Racing Commentary: Piggott's fascination yet to dim: The Long Fellow's career is in its twilight, but there is no falling off in his capacity to kindle public interest

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The Independent Online
THAT Lester Piggott still has a half-nelson on the attention of Britain's public, racing or otherwise, has been stressed once more.

Following his fall at Goodwood on Thursday, it soon became clear the 58-year-old jockey was not seriously injured. But that slowed the nation's media machine like a row of matchboxes in front of a tank.

If Lester has dandruff, the story must be told, if Lester books a holiday, the destination must be discovered, and if Lester falls at any time then the big red buzzer should go off. On Friday morning, five of the six tabloids carried Piggott's accident on the front page, and these newspapers do not stay in business by misreading the cravings of popular interest.

Piggott has accounted for more newsprint than entire countries over the years, and Friends of the Earth probably fear that forest-gobbling day when he finally goes to the astral weighing-room.

Since he first rode a winner, one April day at Salisbury over 46 years ago, L K Piggott, has been a man apart. By dint of a striking name, a shrouded personality and a peculiar riding style, he has become Britain's most extraordinary sportsman.

On Thursday, Piggott was unusually garrulous, particularly as he had just bounced along the ground at around 45mph. In dockyard terms, he asked medical staff if they could please put him in the ambulance. He is as sparing with his words as he is with his friendships and there are few close to him. Three terms used in the same conversation this week by one of his daughters, Maureen Haggas, may be instructive. She spoke of him as Daddy (touching), Superman (reading too many newspapers) and Lester Piggott (strangely formal).

Yet if it is possible for one man to popularise a sporting field then Piggott is that man. News-editors do not forget this and get excited when he changes his brand of cigars, and many within racing feel a great debt to the Long Fellow (a sobriquet that used to refer to Piggott's build but can now also apply to his career).

There are still those who believe, or want to believe, that Piggott is as good as he ever was, and they would shout this if he rode until he was 68. But he cannot be. The least impaired of his talents are positional sense and timing, the qualities that require least physical effort. Thus he gave a most effective performance when winning the 2,000 Guineas on Rodrigo de Triano two years ago (though much of the finesse of yesteryear had disappeared), and he still intuitively gets the route right in the Derby as others are desperately unfolding their Ordnance Survey maps.

He is ideal for horses that should win, but no longer well serves animals that need a martinet in the saddle. He is no longer the first choice in big races, but more likely to be called up by smaller owners ready with a picture frame to commemorate the day they employed the great man.

Since his return to the saddle from temporary retirement five years ago, Piggott has been racking up the air miles (he would have ridden in Cologne yesterday but has to take a mandatory seven days off for Thursday's accident). The crowds come because Piggott is that rarity, a museum piece that is not yet in the glass box, a past master who can still be enjoyed.

Racing folk forever say that Piggott is not a typical 58- year-old but, like a carefully preserved vintage car, he is as good as he can be. No-one on the London to Brighton Rally imagines their engine is as effective as the new ones out on the road.

However, if the bodywork has eroded, there is little doubt that the jockey's simple desires remain undiluted. It is winning races and winning money that drives Lester Keith Piggott, and for 45 years he has taken on anything that gets in the way. Even his own body.

Like other tall jockeys, he seems to have done away with his backside in an effort to save weight. Indeed, Piggott's sole devotion to race-riding is such that he even got bored quickly with the business of training thoroughbreds.

The reality is that riding horses is all Piggott knows. And while his powers may be on the wane, the bonfire of interest in his life will forever be replenished with brushwood. For as long as he is alive, Lester Piggott will be the biggest man in racing.

(Photograph omitted)

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