Of all the remarkable sportsmen we have seen, through all the decades, it is hard to think of anyone whose exploits compare with those of Lester Piggott. Maybe only Muhammad Ali can stand comparison for sheer singularity, of personality and life story as well as deed, although it will tickle those who know Piggott to find him compared with Ali. Braggadocio in rhyming couplets was never exactly Lester's style.
Nor, it has to be said, is feeding journalists long and lyrical answers to their questions. Piggott rarely gives interviews, and those he does give tend to be dominated by long silences, punctuated by curt statements of the obvious. And yet for all that, an encounter with him still feels like the greatest of professional privileges. Moreover, what better day than the eve of the Derby to consider his extraordinary record as a jockey. He first rode in the race 60 years ago aged 15, first won it (in 1954) aged 18, and last won it (in 1983) aged 47. He had 36 Derby rides and won one in four of them. Not since the race was inaugurated, during the reign of George III, has any other jockey come close to winning it nine times.
If the successes had been limited to those marvellous deeds on Epsom Downs, his would still have been one of the great careers. Yet there was so much more besides. He was just 12 when he rode his first winner on the Flat, at Haydock Park in August 1948, and 58 when he rode his 4,493rd and last, coincidentally also at Haydock, in October 1994. Opinions vary as to what was the transcendent achievement in those 46 years, but there is nothing more spine-tingling than a comeback, and Piggott's thrilling win on Royal Academy, hitting the front in the final yards of the 1990 Breeders' Cup Mile on Long Island, surely offers a more poignant definition of the word "comeback" even than the Rumble in the Jungle, when that man Ali sensationally recaptured the world heavyweight boxing crown.
In 1990 Piggott had been out of the saddle for five years, more than 12 months of which had been spent in prison, following his conviction for tax evasion. By the time he and Royal Academy entered the Belmont Park stalls to chase the richest prize of his life, he had been racing again for less than a fortnight. He was 54. And how did he describe the greatest comeback in sporting history? Succinctly. "You never forget," is all he said to his television interviewer, Brough Scott.
Well, nor will the world of sport ever forget Lester Piggott, yet there is no particular aura of greatness around the dapper septuagenarian who walks into the lobby of the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane at the appointed hour, looking cautiously around him, as if for a potential mugger. He mumbles a hello and we retire to a discreet sofa. I have heard that he is extremely partial to smoked salmon so I've brought him a pack of Selfridges best. It would have been a cigar but he has given them up. Anyway, as he takes the salmon, there appears on the face that the racing writer Jack Leach once likened to "a well-kept grave" a small, sweet smile. I know smoked salmon won't buy me eloquence, but it's nice to make him happy, and I know my late father, despite briefly and unsuccessfully being a bookie, who cursed Lester as much as he revered him, would have approved.
So, what does he remember of riding Zucchero, his first Derby mount, in 1951? "His owner had given him to his bookmaker, to settle his debts. He was very difficult. But he was a good horse. He finished second in the King George, the first King George there ever was."
As so often with Piggott, his matter-of-fact response hides a heck of a story. Zucchero's trainer, Ken Cundell, recognised in the youngster's precocity the first stirrings of genius. "That boy is going to be the greatest jockey who ever lived," he would say, and he was right. Nobody else could even get the temperamental Zucchero to start, though not even 15-year-old Piggott could get him going that day, not until the others were almost out of sight.
Three years later, he became the youngest jockey to win the Derby, on Never Say Die. "He was quite an outsider, really," Piggott recalls. "He'd been disappointing before the Derby. But that day he was good." Again, there is a hidden story. Never Say Die won the race at 33-1, but Lester had chosen him as his mount when he was 100-1, spotting something in the horse hardly anyone else could see. His judgement of horseflesh was innate; his grandfather, Ernie, had won the Grand National three times as a jockey, and his father, Keith, was also a fine National Hunt jockey who became a top trainer. In fact, it seemed for much of his boyhood as if Lester would be more likely to win the National than the Derby. "Yeah, I was quite heavy. It looked like I'd have to go jumping."
But he didn't, and three cheers for that. Instead he became the master of Epsom, not that he enjoyed the idiosyncrasies of the famous Surrey track any more than anyone else. "It's not a good racecourse," he tells me now. "Whoever invented it must have been a bit off their head, really." Another fleeting, beguiling smile. "You wouldn't do it, would you, if you were going to build a racecourse? It's impossible, really. A good test for horses, I suppose, but it's not a good track. Too much downhill, and on a camber, making horses go down towards the inside. I'd rather see the Derby run somewhere else, but that's not going to happen."
