The real horse-whisperer

LESTER: The Autobiography by Lester Piggott, Flamingo pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
PAY NO mind to the smart metropolitan sniggers: horse-whisperers are real. Fred Archer was one; so were Steve Donoghue, Gordon Richards and Willie Shoemaker. But Lester Piggott, who recently announced the second of his retirements from race riding, is probably the greatest master of spoken (or whispered) horse ever to tip a weighing-room scales.

The reality of horse-whispering resolves the hardest question about race riding. Most top jockeys are roughly equal in technique, so how come Lester got Roberto home from Rheingold in the 1972 Derby, when all agree no other jockey (not even Bill Williamson, whom he famously "jocked off" to get the ride) could have done it?

Even though thoroughbreds enjoy running and racing, when they're fighting through the pain of a finishing burst to get the better of a fellow creature, they're giving more - far more - than you'd expect from an animal stretching his legs for fun. Horses can have no ambition to climb abstract ladders of excellence, to be champion of the world, to win at all cost. Jockeys, on the other hand, can, and Lester Piggott did. He passed it on irresistibly to his mounts, but it was passed to him by his father.

From babyhood J S Mill's education was so forced by his father that, it is said, the philosopher-to-be could construe Greek at the age of four. Lester Piggott would empathise. Keith Piggott, a middle-of-the-range but fanatically competitive National Hunt jockey-turned-trainer, had his only child hacking ponies at four, riding racehorses at seven and formally apprenticed as a jockey (naturally to himself) before the boy was in his teens.

Keith Piggott knew that Lester could make horses run and he was determined the gift wouldn't go to waste. So with rare single-mindedness he schooled the boy, day in, day out, never to give in, never to show weakness. This book is not, and could never be, an intimate autobiography, because Piggott isn't made that way. But the burden of his upbringing comes out in his description of any hardship. His deafness "had to be overcome"; he starved himself because "it had to be done"; he endured prison because it "had to be endured".

Winning is not, of course, the only compulsion in the Piggott psyche. His counsel at Ipswich Crown Court, in mitigation after the conviction for tax fraud in 1987, told the judge that Piggott "was a thrifty person by nature and upbringing ... his parents drummed into him that every penny had to be looked after." If winning was his father's obsession, this fateful parsimony was the gift of his mother. Throughout his childhood she warned him off spongers, telling him "not to lavish his money on people who were only out for what they could get". Eventually Lester's tragedy was that, for him, almost everyone was in the sponger category, even the taxman.

Jail was a tragedy because it destroyed Piggott's nascent training career, but it can never eclipse his jockeyship. He had his first winner at 12 and spent the next 46 years (apart from that year at Her Majesty's pleasure) booting another 5,350 or so past the post. In purely British wins Gordon Richards had more, but the quibble ignores the longevity and ubiquitousness of Piggott's career, whose grand total - some 500 ahead of Sir Gordon - includes winners in 33 foreign countries.

The question recurs: how does a jockey set horses alight? Not, certainly, with such crude means as the whip. Sweetness may be one way; sheer domination is more likely; but, in either case, this is an intangible psychic attribute, inborn like Piggott's deafness. And, by the way, that too may have contributed to his freak skill, because horses respond in unusual ways to human disability, as those who give autistic children riding therapy will tell you.

Despite all he's been through, there's not a shred of self-pity or sentiment in Piggott's book, and nor is there self-analysis, poetry, sensibility, raging against Fate, for he is content to leave his enigma proudly intact. The sportsman he most nearly resembles is Don Bradman - two perfectionists who remember everything and regret nothing, except that they couldn't squeeze out one more Test Century, one last Derby winner.

Punters invest both money and sentiment in jockeys. Betting, like alcohol, is all highs and lows, so it drags a cartload of emotions behind it. But, by some lucky alchemy, the angst and recrimination of five wallet-emptying losers can be transmuted to a haze of pure gold when you salvage your fare home on an even-money shot in the last. Then it's to the jockey, not the horse, you whisper, almost in prayer: "Thanks, Lester. It's been a grand day."