No list of racing greats would be complete without the inclusion of Lester Keith Piggott, the epitome of balance, strength and tactical awareness, the leading jockey in Britain for three decades and the winner of over 4,000 winners in Britain alone.
Born on November 5, 1935 in Wantage, Oxfordshire, from good racing stock, Piggott rode his first winner, The Chase, at Haydock on August 8, 1948 as a 12-year-old boy. A decade later, he was the most successful jockey in the country. He rode his first Derby winner, Never Say Die, on June 3, 1954 as an 18-year-old and, after 103 days’ suspension for his riding of the same horse in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot, was appointed to succeed Sir Gordon Richards as first jockey to Noel Murless, the leading postwar trainer in Britain.
The appointment was to mark the start of a fruitful association with the Warren Place trainer, which was to last for the next twelve years and yield two more Derby winners, Crepello in 1957 and St. Paddy in 1960, and seven Classic winners in all. In fact, such was the success of the partnership that it came as a shock to the racing world when, having insisted on riding the 1966 Oaks winner, Valoris, for Vincent O’Brien instead of Murless’ Varinia, who finished third, Piggott announced he was now a freelance jockey.
He rode his first winner Derby for Vincent O’Brien, Sir Ivor, in 1968 and three more, Nijinksy in 1970, Roberto in 1972 and The Minstrel in 1977, before the pair decided to go their separate ways in the autumn of 1979.
Nijinsky, a son of the then untried stallion, Northern Dancer, bought by owner Charles W. Engelhard, Jr. on the recommendation of Vincent O’Brien, was probably Piggott’s most famous winning ride in the Derby. Having already won the 2,000 Guineas, under Piggott, Nijinksy went on to make history by becoming the first horse since Bahram, in 1935, to win the Triple Crown by beating Meadowville by a length in the St. Leger later the same season.
Following the retirement of Joe Mercer, Piggott joined Henry Cecil, at that time married to Noel Murless’ daughter, Julie, who had taken over at Warren Place in 1976. Further success followed, with Piggott winning the 1,000 Guineas on Fairy Footsteps in 1981, as well the Derby for first-season trainer Geoff Wragg on Teenoso in 1983.
However, after a public scandal over an unofficial contract, which Cecil had attempted to arrange with his owners, on Piggott’s behalf, but without the knowledge of the Jockey Club and a protracted rift between Piggott and one of Cecil’s leading owners, Daniel Wildenstein, it was announced, on June 5, 1984, that American Steve Cauthen would replace Piggott as stable jockey the following season.
At the end of the 1985 season, Piggott retired from race riding, at the age of 50, and became a trainer at Eve Lodge Stables, Newmarket. However, no sooner had he started his new career than questions about his financial affairs. An investigation into unpaid back taxes is believed to have cost him a knighthood in 1986 and, in 1987, was he found guilty of tax fraud and jailed for three years.
Having served a year and a day inside and stripped of the OBE that he had been awarded in 1975, he was released on parole in 1988. With the training licence at Eve Lodge in the hands of his then wife, Susan, Piggott kept himself fit by riding out regularly, but it was still a major surprise when he returned to race riding at Leicester on October 15, 1990. He rode a double at Chepstow the following day and eleven days later rode Royal Academy to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park, New York for Vincent O’Brien. Justifiably, Piggott described Royal Academy, coincidentally a son of Nijinsky, as “the most satisfying winner I ever had.”
Piggott rode his final Classic winner, Rodrigo De Triano, for Peter Chapple-Hyam in the 2,000 Guineas in 1992, at the age of 56. Despite breaking his collarbone and two ribs in a fall in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Gulfstream Park, Florida, later the same year, he returned to race riding the following February and continued until 1994. Fittingly, he rode his last winner on Palacegate Jack at Haydock – the same Merseyside course on which he had ridden his first winner 46 years earlier – on October 5, 1994.
Famously taciturn, partially as a result of being severely hearing-impaired since birth, Piggott faced constant problems with his weight, starving his 5 ft 8in frame down to around 8st 2lbs for most of his of his career. His nickname, the “Long Fellow”, stemmed in part from his height, but also from his bespoke, short riding style, which hoisted his backside high into the air making him easy to pinpoint in any race.
When he retired for the second and final time, Piggott had ridden 4,493 winners in Britain, including 30 Classic winners, and been crowned Champion Jockey 11 times. In 2012, at the age of 77, Piggott moved to Geneva, Switzerland to start a new life with Lady Barbara Fitzgerald, 55, after leaving Susan, his wife of 52 years. Piggott’s 19-year-old son, Jamie, the product of a 16-year affair with former assistant, Anna Ludlow, rode in his first professional race at Killarney on July 18, 2013, so the name “Piggott” is likely to appear on British racecards for a good while yet.