Lester Piggott, the pre-eminent jockey of the post-war era and a personality who transcended racing when the Derby’s popularity was at its peak, has died aged 86.
Piggot’s son-in-law, Derby winning coach William Haggas, said: “Unfortunately we can confirm that Lester passed away peacefully in Switzerland this morning. I don’t really want to add more at this point [my wife] Maureen will make a statement later.”
Frankie Dettori, the only jockey since Piggott to enjoy similar fame as a jockey, quickly paid tribute. He told Racing TV: “Lester was very special and one of my heroes. I was one of the lucky ones [to have ridden alongside him]. I was there [Breeders’ Cup] Race when he won at the Royal Academy [in 1990] and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. A month after his retirement, he did what he did – it proved what a legend he was.”
Piggott earned the nickname ‘The Long Fellow’ because of his relatively tall height among jockeys at 5ft 8 inches, but became popularly known as ‘the housewife’s favourite’ when he won nine derbies and made the Epsom Classic the most famous race in the world was. Such was Piggott’s influence on racing that he created a new “shorter” style of racing with raised stirrup leathers that changed the art of jockeying.
His father, Keith, a former champion jump jockey-turned-trainer, gave his son his first public ride in 1948 at the age of 12, winning at The Chase at Haydock and laying the foundation for a glittering career in the saddle.
Piggott won his first derby aged 18 at Never Say Die and was Jockey Champion eleven times between 1960 and 1982. Despite his size, there was no longer a natural rider in the saddle during a golden age for the sport that included rivals Pat Eddery and Willie Carson.
Controversy never went far from Piggott during and after his career on the turf, and he was banned from the track ‘until further notice’ because the stewards reported his ‘dangerous driving’ at Never Say Die at Royal Ascot just weeks after his Epsom designated victory. He returned six months later and in 1955 replaced the retired Sir Gordon Richards, his only rival for the pre-eminent jockey of the 20th century, in the top spot in British racing as Noel Murless’ jockey.
Piggott’s association with Murless, and his later ones with Vincent O’Brien and Henry Cecil, laid the foundation for his dominance in the sport’s upper echelons, culminating in the 1970 completion of the Triple Crown of 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St. Leger on Nijinsky, at a performance unmatched to date.
His association with O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stable during the most prosperous years of the 1960s and ’70s became a key element of his glittering career and current incumbent Aidan O’Brien, no relation to his predecessor, said: “Lester was a very special one man and his knowledge was second to none. He didn’t say much, but every word you held onto. He had so much natural ability to judge a horse. We are very sorry that he passed away.”
Piggott first retired in 1985, but his burgeoning training career was cut short when he was sensationally jailed for tax fraud. He was stripped of his OBE before being paroled after a year in 1988. He then stunned the sporting world when he returned to the saddle in 1990, a comeback that within days spawned a fairytale story as he led a daring ride up the Royal Academy to victory at the Breeders’ Cup in America.
The notoriously taciturn Piggott won his 30th and final Classic riding Rodrigo De Triano at the 2,000 Guineas in 1992, but didn’t hang up his boots for good until 1995.