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Remembering Lester Piggott and his triumphs on a special Jubilee Derby day

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Whoever wins the Jubilee Derby today will have to share the limelight with a legend.

For the day will belong to one man, a legendary Newmarket jockey whose spirit will pervade every part of the course he made his own.

A week after the announcement of the death of the greatest jockey of the modern era, the name on everyone’s lips will be Lester Piggott’s.

Lester Piggott (1935-2022). Picture: Laurie Morton
Lester Piggott (1935-2022). Picture: Laurie Morton

Turn back the clock to 1954 the year Never Say Die became his first Derby winner. Just 18 the teenage Lester had the cheek to proclaim it just another race but, of course, he knew it was much more than that.

The Blue Riband of the Turf, run over a crazy helter-skelter course across Epsom Downs, would become the race that would forever define him.

An unprecedented nine times he was equal to its vagaries thanks to his innate understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of horses he rode, the ability to have them in just the right place, to have given them a breather at just the right moment, to always track those with a winning chance, and then to ride the race running down the hill before, if needed, firing off a machine-gun salvo of whip cracking strokes, to be first past the winning post, the piece of wood to which legendary breeder, Tesio, said the thoroughbred owed its existence.

Lester with his final Derby winner Teenoso, trained in Newmarket by Geoff Wragg, left
Lester with his final Derby winner Teenoso, trained in Newmarket by Geoff Wragg, left

“At Epsom he was a perfectionist who more often than not achieved perfection,” said his biographer Julian Wilson. And how right he was.

At 5ft 7ins tall the Long Fellow was never built to be a jockey but he adapted his style to suit his height. After his win on St Paddy in the 1960 Derby, he was seen to be riding noticeably shorter thrusting his backside higher in the air. ‘I’ve got to put it somewhere’ he said.

His balance was sublime and, on a horse, he was nothing short of genius with heavenly hands through which came his uncanny ability to transmit just what he wanted the animal to do.

For those who believe in re-incarnation it’s not a stretch to wonder if something of Fred Archer, the genius jockey of the 19th century, may just have found its way back into Lester.

Lester unveils a lifesize statue of himself at the Rowley Mile. Picture: Mark Westley
Lester unveils a lifesize statue of himself at the Rowley Mile. Picture: Mark Westley

Just as the Victorian cabbies had yelled Archer’s Up, signifying all was well with the world, Lester was always the housewives’ choice, loved in equal measure by betting shop regulars, racing aficionados, and the once-a-year Derby day dabblers, all entranced by the effectiveness of his precarious, question mark-shaped, perch on half a ton of turbo-charged thoroughbred, which, in the drive position took on an almost demonic quality. It was hard to define where horse ended and jockey began and his wife Susan once said he was as close to a centaur as it was possible for any man to be.

And Lester’s own racing bloodline was on a par with the bluebloods he rode.

His father and grandfather had trained and ridden winners of the Grand National and his uncle, and namesake, Frederick Lester Rickaby, rode five Classic winners before he was killed a month before the Armistice in 1918 aged 23. Lester’s mother, Iris, had won the Town Plate twice and his family traced back to the likes of Tom Cannon and the legendary John Day.

Lester in 1999 leading the ceremony to place a time capsule beneath the new Millennium Grandstand at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile
Lester in 1999 leading the ceremony to place a time capsule beneath the new Millennium Grandstand at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile

His battle with the scales, and unwavering self denial, became a way of life but, despite it, he had always lived to ride. The struggle to adapt to training when he first stepped away from the saddle in 1985 was there for all to see. There was a sense he was merely going through the motions and his heart was not in it.

And then came the headlines none had ever thought they’d ever see.

On a quiet Friday a week before Christmas 1986, Lester appeared before a special sitting of Newmarket magistrates charged with tax evasion. In October the following year he was jailed for three years. He had made mistakes and paid a heavy price for his transgressions. His incarceration saw him stripped of his OBE and cost him the knighthood which his achievements had long merited.

Lester Piggott with Hall of Fame medal
Lester Piggott with Hall of Fame medal

It may have been proved how much he took but it was nothing to how much he had given to so many.

He was freed after a year and a day inside and it wasn’t long before he was making headlines again. In 1990 he emerged from the twilight zone of retirement and was back in the saddle riding a winner within 24 hours of his return.

Then, just nine days short of his 55th birthday, with a flourish of his whip he wiped out five years in the wilderness when he swept to victory on Royal Academy in the Breeders’ Cup in New York taking centre stage yet again in another racing fairy story.

And he carried on riding winners. Two years later at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile there were unprecedented scenes when he achieved his fifth success in the 2,000 Guineas on Rodrigo de Triano. Asked by an incredulous interviewer how long he could go on for, the king of the one-liners quipped: “I’ve got one in the fifth race.”

Lester was a national treasure to millions more famed and feted in his day than all his sporting contemporaries and one of the few instantly recognisable by his christian name alone.

And the affection in which he was held endured long after he was no longer a fixture at race meetings.

His appearances at special events drew crowds of fans, desperate for an autograph, a word, or just a glimpse of the legend who had never gone away, a man who had transcended the sport which made him unforgettable and secured his place, not just in racing’s history, but in the nation’s.

Lester’s passing has been mourned in every part of the racing world, and beyond, but his wonderful life of achievement is one to be celebrated and, as he surely takes the place reserved for him in the pantheon of greats, his legacy remains a myriad of memories that will forever endure.