SUNDAY TIMES SPORT
At 11.30 on Tuesday morning Lester Piggott will unveil a bronze statue of himself at Royal Ascot. At 83, he is now a slender, elderly, white-haired figure but as the covers slip away the years will roll back and once again the world will wonder. For no one ever dominated racing more completely than Lester Piggott in his prime – and nowhere better than at Royal Ascot.
No one has got close to the 116 winners he rode at the Royal Meeting, the first as a 16yr old in the Wokingham in 1952 when Winston Churchill was in Number 10, the last on College Chapel in the Cork and Orrery in 1993. But the sheer longevity hardly begins to tell the tale. 1952 was Lester’s fifth season as a jockey, he had been champion apprentice for the previous two years and three weeks before Malka’s Boy he had been second in the Derby and only a time out had stopped him objecting to the winner.
He was already a phenomenon, referred to as ‘boy wonder’ in the clipped tones of the newsreels and his fearless, ‘win-at-all-costs’ approach made him idolised by punters and feared by fellow jockeys in equal measure. In 1954, the adulation reached a new pitch when he won his first Derby on Never Say Die and the fall out with fellow jockeys came to a head at Royal Ascot three weeks later when Lester was banned for six months for rough riding on the same horse in the King Edward VII Stakes.
It was typical Piggott that at the end of his commuted three months suspension he should return on a winner having already signed as first jockey to top trainer Noel Murless – with whom he would share 17 Royal Ascot winners over the next ten years including five successes at the Royal meeting in 1961. By then Lester had already won the first of his eleven jockey’s championships and had become, as he was to remain, a folk hero only enhanced by the sense that no one could ever know what he would do next. His partial deafness could become complete if tested by an unwanted question and the scarcity of his answers and his muttered Brandoesque delivery made even monarchs and moguls hang upon his words.
So it was that in 1966 he ignored his Noel Murless retainer to ride the Oaks winner Valoris for Irish trainer MV O’Brien with whom he had 18 Royal Ascot winners having already taken the 1958 Gold Cup on the great mare Gladness on his very first mount for the little genius from Tipperary. But even O’Brien had to accommodate the wilfulness which beside switching rides at the racecourses would include ignoring orders on the training track as Lester habitually put his own interests ahead of those of the trainer. It was with little reservation that O’Brien was happy to have me quote him in this paper that in an ideal world Piggott would ride for him in all of the big races and in none of the gallops.
The slack was granted because at his peak Lester had a range of talent none of us have ever seen. The flat jockey’s skill-set stretches from the strength and dynamism required to get a big lazy colt over the line to the silk fingered finesse needed to coax a filly to stretch her neck past the leader. Turn the pages of the Piggott Royal Ascot scrap book and you quickly alight on the burly Casabianca being hurled past the post in the Royal Hunt Cup in 1965 and compare this to the brilliant but self-opinionated Petite Etoile being nursed home in the Rous Memorial.
In all sport, the compliments that really matter come from the competitors themselves even if they are made through gritted teeth. Other jockeys might have won three consecutive Gold Cups on Sagaro but it’s the way that the bent hair pin of a body angled the chestnut colt beneath to take out the leader that puts only Piggott’s name on the memory.
He was an actor on his stage but more the gunman than the thesp. For two wonderful but worrying summers in the seventies I had the blood-out-of-a-stone task of ghosting a weekly column with Lester Piggott, a supposed thousand words out of a man who would hardly deliver that many in a month. One day, for reasons too complicated to bother with, we were driving from Dieppe to Ostend in a huge car I had hired from Orly airport. For an hour or so Lester sat silent, smoking his cigar but when the road slowed to navigate some dykes near the Belgian border he suddenly looked up. “Stop the car”, he said, padded round to the driver’s seat and for 15 minutes thrashed Mr Hertz’s finest around the track as if it was Ascot’s final furlong. Just as suddenly he stopped, padded back and with a small smirk muttered “it can go a bit.”
From the beginning he had always been prepared to put himself on the line and that famous poker face could break into a surprising smile walking back after a race well won. How appropriate that the last time at Royal Ascot should have been when an ailing Vincent O’Brien led College Chapel back in 1993. Lester was proud then. He should be proud next week. And so should we.