3 June 2001
Piggott’s 50-year-old love affair.
Fifty years ago Lester Piggott rode in his first Derby at the age of 15. As Epsom prepares for another running of the famous Classic next week, one of racing’s most respected voices looks back at the career of the world’s greatest jockey
If he was impressed by the anniversary he was not going to show it. Fifty years ago at the supposedly tender age of 15, Lester Piggott had his first ride in the Derby. There were 33 runners and his mount Zucchero, who eventually finished ninth, was notoriously temperamental. “No,” said Lester in that distinctive nasal mutter as he toyed with some prawns in The Three Blackbirds pub at Wood Ditton last week, “there wasn’t much pressure. Nobody fancied him very much.”
With Lester it was ever thus. It is not that he is shy about his triumphs. His home in Newmarket is a shrine to the astonishing talent and determination which brought him a record nine Derbies and over 5,000 winners worldwide in a 48-year career which finally closed in 1995 and which for sustained cutting-edge excellence surpasses anything in the whole history of 20th century sport. Most times he is just not the talking type.
In 1970, he gave me a lift down to Epsom the day after he had ridden the still unbeaten Nijinsky to his fifth and arguably most impressive of all Derbies. “Be outside Harrods at 10.30,” was the five-word conversation the night before. Next morning the big Mercedes slid up the Brompton Road kerb and the lean figure in the wrap around dark blue glasses considerately got out to help me, on crutches from a racing accident, into the car. “Doesn’t look too good,” he said. After that the silence.
The Piggott silence is special because it dares you to start babbling away like an idiot to be finally countered by a monosyllabic grunt. On that drive in 1970, I tried desperately to hold my tongue from pressing the burning question of what it had felt like when he pulled out the mighty Nijinsky and cut down the French star Gyr in one of the most memorable of Epsom finishes.
Finally, by about Ewell (a couple of miles from Epsom), he told it as it was. “I wanted to switch him off,” he said, the voice so quiet that in any other car it would have been inaudible, “but when I wanted to quicken he had gone to sleep on me. I had to drop him one to wake him up. Then he did it.” That was all and yet everything.
At that stage he was in his pomp, without question to my mind the most dominant jockey that I have ever seen. He was 34 years old and well on his way to the eighth of his 11 jockeys’ championships. Two years earlier he had beaten the Americans on their own soil on Sir Ivor in the Washington International as part of a career-long globe trot which eventually scored winners in no less than 36 countries worldwide. He could do anything and often did.
But to appreciate the force that he became, you need to understand the boy wonder he was when that unique Derby journey began. Wednesday, May 30th, 1951; King George VI had opened the Festival of Britain on The South Bank at the beginning of the month, the spies Burgess and Maclean had bolted the previous Friday, 83 luckless miners had been killed at Easington Colliery on Tuesday and a 77-year-old Winston Churchill was not going to win the election over the Labour Government until October.
On to this Epsom stage rode 15-year-old Lester Keith Piggott and he was already no stranger to it. At the April meeting he had won both the Grand Metropolitan Handicap and Blue Riband Trial, the latter with Zucchero on one of his Derby partner’s going days. Lester’s first winner had come at Haydock back in August 1948, and after passing 14 (the school leaving age) on November 5th 1949, he was hot enough to become champion apprentice in 1950, a feat he was to duplicate in 1951 despite a leg smash in August which put him out for the season.
“Oh yes, he was The Housewives’ Choice all right,” said Sir Peter O’Sullevan on Friday morning. “They loved him for riding winners but he had already collected more suspensions than David Beckham has hair styles. Five years ago Sir Peter, Lester’s longest-standing friend and confidant, wrote the eloquent tribute adorning The Piggott Gates at Epsom racecourse which ends with the perfect phrase “an iconoclast who became an icon”. Back in 1951, his Daily Express column gave an equally apt description for the time. “A potential genius,” wrote O’Sullevan, “with the look of a wilful cherub.”
Lester was still small, he was to ride at 7st 4lb at Royal Ascot, but his as yet unlined face bore the frown of a boy determined to thrive in a man’s world. At this stage he could not do it by power, so it had to be by cheek, concentration and unique understanding of the mind of the thoroughbred machine. Piggott had a long line of champion jockeys on both sides of his pedigree. His father was a trainer. He was an only child and partly deaf. Lester always denies this but you don’t have to play too much of the amateur psychologist to see why he could humour horses like Zucchero where others failed.
“He was a real good horse when he was in the mood,” says O’Sullevan of Zucchero in the mellifluous tones that were still calling the Grand National in his 81st year. With typical attention to detail he has a 50-year-old ante-post voucher on the coffee table of his Chelsea flat. “Lester won twice on Zucchero in July and I had this fiver each-way on him at 200-1 when he was second to Supreme Court in the first `King George’ at Ascot.”
The O’Sullevan memories have already spawned the best-selling book Calling The Horses, but as he recalled Piggott’s brilliance and daring and match-winning cool he also stressed the extraordinary self-discipline with which Lester kept his weight 21lb under its natural 10st over a 40-year period. “No other professional athlete,” says Sir Peter admiringly, “can have ever performed to such a standard for so long under so ruthless a regime.”
