From his first win at the age of twelve to his last victory nearly 50 years later, jockey Lester Piggott has been a ruthless winner and has become a racing icon.
He was tall for a flat rider and had spent most of his career dieting hard to keep his weight down, but he had an insatiable appetite to finish first.
Affectionately called the Long Companion, he is considered one of the greatest knights of all time. It wasn’t just a win of 4,493 that set him apart.
The partially deaf driver had an allure of his own, a fierce determination and a life story that led to prison and one of the highlights of the sport’s comeback.
Piggott was an angelic-looking pupil when he drove his first winner, The Chase, at Haydock in 1948, he weighed less than five stone and was only 4 feet 6 inches tall.
He’s grown to nearly 5 feet 8 inches and at the time of his last win—he was 58 aboard a Ballasgate Jack at the same track in 1994—racing writer Jack Leech likened his stony expression to a “grave tidy.”
In between, Bigot rewrote the record books. From boy wondering to the so-called Choosing Housewives, when women who supposedly knew nothing of racing roamed around Leicester at the major races.
He won his first derby at the age of 18 in Never Say Die in 1954, but was suspended for the remainder of the season due to reckless driving after working with him at Royal Ascot.
Piggott was an eleven-time jockey champion between 1960 and 1982 during a period when talented jockeys like Willie Carson and Pat Eddery were among the competitors.
He won a total of 116 races at the Royal Ascot Meetings and was victorious 30 times in the British Classics, including nine unprecedented wins at the Epsom Derby.
“I was able to win both derbies and Leicester won by nine, which no one could have imagined,” jockey Frankie Dettori said when Pigott was included. British Racing Hall of Fame.
“If you look back in footage of Leicester’s trip, he was twenty years ahead of his time, like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.
“He was tough. He had such a will to win, he had poise, he had it all. He is the greatest.”
Piggott has been employed by notable coaches such as Noel Murless, Vincent O’Brien and Sir Henry Cecil.
Among the great horses he rode was Nijinsky, the last horse to win the British Triple Crown – made up of 2,000 guineas, derbys and Saint-Legers – in 1970.
Derby winners included Cribelo and Sir Ivor Walmenstrel, while his 1972 victory is remembered for using the whip that encouraged Roberto to defeat Rheingold.
Piggott was the man of choice and did not hesitate to replace other drivers who “stealed” for him.
When asked about the benefits of using a Piggott, O’Brien replied, “That means it doesn’t ride against you.”
On one occasion in France, he snatched a whip from another jockey during a race in Deauville after he had brought him down.
His resilience was demonstrated by an incident a week before 1,000 Guineas in 1981 when a horse dragged him under the front gates of Epsom’s launch stalls.
“My right ear was practically cut off.” he remembered, “And it took 32 stitches to hold it in place. Even worse, I pulled all the ligaments in my back.”
However, he came back in time for the big race and won just before the Fairy Footsteps, with his strong conclusion: “This eased the annoyance.”
Piggott’s austerity was legendary, which eventually led to him being sentenced to prison for tax evasion.
The staff told the story of a knight’s servant who whispered in his ear, “Lester, can you lend me five pounds?” Piggott indicated he couldn’t hear anything, so he whispered in his other ear, “Can you lend me £10?” The rider replied, “Try that five-pound ear again.”
He was sentenced to three years in prison in 1987 after being found guilty of tax fraud over £3 million. With an exemption for good behavior, he spent a year and a day in prison.
His friend, BBC racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullivan, said his time in prison was like “Wild Bird Cage” He demanded the return of the OBE after it was withdrawn in the wake of the scandal.
However, he reported that the Queen rejected this approach, saying: “Lester was very, very naughty.”
Bigot used to live in Neumarkt but has spent the past few years in Switzerland, where he was admitted to intensive care in 2007 with a heart problem but has recovered quickly.
Throughout his career, Piggott maintained his elegant shape by following a diet rich in champagne and cigars, as well as regular visits to the sauna.
“He’s doing well considering he’s been abusing his body since he was 16,” daughter Maureen, wife of coach William Haggas, said after being hospitalized again in 2018.
Interviewing him has been compared to taking out your teeth, but he warmed up when asked about one of his greatest rides – which appeared on the Sunday Times list of “50 Great Sporting Moments of the 20th Century”.
After a coaching and prison career was interrupted, he triumphantly returned to the saddle in 1990 at the age of 54.
Just 12 days into his second retirement, Piggott led the Royal Coach’s O’Brien Academy to victory in one of the world’s richest races – the million-dollar Breeders’ Cup Mile.
“It was Vincent O’Brien. He had already made the proposal. I hadn’t thought of it. He said, ‘Why don’t you come back?’ And I did,” He told BBC Sport in 2015.
“It was really cool. It was like a fairy tale and it doesn’t happen often.”
Like Piggott’s life, it was a story of few peers.