Lester Piggott was without a doubt the finest jockey of his generation, and probably of all who preceded or followed him.
Tall for a jockey at over 5ft 7in, “The Long Fellow”, as he has been affectionately tagged, has partnered with over 5,000 winners worldwide.
A man of very few words and sometimes none at all, he was as well known as any modern football icon.
His career in the saddle will never be matched, and if there were occasional lows – nothing more than serving 366 days of a three-year prison sentence handed down in 1987 for tax evasion and being stripped of his OBE awarded by the Queen – they were much higher.
Lester Keith Piggott was born in Wantage, Berkshire on November 5, 1935, and was brought up in a loyal racing family.
Her father Keith trained a Grand National winner, her grandfather Ernest was a three-time winner of the big hurdle race and her mother Iris was the daughter of Classic-winning jockey Fred Rickaby.
Young Piggott won his first race in August 1948 aged 12 on The Chase in the Wigan Lane Selling Handicap at Haydock Park.
The Merseyside track was also, fittingly, the scene of its last winner – Palacegate Jack in October 1994. He was approaching his 59th birthday.
In the years that followed, there was the small affair of 30 victories in the English Classics, including nine in the Derby, and 116 winners at Royal Ascot. He was crowned champion jockey 11 times.
Remarkably, he came back from an aborted retirement to achieve one of his greatest feats at the age of 54 when he scored for the Royal Academy in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Like most jockeys, his career has been littered with injuries, a particularly chilling example being the one he suffered in 1992 when Richard Hannon-trained sprinter Mr Brooks fell.
The five-year-old traveled to Gulfstream Park for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint following his victory in the Prix de l’Abbaye.
However, it ended tragically with the horse breaking a leg and Piggott being knocked unconscious and trapped under the fallen horse. He suffered several broken bones and a collapsed lung, which forced him to miss the next three months.
And it all happened despite a desperate struggle with her weight.
Piggott’s career cannot be defined by statistics, no matter how impressive.
In the racing world he was a colossus, and while his demeanor did little to foster affection – he spoke little and was once described as having “a face like a well-kept grave” – his consummate skill in the saddle earned him a full respect.
There was also his iron will to win.
This manifested in his famous finish ride, when he nearly lifted his horse over the line with a liberal rat-a-tat-tat application of the whip, which would be frowned upon. Nowadays.
He also didn’t hesitate to poke fun at his colleagues in the weigh-in room when he spotted the opportunity to board another big race winner.
But his strength was combined with a delicate touch that made him the supreme artist on horseback, as when he pushed the tiresome Ribero over the line in heavy ground for a short-headed victory in the 1968 St Leger, his whip unused.
There were so many memorable rides – Commanche Run in the 1984 St Leger; Sir Ivor in the 1968 Derby; the incomparable Nijinsky in the 1970 King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes – the year of the horse’s Triple Crown triumph – and Roberto in the 1972 Derby.
He was a pioneer of freelancing among jockeys – although many of his big wins came with another great racer, Vincent O’Brien.
Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s they dominated the sport, with the help of owner Robert Sangster sending a torrent of champions from coach Ballydoyle’s base in Ireland.
It was O’Brien and Sangster, along with trainer’s son-in-law John Magnier, who set up the hugely successful Operation Coolmore in County Tipperary, now one of the biggest racing empires in the world.
O’Brien and Piggott cultivated several of the big races, including nine Classics, before the pair split in 1980 – Piggott teaming up with another Turf titan, trainer Henry Cecil.
A glorious Piggott anecdote concerns the 1984 Derby, in which Pat Eddery was sensationally beaten by 2000 Guineas winner El Gran Senor. Piggott later saw the O’Briens and Sangsters gathered together and walked straight past, muttering “Do I miss me?” as he was going.
The bookies feared him and many of his runs were sent out at much shorter odds than warranted, simply because of the sheer volume of money from punters who had unrelenting faith in their man.
The phrase ‘housewives favourite’ was coined for him, and he was always the one the players turned to once a year when it came to Epsom in June.
Piggott – who spent a 2007 stay in intensive care in a Swiss hospital with a heart condition – was associated with many great horses, including Nijinsky, two-time Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe Alleged winner, three-time Gold Cup winner Ascot Sagaro and globetrotting wonder mare Dahlia.
A master tactician with ice in his veins, he had a unique style – his back in the air throughout a run before ducking for a finish – that has never been matched.
In 1961 Piggott married Susan Armstrong, the daughter of trainer Sam Armstrong, and the couple moved to Newmarket.
They later separated but remained married, with Piggott moving to Switzerland. Eldest daughter Maureen is married to Derby-winning trainer William Haggas and youngest daughter Tracy is a sportscaster with RTE in Ireland.
Piggott also leaves a son, Jamie, from a relationship with Anna Ludlow, his personal assistant at the time.
Listing Lester’s greatest riding achievements would take some time, but the one he particularly enjoyed was winning the Royal Academy.
Piggott had retired in a publicity fire in 1985 and trained, sending a winner to Royal Ascot. So it was almost unthinkable that he would get back in the saddle, especially after his time in prison, but he did in 1990 – about to turn 55 and days away from retirement.
Within a fortnight he had teamed up with his former ally O’Brien to ride at the Royal Academy in Belmont Park – and with all the familiar dash and drive intact he brought the horse in with a thrilling late run to snatch one of the biggest prizes in the world.
“The Royal Academy does it and living legend out of retirement, Lester Piggott, 54, pulls off the surprise!” exclaimed racing commentator Tom Durkin on NBC.
During the post-race media scrum, Piggott was wowed by Brough Scott for Channel 4: “It’s been 20 years since Nijinsky, is it all still there for you?”
Piggott simply said, “You never forget, do you?”