The death of Lester Piggott, who was easily the most magnificent 20th century jockey anywhere in the world, was announced yesterday. He was 13 times British champion (that is, he had the most winners in the season) but ultimately he had an international career which began at the age of 12 and ended finally in 1995 when he was 60. He won the Epsom Derby nine times in the era when it was still the greatest horse race in the world, as well as thousands of other races at all levels from the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp to a Pontefract selling plate. He was known by quite a few nicknames such as The Maestro, The Long Fellow and Old Stoneface, but most of the time he was just Lester.
Autographed lithograph of Lester on Commanche Run in 1984, after winning the Doncaster St Leger, one of his 30 classic wins.
In a lifetime of marvellous performances, possibly the most marvellous was when Lester returned to the saddle in 1990. He had originally retired from race riding in 1985 to train horses in Newmarket but after a 3-year prison sentence for tax evasion had ruined his training career Lester took up his jockey's licence again. Within a fortnight he had been booked to ride Royal Academy in one of the world's most valuable races, the American Breeder's Cup Mile at Belmont Park. European horses always run at a disadvantage in America because of the long journey and the strange conditions (not to mention that American horses would often run against them on "medication"), but Lester rode as if he always knew the pair were destined to win. In the race he waited, and waited, and waited a little longer, before producing a perfectly timed run to put the horse''s nose in front on the line. American riders had always been suspicious of Lester's tactics, as if he were cheating in some way. In fact Lester was merely showing them his superior skills in rhythm, timing and intuitive understanding of the horse under him. He was asked how on earth he could win the Breeder's Cup just two weeks after coming back to the saddle in his late fifties, having had five years away from race riding. He just said "you don't forget, do you?"
Following his second retirement at 60, Lester published an autobiography, which I reviewed in the The Independent on Sunday, at a time when I followed racing much more than I do now. My mention, by the way, of horse whispering refers to the best-selling novel The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans which had come out earlier in the year and been much discussed, not always kindly.
LESTER: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF LESTER PIGGOTT
Pay no mind to the smart metropolitan sniggers: horse-whisperers are real. Fred Archer was one; so were Steve Donoghue, Gordon Richards and Willie Shoemaker. But Lester Piggott, who recently announced the second of his retirements from race riding, is probably the greatest master of spoken (or whispered) horse ever to tip a weighing-room scales. The reality of horse-whispering resolves the hardest question about race riding. Most top jockeys are roughly equal in technique, so how come Lester got Roberto home from Rheingold in the 1972 Derby, when all agree no other jockey could have done it, not even the highly rated Bill Williamson who should have ridden Roberto but was famously "jocked off" after Piggott lobbied to get the ride?
Even though most thoroughbreds enjoy running and racing — some more than others, no doubt — when they're fighting through the pain of a finishing burst to get the better of a fellow creature, they're giving more, far more, than you'd expect from an animal stretching his legs for fun. Horses know nothing of odds, of form, of handicaps, or any of the multitude of things that absorb human racing enthusiasiasts. Nor can they have any ambition to climb abstract ladders of excellence, to be champion of the world, to win at all cost. Jockeys, on the other hand, do desire these things and Lester Piggott did so inordinately. It was this desire that he was able to communicate irresistibly to his mounts, but first it had been passed on to him by his father.
The education of the philosopher and social critic J S Mill was so forced by his father, almost from the moment he came out of nappies, that it is said he could construe Greek at the age of four. Lester Piggott would empathise. Keith Piggott, a fanatically competitive National Hunt jockey-turned-trainer, had his only child hacking ponies at four, riding racehorses at seven and formally apprenticed as a jockey (naturally to himself) before the boy was in his teens.
Keith Piggott knew that Lester could make horses run and he was determined the gift wouldn't go to waste. So with rare single-mindedness he schooled the boy, day in, day out, to be always competitive, never to give in, and never to show weakness. His autobiography is not, and could never be, an intimate autobiography, because Piggott isn't made that way. But the burden of his upbringing, his sense of destiny with its necessary attendant sacrifices (not least the enjoyment of good food), comes out clearly whenever in his narrative he encounters a significant hardship. His deafness "had to be overcome"; he starved himself to keep his weight down because "it had to be done"; he endured prison because it "had to be endured".
But winning is not the only compulsion in the Piggott psyche. His counsel at Ipswich Crown Court, in mitigation after the conviction for tax fraud in 1987, told the judge that Piggott "was a thrifty person by nature and upbringing ... his parents drummed into him that every penny had to be looked after." If winning was his father's obsession, this fateful parsimony was the gift of his mother. Throughout his childhood she warned him off spongers, telling him "not to lavish his money on people who were only out for what they could get". Eventually Lester's tragedy was that, for him, almost everyone was in the sponger category, even the taxman.
Jail was a tragedy because it destroyed Piggott's nascent training career, but it can never eclipse his jockeyship. He had his first winner at 12 and spent the next 46 years (apart from that year at Her Majesty's pleasure) booting another 5,350 or so past the post. In purely British wins Gordon Richards had more, but the quibble ignores the longevity and ubiquitousness of Piggott's career, whose grand total - some 500 ahead of Sir Gordon - includes winners in 33 foreign countries.
The question recurs: how does a jockey set horses alight? Not, certainly, with such crude means as the whip. Sweetness and persuasion may be one way; sheer domination is more likely; but, in either case, this is an intangible psychic attribute, inborn like Piggott's deafness and his speech impediment. And, by the way, these too may have contributed to his freak skill, because horses respond in unusual ways to human disability, as those who give autistic children riding therapy will tell you.
Despite all he's been through, there's not a shred of self-pity or sentiment in Piggott's book, and nor is there self-analysis, poetry, sensibility, raging against Fate, for the author is content to leave the shell of his enigma proudly intact. The sportsmen he most nearly resembles might be Don Bradman - two perfectionists who remember everything and regret nothing, except that they couldn't squeeze out one more Test Century, one last Derby winner. Punters invest both money and sentiment in jockeys. Betting, like alcohol, is all highs and lows, so it drags a cartload of emotions behind it. But, by some lucky alchemy, the angst and recrimination of five wallet-emptying losers can be transmuted to a haze of pure gold when you salvage your fare home on an even-money shot in the last. Then it's to the jockey, not the horse, you whisper, almost in prayer: "Thanks, Lester. It's been a grand day."