Nevertheless, something about the race manifestly suited him. So if not the course, was it the occasion? "I think so, yes. There are so many other big races now. But that was the race." And can he explain why he won it so often? Why, indeed, he was so damned brilliant for so long? "It's very difficult [to analyse], really. I used to get on very well with horses, had done all my life. But why is one jockey better than another, one tennis player better than another? They all train hard. A lot of it is instinct."
His favourite Derby horse was his 1968 mount for Vincent O'Brien, Sir Ivor, which reminds me of a story about the late Dick Francis, the truth of which Francis confirmed to me himself. When he sat down to write the official Piggott biography, knowing his subject's notorious parsimony with words, he decided to get things going by inviting Lester to rhapsodise about Sir Ivor. After much silent thought, Lester said, simply, "Good horse". And Francis thought, "this could take a while".
With me, perhaps because we don't have as much time, or maybe thanks to the salmon, he's a little more forthcoming. "Terrific finishing speed," he says, acknowledging that he preferred Sir Ivor even to his more celebrated 1970 ride for O'Brien, Nijinsky. And what of the failures, impertinent though it seems even to ask? What of those Derby rides from which he expected more? "There was one horse that was favourite. Right Noble. He won a Derby trial at Ascot by eight lengths. But he wasn't any good."
Judging that I'm better off sticking with the successes, I ask Piggott about his 1972 win on Roberto, another O'Brien horse, which he encouraged to the line with sustained use of the whip. "Yes, he didn't always try very hard," he says, with mock guilelessness; he knows what I'm driving at. "It was different then. And I think the changes are for the best. It's progress, isn't it? The only trouble is that there's too much racing now, isn't there? Weekday meetings are so ordinary, just a lot of handicaps. But the whip, the thing about the whip is a bit overdone. The whips they have now are harmless. And they've got to have them, to keep them straight."
A long silence. After a while interviewing Piggott, you learn that his silences are marked by a constant meandering of his eyes from side to side, and that when they finally settle on a point in the middle distance, he is ready to speak again. "I didn't use the whip much on Roberto. I couldn't, the other horses were too close to me. Not until the last 50 yards, that was about all. The Minstrel, I had to ride him hard too [in 1977]. I'd probably have got [banned for] a week now."
Had his time come later, he says that more than any other horse of the past 15 years, he'd like to have ridden Sea The Stars. "Perfect horse, wasn't he?" Even at 75, having suffered heart problems, he'd really like to be racing still. "It would be nice to think you could go on for ever. The big races are worth 10 times more now. Fabulous, isn't it? If I could still ride a couple of races a week, you know." The smile again. "But it's not possible." In any case, he laments the conformity in modern riding styles. "They all sit lower in the saddle, don't they? It makes them look tidier, but they're all riding the same, more or less, all over the world."
He still has interests in a breeding operation, still follows the Flat season with a keen eye, indeed there is none keener. I ask him which modern jockey he admires most, expecting him not to give me a straight answer, but he does. "I think Dettori is still the best. There are probably five very good ones, and the others are not far behind him. But he has terrific balance. And experience helps. It helped me. As you get older you're not as strong as you were, but you know what's going to happen in the race. I can always tell the jockeys with experience."
It was experience and instinct, the two assets he seems to value most in a jockey, that landed him the Breeders' Cup Mile 21 years ago. Did that race bring him more satisfaction even than any of his wins in the Derby? This time, I don't quite get a straight answer. "It's wonderful, really, how it came about. I never intended to come back, and if it hadn't been for Vincent O'Brien, I wouldn't have done it. He said 'why don't you?' and I'd never really thought about it, but I thought it was probably a good idea. I was pretty fit. I'd been riding out. It didn't take long to get going."
It is a predictably understated assessment of a remarkable episode in even his remarkable life. And of course it is a life which has also included a jail sentence, perhaps the one jail sentence to have made a mockery of the notion of being detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, for it can only have caused Her Majesty considerable distress. His many wins in the Queen's colours included the Oaks in 1957, on Carrozza. But never, alas, the Derby, which she might finally win tomorrow, with Carlton House. He hopes so. "She loves the racing, and she's good for racing too. It would be marvellous." And does his head agree with his heart? Happily, yes. "You can't see what's going to beat him, can you?"
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