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    Lester Piggott: Renowned British Jockey
Lester Piggott: Renowned British Jockey
Lester Piggott. Source: Sky Sports

Lester Piggott: Renowned British Jockey

At the age of 12, he emerged victorious in his inaugural race, and he continued to achieve triumphs well into his 50s. Throughout his career, he secured an impressive tally of 30 wins in the top five prestigious British thoroughbred races, setting a remarkable record.

Over a period exceeding four decades, he skillfully steered thoroughbred horses and gained a level of recognition in Europe that was comparable to the fame of American jockeys such as Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro in the United States. Piggott stood head and shoulders above his fellow jockeys, both literally and figuratively. His exceptional skill in the saddle was rarely, if ever, equalled, and his illustrious career included an astonishing comeback that could be the plot of a movie. 

Lester Piggott racing. Source: Blood Horse
Lester Piggott racing. Source: Blood Horse

Predetermined Destiny of a Young Talent

He began riding racehorses at the age of 10 and achieved his final victory in his 60th year. Throughout this time, horse racing remained a significant obsession in Britain, with television coverage serving to fuel the enthusiasm of both fans and bettors. In the interim, he solidified his status as the greatest jockey of all time. With a total of 4,493 race wins and 11 championship titles, his accomplishments were unparalleled. Watching Piggott astride a thoroughbred, effortlessly guiding it to victory, was a sight that few sporting events could rival. 

Piggott's destiny in horse racing was established from the very beginning due to his family background. His father, Keith, enjoyed success as a jump jockey and champion trainer, while his grandfather, Ernie, achieved victory in three Grand National races. Furthermore, his great-grandfather, Rickaby, trained Wild Dayrell, the winner of the Derby in 1855.

At the age of 12, he was only 4 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 5 stone 4 pounds when he rode his first winning horse. Six years later, when he won his first Derby with Never Say Die, he had grown over a foot taller and weighed 8 stone 7 pounds. This marked the beginning of his lifelong struggle with his weight. Piggott went on to win the Derby several more times with horses like Crepello (1957), St Paddy (1960), Sir Ivor (1968), and Roberto (1972), among others. He also finished as a runner-up four times, with his last race in the Derby being in 1994. No other jockey has won the Derby more than six times, and no current jockey has won it more than twice. 

A Ruthless Competitor

Still, he was also capable of winning less gracefully, as demonstrated in the 1972 Derby when he practically carried Roberto over the finish line, securing victory by a narrow margin and enduring a lengthy investigation by the stewards. Piggott gained a reputation for engaging in aggressive tactics during races, such as taking a jockey's whip or exerting intense pressure on another jockey's testicles, causing the rival to become emotional. He earned the nickname "The Long Fellow" due to his tall stature and was also called "Old Stone Face" because of his resolute expression.

Despite his towering height of 5 feet 7 1/2 inches, which was considered quite tall for a Flat jockey, Lester routinely rode approximately 2 stone below his natural body weight. Many individuals would have succumbed to the constant struggle or shifted to jump racing, but Piggott's determination was fueled by an unending stream of victories. In total, he triumphed in 30 Classics and dominated at Royal Ascot, amassing an impressive tally of 116 wins, including 11 in the Gold Cup. He briefly pursued a training career and even trained Cutting Blade to victory in the Coventry Stakes at the Royal Meeting in 1986.

Piggott holds the record for the highest number of wins by a jockey in the five prestigious British Classics races, including the Epsom Derby, the 2,000 Guineas Stakes, the 1,000 Guineas, the Oaks Stakes, and the St. Leger Stakes, with a total of 30 victories. Additionally, he was the last British jockey to achieve the Triple Crown in his country, accomplishing this feat aboard Nijinsky in 1970.

According to Nick Luck, an international horse racing broadcaster and podcaster working for NBC Sports, Piggott possessed a combination of natural talent for bold riding and a strong desire to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both horses and rival jockeys. Luck described Piggott's unique riding style, characterised by a relatively tall stature but a shorter length of stirrup and his bottom raised in the air. This distinctive approach made the horses feel as if they were carrying no weight. When questioned about his posture, Piggott humorously replied, "Well, I have to put it somewhere."

Luck further noted that Piggott played a pivotal role in inspiring a remarkable generation of riders in Europe, as he became the standard to which they all aspired.

He played a significant role in shaping and influencing the careers of numerous champions, one of them being Nijinsky, trained by Vincent O'Brien, who secured the Triple Crown victory in 1970. This accomplishment had not been achieved by any horse in the previous 35 years, and no horse has managed to replicate it since then. Willie Carson, who competed against Piggott for many years, observed that Piggott possessed a remarkable level of confidence. Unlike most people who worry about making mistakes, Piggott remained unfazed and showed no signs of pressure. He rode his horses with immense assurance. 

Lester Piggott. Source: Sky Sports
Lester Piggott. Source: Sky Sports

Piggott's success extended to other prestigious races, including winning the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe three times, twice with Alleged (1977-78). He became champion jockey for the first time in 1960 and won a total of 11 championships, with his last one in 1982. Piggott initially retired from riding after the 1985 Flat season to become a trainer, but his new career was cut short when he was convicted of tax fraud and served a one-year prison sentence. After his release, he made a remarkable comeback by winning the Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont Park on Royal Academy for Vincent O'Brien, less than two weeks after leaving jail. He continued riding in Britain for another four years before retiring for the second and final time. Piggott's achievements were acknowledged by the establishment of The Lesters in 1990, an annual award ceremony honouring jockeys. In 2019, a life-size bronze statue of Piggott was unveiled at Newmarket's Rowley Mile Racecourse, along with eight other statues commemorating each of his Derby-winning horses.

Overall, Piggott achieved victory in 4,493 races at British racecourses, ranking him third among British jockeys. Additionally, he won several hundred races across the globe. Following Piggott's passing, British jockey Willie Carson spoke to Racing Post, expressing that Piggott possessed a deep understanding and connection with horses, comprehending their thoughts and desires. Piggott consistently made the right choices regarding the horse's needs, whether it required a demanding or gentle race, maintaining a particular pace, or utilising its stride.

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