It may have been a few years since Lester Piggott, who turned 83 in November, 2018, was known as the “Housewives’ Choice” but, in his heyday, he was not so much a jockey as a phenomenon. In a riding career which lasted nearly half a century – including a five-year hiatus between 1985 and 1990, a year of which he spent under lock and key for income tax evasion – Piggott rode 4,493 winners in Britain and was champion jockey 11 times, including eight years running between 1964 and 1971. His winning tally included 30 British Classics and, in 1970, he became the last jockey to win the ‘Triple Crown’ – 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St. Leger – on Nijinksy.
Piggott rode his first winner, The Chase, at Haydock Park in 1948 as a precocious 12-year-old and by the time he rode the first of his nine Derby winners, Never Say Die, in 1954, he had developed a reputation as a reckless wunderkind, who regularly courted controversy. In fact, he had his licence revoked, albeit unjustly, for causing interference on the same horse in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot, just two weeks after winning the Derby. Later in his career, though, Piggott forged profitable associations with Noel Murless Vincent O’Brien and Henry Cecil – three of the finest trainers in the history of horse racing – which led to him riding some of the great horses of the twentieth century, including not just Nijinksy, but Crepello, Sir Ivor, The Minstrel, to name but a few.
Alternatively nicknamed the “Long Fellow”, because of his height and his distinctive, but much imitated, riding style, and “Old Stoneface”, because of his undemonstrative, taciturn demeanour, Piggott was naturally gifted, tactically astute, tough and determined. He did, however, have a ruthless streak and would think nothing of “jocking off” his contemporaries, regardless of any loyalty shown to them by an owner or trainer, if he thought it was to his advantage. Indeed, he only rode Commanche Run, the horse on which he won his twenty-eighth Classic, the St. Leger in 1984 – thereby breaking a 200-year-old record set by Frank Buckle – because he browbeat owner Ivan Allen into believing that American jockey Darrell McHargue, despite being retained by trainer Luca Cumani, “couldn’t ride a bicycle”.