the big Mercedes, the long trophy lined living room in Newmarket as a temple to his talent. He was the public hero who ridiculed publicity. He was the most sought after jockey who infuriated trainers by riding work to suit himself. “I would like Lester to ride my horses in all the big races,” Vincent O’Brien said to me very much on the record, “and in none of the gallops.” He was a man on his own and yet he was at the very heart of the racing family. He was very obviously and, ultimately criminally, avaricious. But he was also brave beyond comparing.
I have always thought it was that which, alongside his exceptional balance, unique insight to the thoroughbred psyche, and analmost demented determination, was at the very heart of both his talent and his appeal. He was brought up with the expectation that he would get too heavy and become a jump jockey. His father had won the Champion Hurdle and been a legend for hardness. His grandfather won three Grand Nationals. And Lester himself won both the Triumph Hurdle (then run at Hurst Park) and a race at the Cheltenham Festival in 1954, the year he won his first Derby on Never Say Die.
Everyone who rides a racehorse has a bit of bravery about them, even this ex jock here. But it is the courage beyond the norm which the professionals admire and the public can sense. Lester had that in spades. Not just the physical bravery to go in where it’s tight and the mud is flying but the mental nerve to be able to draw the bow of a horse’s resolve and then fire it late like an arrow towards the line. Nobody did it like Lester Piggott and he could do it by silkily on a filly, remember Park Top and Petite Etoile, or a touch more forcefully on a colt, think of the smooth power on Nijinksky or, my absolute favourite, the impossibly late burst to win the Derby on Sir Ivor in 1968.
That is Lester’s favourite too, not that he will make a great thing about it. It is one of his attractive qualities that he has never sought compliments or made play of his acts of generosity which, contrary to legend, have never been an endangered species. Sure he could be brutal in a race, “he could never do that sort of thing now,” said Ryan at Sandown. True also he was entirely unprincipled about taking someone else’s ride. “That’s bad luck for your old man” he said to 19 year old Walter Swinburn about jocking-off W Swinburn senior on what was to be that afternoon’s Oaks winner Blue Wind before giving him a lift to Epsom two days after Shergar’s Derby. “And he really meant it,” laughed Walter on Wednesday. “He was actually very kind to me sometimes.”
And to me too. It was Lester who picked me up on crutches and took me down to Epsom the day after Nijinsky’s Derby. It was at his insistence that I got the “blood out of a stone” but ”heaven sent access” role of ghosting his column. And it was through his and his wife Susan’s making that the TV Times were persuaded to fly me and business class to Singapore on the dubious grounds that this was the only place where the two of them would have time to talk over their scrapbooks for a feature we were doing for the then best selling magazine.
No apologies then for ignoring the unhappier parts of the Piggott story beyond relating the poignant phrase “I can’t see the point of locking me up” [which] he said as we walked along the Rowley Mile a few days before his trial or telling of the nice letter I received on prison notepaper and have unforgivably mislaid. It was characteristically succinct. “Thank you very much for arranging for me to have the Racing Post in here,” it said about our then youthful publication, “it shows a lot of promise if you can cut out the crap.”
No compunction either in relating the wonder we had in witnessing him close up. He could do things on a horse that we didn’t think possible. He had mastered his own body to the extent that the “isn’t it time to retire” question in Singapore seemed embarrassingly inappropriate when I compared his poolside torso to my own . Above all he gave us moments on a racecourse that we knew at the time we would never forget – and even on two occasions wondered whether he would actually live to remember.
The first was at Epsom in April 1981 when I had to say goodbye to ITV viewers with Lester still trapped beneath the starting stalls. Within ten days, he rode Fairy Footsteps to win the 1,000 Guineas. The second was at Gulfstream Park in November 1992 when I refused a request to go “live” on News At Ten from our trackside TV desk as he was on a stretcher after Mr Brooks’ fatal fall and there were rumours that Lester was dead.
He wasn’t, he isn’t and that is why this Piggott week should be a matter of much rejoicing. The images will crowd in of “the wilful cherub” riding Zucchero at jump jockey length, of the high coiled dominator poised above Nijinksy and all the rest, of the old silver fox who could still roll the horses so beautifully beneath him even when some of the former power had gone.
But he has never gone away. He has never lived anywhere but Newmarket or Lambourn. He had a bit of a heart problem a few years back but still volunteers for all sorts of gatherings be it this March at The Cheltenham Festival or, only last week, for a Derby media session in London. He is as part of the racing scenery as the Rowley Mile itself and quite a bit more welcoming even if he still can’t resist moments of delight at other people’s discomfiture. Then a warm smile will suddenly light up the cold lines of that old chinaman’s face just as it used to when we ended up paying for the ice creams.
On the One Show last month I somehow got myself ambushed about the Grand National by the one-time teenage idol and now devoted horse lover David Cassidy. Two days later Lester was giving out the prizes at The Martin Wills Young Writers Awards (well he did have his own column) with which I am involved. You would not think L Piggott as a One Show watcher but from his smile he clearly is. “That guy,” he said about D Cassidy with whom I had admittedly not been very clever, “he had you, didn’t he.”
For this week we have him again. Treasure it.