BCS Hall of Fame: Lester Piggott and The Derby

Some great sportsmen and women enjoy fleeting moments at the pinnacle of their sport. Others dominate for years and a celebrated few rule the roost for a decade or two. And then, there is Lester Piggott.

The legendary jockey, inducted into the QIPCO British Champions Series Hall Of Fame last month, rode his first winner at the age of 12 and his last, and 4,493rd, when 58. In between, came 30 triumphs in British Classics and a record nine victories in the greatest race of them all, the Derby, first run in 1780. To put that into perspective, 26-time champion Sir Gordon Richards won Britain’s premier race just once. And Frankie Dettori, at 50, has landed it only twice.

Epsom’s Derby course presents the ultimate two-and-a-half-minute challenge for horse and jockey with its twists, turns, cambers and (before the pandemic) bulging crowds. Piggott was in his element there and his victories on Never Say Die (1954), Crepello (1957), St Paddy (1960), Sir Ivor (1968), Nijinsky (1970), Roberto (1972), Empery (1976), The Minstrel (1977) and Teenoso (1983) collectively showcased all his skill, nerve, tactical acumen and genius.

Leading jockey Frankie Dettori, who has ridden two Derby winners in his career via Authorized in 2007 and Golden Horn in 2015, said of Piggott’s Derby record: “I’ve managed to win two Derbys and he won nine, which is beyond anyone’s imagination. I grew up watching Lester from my TV at home, but I’d never met the maestro until I came to England. Unfortunately he retired before I started, so I rode for him when he was a trainer, I lost my claim on his horses. Luckily for me he made a comeback and I managed to ride with the great man.  

“He was the man to go to if you rode in the Derby, I remember calling him and asking what to do. And I wasn’t just the only one, I think everyone who was growing up and had a ride in the Derby was straight on the phone to speak to Lester himself! And not just for the Derby, for races all over the world. Like I said he’s the greatest in my sport, in my lifetime anyway.”

As Dettori says, Piggott became the jockey everyone wanted, but it didn’t begin that way. He was third or fourth choice jockey for 33/1 chance Never Say Die but grasped the opportunity with both hands and gained a relatively straightforward two-length success for veteran Newmarket trainer Joe Lawson. At 18, Piggott had become one of the youngest jockeys to win the Derby.

Piggott’s next two Derby rides were outsiders who failed to make an impact but it was a different story in 1957 when he partnered 6/4 favourite Crepello for Noel Murless. The brilliant chestnut had won the 2000 Guineas on his reappearance and his stamina-laden pedigree suggested he would be even more potent over middle distances. He was not extended to win but, sadly, never ran again after suffering a subsequent injury on the gallops.

Three years later, Piggott again combined with Murless and Sassoon to win with 7/1 chance St Paddy but he would have to wait until 1968 for his next winner, Sir Ivor, trained by Vincent O’Brien. It was worth the pause as the gorgeous dark bay followed up his  2000 Guineas win in scintillating fashion, making up about four lengths on the enterprisingly ridden Connaught in the final furlong.

Two years later, Piggott and O’Brien combined to win again with another exceptional colt in Nijinsky. This was a magnificent looking racehorse who had speed, stamina and charisma but his imperious displays masked a temperament that required delicate care and understanding.

The unbeaten Nijinsky had been a superb 2000 Guineas winner and was not fully extended to brat the strongly-fancied French challenger, Gyr, by two and a half lengths. Nijinsky would go on to land the Triple Crown and, 50 years later, remains the last horse to have achieved the feat.

A record-equalling sixth Derby win for Piggott, matching Jem Robinson (1817-1836), came aboard Roberto in 1972. Up to now, Piggott’s wins had been gained with a degree of comfort but this was different as he and Roberto, the 3/1 favourite, scrambled home by a short head from Rheingold after a frenetic finish. The result was only confirmed after a lengthy stewards’ enquiry.

Piggott was runner-up on Cavo Doro, who he also bred, the following year but three years on he again topped the bill as he guided the French-trained Empery to an emphatic three-length success at 10/1. And 12 months later he raised the bar even higher with a pulsating neck victory on The Minstrel for O’Brien and owner Robert Sangster.

The Derby king had one more ace up his sleeve in the Geoff Wragg-trained Teenoso (9/2), who provided him with his last hurrah in 1983. It looked a wide-open renewal and the unusually heavy going muddied the waters but Piggott was looking around for dangers at Tattenham Corner and the result was never in question after he hit the front three furlongs from home.

Piggott would ride in the Derby on six more occasions, his swansong being on Khamaseen for John Dunlop in a 25-runner renewal in 1994. He went off at 33/1, just as Never Say Die had 40 years earlier. Piggott gave his legion of supporters a great run for their money and was second turning into the straight but his mount faded to be fifth.

The Piggott Derby story had one more unexpected chapter. Aged 60, he partnered Shaamit on the Newmarket gallops in April for his son-in-law, William Haggas, and encouraged him to supplement the inexperienced colt for the Derby. Shaamit was duly added to the field and would win under Michael Hills.

It seems inconceivable that his amazing record will ever be matched and the Derby meeting rightly never passes without his exploits being remembered. He has left nine indelible marks for racing to savour forevermore.

For more information on the QIPCO British Champions Series Hall of Fame, please visit HorseracingHOF.com

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