Lester Piggott at Royal Ascot, 15 June 1964. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Death of a sporting hero

Lester Piggott was the greatest jockey — bar none

Artillery Row

I had two sporting heroes when I was a kid. One was Niki Lauda, the racing driver. Lauda died in 2019, and with his death a part of me grew up.

My other hero, Lester Piggott, died this morning.

Different as the two men were, they had some fundamentals in common. Lauda was an inspiration not least as a man who stared death in the face and told it where to go. His return to the racetrack after an accident at the Nurburgring was super-human — it was impossible to believe it could happen until it did happen.

Piggott never had to stare down death in the same way but he was similarly super human. Even today, 28 years after his last ride, his accomplishments make no sense. They could not have happened, until they did. Many superb jockeys do not win a Derby. Piggott won 9, in an age when the Derby was without doubt the most important flat race in the world. Add to that 116 Royal Ascot winners, 30 British Classics, as well as 11 jockeys championships and over 5,300 winners.

My first real memory of him is on Nijinksy winning the Derby in 1970, having won the 2000 Guineas. He went on to win the St Leger, the first horse to win the Triple Crown for 35 years, and the last to date to do so. But it was his Derby ride on The Minstrel in 1977 that lives in my mind more fully, a pulsating final furlong in which the famous Piggott drive was at its strongest. No other jockey would have won.

The same can be said for so many of his other big winners. Other jockeys were strong in a finish. Piggott was like an engine, propelling his horse further and faster than possible. Look at Sir Ivor’s Derby win and it still doesn’t seem physically possible for him to get up in time. But it is Piggott, so of course he does.

my father was the man who sent Piggott to prison

It’s fashionable now to talk of the mental side of sport — Jurgen Klopp spoke the other day of his Liverpool players as “mentality monsters”.  It’s difficult not to laugh at that, given their failure to push on and win either the Premier League and the Champions League. But Piggott was indeed a monster — driven not just on the racetrack but off it. He would trample over anyone to secure the best ride. Being “jocked off” by Piggott was a common occurrence.

His self-discipline was part of the package. He was at least two stone under his natural weight when he rode, relying on his famous cigar and black coffee for sustenance. But the gaunt appearance somehow fitted the aura of a man who was a breed apart from his competitors, let alone the rest of us.

He was a flawed man, not least with his conviction for tax fraud in 1987. I have a different take on this. My father gave me my love of racing, and he revered Piggott as a jockey. But my father was also the man who sent Piggott to prison. He was director general of the Inland Revenue at the time. He told me he had no choice but to prosecute, since Piggott’s fraud was so blatant and egregious that no other path was possible.

In many ways the most impossible of his impossible acts happened after his release from prison.

In October 1990 he renewed his jockey’s licence at 54, riding a winner at Chepstow immediately afterwards. Twelve days later he secured the ride on Royal Academy, trained by Vincent O’Brien, in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park, New York. He came from the clouds to win on the line. Two seasons later he won the 2000 Guineas on Rodrigo de Triano.

The word unique is overused. But Piggott was not only unique — he and his achievements were unimaginable. He was not just the greatest ever jockey — no one else comes close.

RIP Lester.

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