'He Was A Legend': British Champion Jockey Lester Piggott, 86, Passes - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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‘He Was A Legend’: British Champion Jockey Lester Piggott, 86, Passes

Lester Piggott

Lester Piggott, who won a record 30 British Classics between 1954 and 1992 and was 11-time riding champion in his native England, died on Sunday, May 29. The 86-year-old had been hospitalized since last week in Switzerland, where he resided, according to his son-in-law, trainer William Haggas.

“He cast the longest shadow anyone's ever cast over racing,” veteran racing journalist Brough Scott said in an interview with Nick Luck. “For me, he was my first and greatest hero.”

“He was a person who made us all better – because we had to be better to beat him,” Willie Carson told the BBC. A longtime rival of Piggott and five-time British champion jockey who won 17 Classics, Carson said, “It is so sad. Part of my life is gone.”

“He was a legend,” champion jockey Frankie Dettori told BBC. “We always tried to aspire to be like him and none of us can do it. He will never be forgotten.”

Born into a multi-generational racing family on Nov. 5, 1935, in Wantage, Berkshire, Piggott, the son of  trainer Keith Piggott, launched his riding career as a 10-year-old, winning his first race aboard The Chase at Haydock Park at the age of 12.

A sensation in his teenage years, Piggott won the first of his record nine Epsom Derbies at age 18 in 1954 with 33-1 longshot Never Say Die. He would go on to win his second Derby with Crepello in 1957, followed by St Paddy in 1960, Sir Ivor in 1968, Nijinsky II in 1970, Roberto in 1972, Empery in 1976, The Minstrel in 1977 and Teenoso in 1983.

Nicknamed “The Long Fellow” because of his lanky, five-foot, eight-inch frame, Piggott would go on to win a total of 4,493 races on the flat and 20 wins over hurdles, according to the Racing Post. A record 116 of those victories came during the Royal Ascot meeting.

He was the last jockey to win England's Triple Crown, riding Nijinsky II to victories in the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby and St. Leger Stakes in 1970. Piggott won the latter 1 3/4-mile race on eight occasions, the final time with Commanche Run, in 1984.

How he acquired the mount on Commanche Run was an example of  Piggott's all-out drive to win, a personality trait some called ruthless. American Darrel McHargue had been Commanche Run's regular rider after moving to England, where he was contract rider for trainer Luca Cumani. When McHargue was unable to ride the colt in a St. Leger prep, Piggott was called on to handle him. He won that race, but McHargue was back in the saddle for Commanche Run's final St. Leger prep, the March Stakes.

As the St. Leger approached, Piggott began calling Commanche Run's owner, Ivan Allan, lobbying to ride him in the St. Leger because a victory would give the jockey his record 28th British Classic triumph.

In a British documentary on Piggott, Allan recalled a conversation he had with the rider. “I remember him telling me, 'McHargue couldn't ride a bicycle,' and if I wanted to win the St. Leger I'd better put him up on the horse,” the owner said. He was convinced to give Piggott the mount. McHargue, a future Hall of Famer in the U.S., left England shortly thereafter.

In that same documentary, Robert Sangster – who owned many of the top horses Piggott rode to victory during a successful association with legendary Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien at Ballydoyle – spoke of Piggott's often difficult personality. “Lester had a complete disregard for any authority or any boundaries: his home life or the revenue (tax authority), the stewards or riding,” said Sangster. “He rode to win, and that was the essential quality that we loved.”

That disregard for authority led to Piggott spending a year in jail in England after a 1987 conviction for income tax evasion. He had retired from riding in 1985 and was training horses  in Newmarket when his trial and subsequent three-year jail sentence was front-page news. Piggott, whose net worth was in the tens of millions of dollars at the time, was found to have omitted significant income from his tax returns and used false names to funnel money into secret bank accounts in Switzerland, Singapore, the Bahamas and Cayman Islands.

He also was stripped of his Order of the British Empire, but rode for Queen Elizabeth after returning to the saddle and was honored in 2019 with a bronze statue that she unveiled during a special ceremony.

Piggott was the center of other controversies throughout his career, involving rough riding and overuse of the whip. It was all part of his desire to win.

In 1990, Piggott returned to the saddle and only 12 days into his comeback at the age of 54 provided one of the most memorable performances of his career, taking the Vincent O'Brien-trained Royal Academy from last to first in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont Park. It was one of several big race wins in North America for Piggott, who won three runnings of the Washington, D.C., International with Sir Ivor (1968), Karabas (1969) and Argument (1980) and the Canadian International with Dahlia in 1974. Piggott won Derbies in England (9), France (1) , Germany (3), Ireland (5), Italy (3), Singapore (1) and Slovakia (1).

Piggott's final Classic triumph came in 1992 when he rode Rodrigo de Triano to victory in the 2000 Guineas. Later that year, Piggott returned to the Breeders' Cup to ride Europe's top sprinter, Mr Brooks, in the G1 Sprint at Gulfstream Park, but that ended tragically when the horse suffered a fatal injury turning into the stretch. Piggott was taken to a local hospital with a broken rib and collarbone, a partially collapsed lung and an injured spleen. He suffered another injury in July 1994 at Newmarket, returned that fall and and took his final mount on his 59th birthday, Nov. 5, 1994, in the November Handicap at Doncaster.

England's Professional Jockeys Association hosts an annual awards program, The Lesters, in Piggott's honor.

Piggott is survived by his wife, Susan; daughters Maureen and Tracy and a son, Jamie.

Tributes for Lester Piggott.

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