Racing: Piggott sells off slice of history

Sentiment is cast aside as the century's most celebrated jockey auctions his trophies
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The Independent Online
AS CAR-BOOT sales go, it was one of the best. Lester Piggott had raided his attic, various bank vaults and even his drinks cabinet to send 119 lots up to Sotheby's for its annual racing sale yesterday. By the time the hammer fell on the last of them after two hours of winking and waving, the former champion jockey was about pounds 130,000 better off, and dozens of turfistes were trotting off towards Oxford Street clutching a little piece of the legend.

Not that the money - an undisclosed percentage of which was earmarked for the Injured Jockeys' Fund - was the important thing for Piggott. The tightness of his wad is almost as famous as his starvation lines on his face, but the simple motive behind yesterday's sale, it seems, was to clear some space in Piggott's Newmarket home.

During a 40-year career as the first truly global jockey, Piggott attracted silver-plated knick-knacks like an industrial magnet. Tankards, cups, plates, card trays and tiepins were among the items on offer, alongside paintings, bronzes, books, engravings and whips, and two very large bottles of Calvados. Some, perhaps most, had spent more time gathering dust in Lester's loft than adorning his walls. To the fans, though, it was stardust, and the bidding was fierce.

As Piggott grew richer at the rate of pounds 1,000 a minute, a hundred small reminders of a brilliant career took their brief turn on the podium. And there were more significant mementos too, which suggested that there is not much room in Piggott's house for sentiment either. The jockeys' championship trophy he received in 1966, the best season of his career when Piggott rode 191 winners, was expected to sell for between pounds 3,000 and pounds 4,000. Within seconds, though, it had been knocked down for pounds 13,000, to a man who had arrived a moment earlier and left immediately afterwards. "Let's just say it's been sold to a collector," he said as he went off to see the cashier.

Only a bronze of Mill Reef by John Skeaping earned Piggott more, selling for pounds 19,000, while the jockey's prize awarded after Sir Ivor's success in the Washington International at Laurel in 1968 made pounds 5,200, more than three times its estimated maximum.

A portrait of Piggott standing at Tattenham Corner sold for pounds 3,200, and the silver cigarette box which commemorated Karabas's victory in the Washington International reached almost pounds 4,200. Even a portrait in which Piggott looked suspiciously like George Duffield made pounds 200. And the Calvados went for pounds 500.

At the other end of the scale, only three lots will be returned to Piggott unsold. Aracari was hardly the most famous of Piggott's winners, even in his native Germany, where he won the Preis des Casino Baden Baden in 1978. The jockey's prize is on its way back to Newmarket, along with an unsigned watercolour of the jockey and a painting of Lypharita, the French Oaks winner in 1985. Their next appearance could well be in Newmarket's Oxfam shop.

Piggott himself was not at Sotheby's to tot up the prices in person, but Lord Hartington, a former Senior Steward of the Jockey Club and a director of the auction house, said afterwards that "one of my colleagues has spoken to Lester and we know that he is very pleased.

"The sale was significantly more than the estimate and I'm sure a number of people were determined to go away from here with something that was awarded to, or belonged to Lester Piggott. It's his allure and his magic."

The only lot which failed significantly to reach its estimated price was Piggott's film archive, close study of which is almost mandatory when a young jockey prepares to tackle the Epsom track for the first time.

Dozens of Piggott's finest moments were included in the many tin-clad reels of 16mm film, which were compiled by his father, Keith, and were offered complete with a projector. Catalogued to sell for between pounds 2,000 and pounds 3,000, the entire collection was knocked down for just pounds 1,200.

One observer whispered a possible explanation. "Of course, what you've got to remember," he muttered, "is that before it left his house, Lester probably took the plug off."