By the time Lester rode his first Derby winner, Never Say Die in 1954, he had grown to 5ft 7in and was already struggling to do eight and a half stone. “I thought I was bound to end up jumping,” he told me much later, and his thoughts of following his father and grandfather’s careers had taken shape enough for him to have ridden a winner at the Cheltenham Festival that March.
Incidentally, and there are a lot of “incidentallys” in the Piggott story, it was at that Cheltenham that he first met the legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien, who would later saddle not just Nijinsky but Sir Ivor, Roberto and The Minstrel as Piggott Derby winners. At that stage O’Brien was the jumping king, “If you ever want a ride in the Grand National,” he said to the genius on the grow, “give me a ring.”
The tales of the personal battle between Lester and his own body are full of stories of cigars and black coffee, of sauna baths and of sweat-suited drives to the races with the car heater switched to tropical. But in truth he got himself into a routine where he ate well but sparingly. When I had the “blood out of a stone” pain and privilege of ghosting his Evening Standard column in the 1970s we would meet for lunch on a day off, he would order Dover Sole and a gin and tonic. There would be no “wolfing down” followed by the discreet trip to the “loo” which some of the American bulimic “chuckers” do. But at the end of the meal the fish would be half finished, the drink still part drunk.
One day he told of the time when the war on weight became total. “I was down in the south of France in February,” he recalled. “On the scales I was 11 stone. When I got back to England I worked and worked but was still pushing nine stone at the Lincoln meeting in March, was cheating to do 8st 8lb at the Craven in April. I thought it would never come off. But we had some winners. It was the year of Crepello, 1957 and,” he added with one of the most cold-blooded bits of self-denying understatement you will ever hear, “I never let it go up again.” He was no longer a thin man with a fat man trying to get out.
If you are prepared to be that hard on yourself, professional rivals and media hasslers are unlikely to be given the kid-glove treatment. And while it is highly likely that his most famous suspension, for six months after Derby winner Never Say Die was involved in a scrimmage at Royal Ascot, was unfairly severe, there was an undeniable streak of violence in Piggott.
Poor Tony Murray went to his grave vowing that a bad fall at Windsor was caused by Lester deliberately putting him over the rails, and only on Friday a reporter came up with a tale of how years ago he had been pestering Eve Lodge for news of Lester’s Derby ride only for the door to be flung open and the Piggott fist to smash in his teeth much to the delight of the waiting cameraman.
This touch of utter ruthlessness was an essential part of his dominance in the saddle. The thundering capsule of the horse race as the field runs tightly packed to the turn, is no place for the faint hearted. Half ton’s worth of thoroughbred are jammed in together, shoulders banging, hooves clipping. The squeamish want to pull wide or pull back. The hard men know where they want to be and make sure you know it too.
Nowhere is this more true than at Epsom. Its horseshoe-shaped helter skelter contours would never be allowed by current course building regulations. “In the old days before camera patrol,” recalls O’Sullevan, “interviewing the jockeys afterwards was like talking to them at the Grand National. They were full of tales of how rough and dangerous it had been. But not Lester. He had the nerve and the reactions and the brilliance to get a position and create space around him. He never had hard luck stories.”
The most common of these is that the horse “could not come down the hill”. The sharp descent through Tattenham Corner and the heavy left-hand camber of the straight run home is, after all, the greatest single natural hazard on any racecourse anywhere. Many jockeys will wax eloquent about the difficulty of keeping a horse balanced as the ground drops away from you and the pace hots up. It seemed a rich vein to tap for this Piggott ghost writer when we came to the pre-Epsom piece. “It’s not a problem,” he muttered, “they all come down the hill first time.”
Hard though this reticence might have been on a word-hungry hack you could once again understand what he was saying. The way he rode the track with his insistence on getting a good position by the top of the hill meant that his horses simply cruised down the slope. Look back at the videos and see the Piggott balance and poise and you can appreciate his simple summing up “they just roll down the first time. It’s when they come back again that they often check and want to get out of it.”
If the core principles of Piggott’s brilliance remained constant, the actual mechanics of his riding began to change. The Derby victories of Never Say Die (1954), Crepello (1957) and St Paddy (1960) all reveal a jockey riding in a more traditional, longer-leathered style. But by the time Sir Ivor (1968) and Nijinsky (1970) came around, the Piggott method had become the short-stirruped, bent-hairpin style which became his trademark and which inspired the traditionalist rebuke of “not so much a jockey as a talented acrobat”.
To ride so short actually makes more demands on your balance and strength and indeed courage which was a quality with which Piggott has been quite incredibly endowed. Say what you like about Lester’s behaviour (and many did!) no one doubted the quite astounding physical courage which underpinned his talent.
Appropriately enough one of the greatest examples happened at Epsom. In the 1977 Oaks, three days after he had won the Derby on The Minstrel, his saddle slipped on the way to the start and he was hung up underneath his now runaway filly Durtal, his foot trapped in the stirrup iron.
