Lester Piggott (5th November 1935–29th May 2022) stood head and shoulders above his fellow jockeys, literally and metaphorically. His genius in the saddle has rarely, if ever, been matched and his decorated career included a comeback that defied all odds.
Piggott began riding racehorses when he was a 10-year-old boy, with his final win in his 60th year. In the intervening five decades, he established himself as possibly the greatest jockey there has ever been. He won 4,493 races; was champion jockey 11times; prevailed in a record nine Derbys among 30 Classics triumphs; and enjoyed 116 Royal Ascot winners. He rode countless champions, chief among them perhaps being the Vincent O’Brien-trained Nijinsky, who won the Triple Crown (The 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger) in 1970. No horse had achieved this for 35 years, and none have achieved this feat since.
Being stable jockey to some of the greats, such as Noel Murless, VincentO’ Brien and Henry Cecil was a help, but it was little wonder they craved his services. A brilliant tactician, Piggott was equally adept at winning races from the front or behind. There were few finer, or more distinctive, sights in sport than watching the upright Piggott glide home on a thoroughbred when sitting motionless. But there were also few stronger or more driven than him in a tight finish, such as when he won the 1972 Derby by a short-head on Roberto.
Unusually tall for a Flat jockey at 5ft 7 1/2in, the Long Fellow, as he was nicknamed, would routinely ride about 2st below his natural body weight. Many would have given up with this constant struggle but Piggott refused to yield; his hunger seemingly sustained by a never-ending stream of winners.
Born into a family immersed in centuries of racing, his career path was set from the day he was born on 5th November 1935. His father, Keith, was a successful jump jockey and champion trainer, while his grandfather, Ernie, rode three Grand National winners. His great-grandfather, Rickaby, was responsible for Wild Dayrell, the 1855 Derby winner. His first win, aged 12, was aboard The Chase at Haydock Park in 1948. The delighted young rider was just 4ft 6in and weighed 5st 4lb. By the time he won his first Derby on 33/1 chance Never Say Die, six years later, he was more than a foot taller and 8st 7lb. His perpetual fight against the scales had begun.
Piggott would go on to win The Derby, Britain’s premier Classic at Epsom, on eight more occasions, with Crepello (1957), St Paddy (1960), SirIvor (1968), Nijinsky (1970),Roberto (1972), Empery (1976), The Minstrel (1977) and Teenoso (1983). He was also runner-up four times, with the last of his 36 rides in the greatest Flat race in the world being in 1994.
No other jockey has won The Derby more than six times, with no current rider having won it more than twice. He also won the Irish equivalent five times, plus other versions in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Singapore and even Bratislava.
Piggott’s other 21 British Classic victories consisted of eight St Leger wins; six Oaks wins; five 2,000 Guineas victories and two 1,000 Guineas. He won the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot on 11 occasions, and France’s biggest prize, the Prixde l’Arc de Triomphe, three times–including twice on Alleged (1977-78).
He was champion jockey for the first time in 1960, gaining the last of his 11 titles in 1982. Between 1964–1971, he was crowned champion every single year.
Piggott retired at the end of the 1985 Flat season to become a trainer, but his new career ended when he was convicted of tax fraud. Upon returning to the sport a year later, he resumed riding and, amazingly, less than a fortnight later travelled to America to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park on Royal Academy for old ally O’Brien. He rode on in Britain for another four years before retiring for a second and final time.
The Lesters, inaugurated by the Professional Jockeys Association in 1990, annually recognise the achievements of jockeys, and in 2019 a life-size bronze statue of Piggott was unveiled at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile Racecourse – one of nine effigies to commemorate each of his Derby winners. Racegoers quickly surrounded him to obtain an autograph that autumn afternoon. The great man remains as revered now as when making The Derby almost his own, with his place in the QIPCO British ChampionsSeries Hall of Fame a foregone conclusion.
7 KEY STATISTICS:
- 4,493 career wins
- 30 British Classic winners
- 9 Derby victories – leading jockey of the race in its 240-year history (no other jockey has won the race more than six times)
- 11 Champion Jockey titles
- 116 Royal Ascot winners
- 1 Triple Crown – the last jockey to ride one (Nijinsky, 1970)
- 48 years – length of time between his first winner (aged 12, 1948)and his last (aged 60, 1996)
Rod Street, Chief Executive of Great British Racing said, “Lester was a true titan of sport, a one-off who transcended horseracing. To this very day, the top answer to ‘name a famous jockey’, remains Lester Piggott. Enigmatic and reserved, it was on the track that he did his talking, with nine Derby wins amongst his 30 British Classics together with 11 Champion Jockey titles. He matched a fiercely competitive spirit with genius horsemanship and was revered by millions. It was only fitting that he became the first person to be inducted into flat racing’s QIPCO British Champions Series Hall of Fame last year. We will be forever grateful for the indelible contribution he made to British horseracing.”
Main image and biography courtesy of Great British Racing.
Epsom Derby 2022 to be Run in Memory of Lester Piggott
The Cazoo Derby 2022 at Epsom Downs Racecourse on Saturday (4th June) will be run in memory of the legendary Lester Piggott, who won the world’s most famous Flat race a record nine times as a jockey. It is understood this is the first time The Derby has been run in memory of any individual.
Jockeys will wear black armbands across both days and there will be a minute’s applause at around 1.15pm on Friday when a wreath in the racing colours of Nijinsky will be laid at the statue of Lester Piggott on The Queen Elizabeth II Stand Lawn. There will be a further minute’s applause at around 4pm on Saturday before The Cazoo Derby (In Memory of Lester Piggott) is run at 4:30pm.
Phil White, London Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses, said: “No jockey is more synonymous with our most famous race than Lester Piggott. Running The Cazoo Derby in his memory, which we believe has not been done in the 242 previous editions of the race, is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest jockeys of the modern era and the record-holder for most wins by a rider.
“We want to give racegoers on both days the opportunity to pay their respects and celebrate the life and career of this extraordinary sportsman, and we hope that taking the unprecedented step of re-naming The Derby shows the high esteem in which Lester is held.
“I would like to thank our sponsors Cazoo for accommodating this request and we hope Friday and Saturday will allow for a fitting tribute to one of the icons of our sport.”
Photos by Rachel Groom: Lester Piggott at Epsom Derby 2019, as The Queen unveils a statue of him at the racecourse.
Karen can usually be found glued to her computer or at the stables. Having edited several national magazines she co-founded Eclipse Magazine in 2008 after realising that many of her friends were nervous about going racing due to lack of information – what to wear, how to bet etc.
She absolutely loves her job (how many people can say that?!) and is truly grateful to all supporters of and contributors to Eclipse Magazine.
If you are reading this she would like to say THANK YOU! (And please spread the word about Eclipse…!!)