Few people have ever met the real Lester Piggott. But collaborating with him on writing books over the past two decades has given me a front-row seat where I can notice his enigmatic personality.
He was alternately mischievous and taciturn, witty and angry, funny and angry, charming and annoying. He could lead me to the wall, but I loved him.
The more I thought about our relationship, the more I got to know the lifestyle of the caterpillar, the little bird that sits on a hippopotamus or any other large mammal, helps the big beast in different small ways to the benefit of both sides.
or maybe you boswell because of dr. Johnson – Although Lester didn’t make any ominous remarks, I doubt Dr. Johnson took a boiling candy out of his mouth and asked the amanuensis to take care of it while being interviewed at the Redcar racetrack.
Almost as famous for his social dysfunction as his riding genius, he had serious communication difficulties – exacerbated by his deafness and persistent speech problem – meaning it was impossible to know exactly where you were.
When former BBC racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullivan, Bigot’s mentor since the early 1950s, told me that Leicester had given me the highest compliment in his encyclopedia, telling me ‘Okay’, I felt as if our association had made a new start.
That impression was quickly reinforced when he insisted on taking me to lunch at a luxury game club in London. What is all the nonsense about Lester Piggott having a reputation for being mean to guns? Reports of meanness have been great, but here I am told to eat what I want and drink what I want, and the cost is on hold.
The next morning, Sir Peter called and asked how I could proceed with Leicester.
Very well, I told him and told him about lunch in the cabaret.
“Oh, he loves it there,” O’Sullivan’s sweet tones came: “He doesn’t have to pay.”
Lester’s fame earned him free lunches, but he never felt comfortable with the outside world acknowledging him – or thinking about it. One summer afternoon, an ice cream seller on Finchley Street asked him if he was Wilson Beckett. He replied that it was, because denying it would complicate matters.
But he expects his achievements to be recognized. At lunch at the Variety Club in Sandown Park, the MC drew applause from the various “celebrities” present – with the notable exception of 11-time champion Jockey Champion in their midst.
Leicester looked agonized by the omission and responded to my sudden expression wistfully “I don’t know who you are and you don’t know who I am” – at which point Jimmy Tarbuck jumped on stage and greeted the biggest racing star of all who smiled with a shy bow.
But fame is relative, and the fame of a sports champ from a previous generation can eclipse a current household name from another walk in life. A former master at absorbing the riding of other riders, Lester met his peer at the Cheltenham Festival from an unexpected source.
Invited to Gold Cup Day by the racetrack officials, we had just taken our seats in the cavernous noon tent when the track official told us we were going to have to move. An even bigger star and her entourage had just arrived, and Katie Price’s personnel insisted on sitting at a table out of the prying eyes of passing race-goers.
When we got up to move, Lester jeered at me that he was “provoked by Jordan”.
Gaining and then keeping Piggott’s trust was not easy, and his suspicious nature can manifest itself in the most trivial of circumstances. One day at the July course at Newmarket he had to go to the paddock to judge the Best Horse award and he suggested I take care of his copy of the Racing Post while doing so. On his return he retrieved his newspaper, and then—apparently afraid I might sell some in his absence—he asked, “Is it all there?” (He didn’t ask the same question about candy cooked at Redcar.)
He rarely spoke about his year in prison, but the slightest point in Piggott’s story cannot be rooted out so easily. At a charity race in Ireland, our host, who was looking for common ground with the guest of honor, said cheerfully, “You know, Lester, you and I have one thing in common. We both had the time.” Lester didn’t reply.
There are hundreds of stories about Lester Piggott, some of which are true. Which describes the man better than most has to do with a coach who gave him precise instructions before the race. Piggott had to raise his horse as long as he dared, then run late and put the horse’s head straight into the winning position.
Lester’s deafness usually made riding instructions unnecessary, and when the starting boxes opened, the horse shot to the lead. They were still five lengths ahead when they entered the last furlong, then started to slow down and got stuck on the line.
The trainer, sweltering in the heat, stormed out with the non-seat pen – Lester got off the horse’s back, slipped off the horse and said to the trainer, “You were right, you know.”