“That was bad,” he conceded, “I only got free because she bumped into a concrete post which snapped the stirrup iron. I could have been killed y’know.” There was a slightly sad-eyed pause as he contemplated this early trip to the everlasting bonfire. Then he moved into something akin to triumph as he added. “It knocked me about a bit. But I rode in the last race.” How did he get on? Another pause and then the smile which has always so surprisingly melted the frozen tundra of the face. “Yeah, I won it.”
While imitators of his new short-stirruped style found themselves losing both forward pushing power and lateral control, Piggott’s own balance and strength and courage developed a unique way of rolling the horse beneath him. With his backside hoist high and the reins gathered up in hands which were still and nerveless, the gunfighter is always the best metaphor for Lester’s coolness under fire.
Balance and strength and courage were crucial and in his most revealing interview (with The Observer’s Kenneth Harris which began with the four unpromising answers of “born to it,” “no,” “yes” and “motor racing”. Lester likened the strength needed to ride short to that in standing on one leg compared to walking down the road. But all of this is as nothing if you don’t have the understanding of what is beneath you and then the nerve to wait to play your hand.
Play the video of Sir Ivor’s final furlong cutting down of the leader Connaught a hundred times and again and again you will find yourself echoing the words of the horse’s breeder standing next to trainer Vincent O’Brien. “He cannot win from there.” But he did.
Of course this totally single-minded self interest caused problems when it came to such contractual things as which horse he was supposed to ride. As far as Piggott was concerned the longer he could juggle his options the better and when it came close to Derby time the “what will Lester ride?” charade became almost as comical to outsiders as it was aggravating to those involved.
Never more so than one year when he was due to ride a final trial on some fading O’Brien hot-pot (I think it was Apalachee) early in the morning and I had arranged to ring him at 9 o’clock to rush the news to the Evening Standard first edition. For reasons of efficiency I phoned from the newspaper office. For strange reasons of secrecy I had to ring Tipperary and say it was Mr Robinson. Piggott came on the line, muttered something unintelligible and put the phone down. We had both “He does run” and “He doesn’t run” stories ready. I turned to my fellow hacks, took a deep breath and with fraudulent bravado pointed to the “He doesn’t run” option. Tails, I won.
Naturally Lester wasn’t doing this stint just to help the fund of newspaper knowledge and the world now knows that his obsession with stuffing his wallet rather than his stomach eventually saw him serve a year behind bars for trying to bluff the taxman. Despite all the warnings, his squirrel-like miserliness just would not let him reveal where the cash was stashed even when the Inland Revenue were on the trail.
Many of us thought that locking up this wildest of spirits would break him on the wheel. Which is why what happened next is almost the most remarkable twist in the whole Piggott saga. He had retired from riding for two years before he went to jail. He then had an unhappy few months trying to come to terms with what the future might hold only, on Vincent O’Brien’s invitation, to leap back into the past. At 54, he took to the saddle again in October and 12 days into the comeback crossed the Atlantic to produce a vintage last-furlong swoop to take the Breeders’ Cup Turf on Royal Academy, in money terms, the most valuable race of his whole career.
He won another classic, the 2,000 Guineas on Rodrigo de Triano, and rode in four more Derbies, hardly the safest of afternoon activities for grandfathers in their closing fifties, but for Piggott it would always be the stage that would remain his own. Each June, albeit sometimes with some reluctance, he would come out to the TV cameras and tell us that “yes, this really is the biggest day. It’s what all the buzz is about.” One year he tried particularly hard except that as he began to speak the Guards’ band started up behind us. It was not a very equal contest.
So how does he feel about it now? Do the Piggott Gates and the perennial agitation mean much to him. After all the years of privation the lined features keep something mournful about them. As he ponders the question and sips his coke you remember the late Jack Leach’s immortal description, “a face like a well kept grave”.
Then he shrugged and began to answer. “They invite us each year,” he muttered. “They are very nice. It’s a great day. It’s good to be part of it.” In the famous interview Kenneth Harris arranged to raise his hand when he wanted more words from his victim. But in a world of airwaves crammed to bursting with verbosity there was something rather touching in the utterly laconic nature of the response. After an hour and a half’s perfectly pleasant, although sometimes silent conversation, the word count on the transcribed tape came to 582.
He was looking fit, the forearms still powerful beneath the smart gold golf shirt, still a swagger in the walk before he slid into the Mercedes and the tyres bit the gravel to depart. He and his wife Susan are quite involved in son-in-law William Haggas’ stable, for which Lester bought Ascot winner Superstar Leo last year. He sees a lot of his grandson and of his own son Jamie from his now ended relationship with former assistant Anna Ludlow. He goes his own way.
There is a story which, if it isn’t true, ought to be. One evening Lester was seated at dinner next to Sir Michael Stoute. The champion trainer is a notoriously focused individual and was quite soon quizzing Lester on what he was doing. How often was he riding out? Was he going to the sales? What did he think of the three-year-olds?
The silver-haired old legend took it for a bit then gave one of his little twists of the mouth and glanced off into the mid distance before coming back with his reply. “Do I,” muttered Lester Piggott with his funny snuffling laugh, “have to do anything?”