Racing: Piggott still ultimate star

Even at 71 Britain's greatest jockey can bring the crowds flocking to see him
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The proudest young sportsman in Britain yesterday may well have been the Italian jockey Conchetto Santangelo, previously unknown on these shores and hardly a household name back home. But the 20-year-old from Sicily had just shaken the hand of one of the legends of his sport, part of the reward for winning the international apprentice race that opened proceedings here on an occasion devoted to one Lester Piggott.

It is 50 years since Piggott rode his first Classic winner on the Rowley Mile, but the celebration planned back in May to exactly coincide with Crepello's 2,000 Guineas success had to be postponed after the 11-times champion suffered a heart problem. However, six weeks short of his 72nd birthday, he looked in fighting trim as he made young Concetto's day.

"Looked good and tidy," was Piggott's typically succinct comment after Santangelo had displayed admirable skill to drive the big filly Candy Mountain forward and keep her balanced to win by a head.

Although today's crop of trainee riders are two generations removed from Piggott in his prime, his influence is still there. "I am so happy and proud to have met Lester," said Santangelo. "I have videos of many of his races at home. At the appren-tice school we have studied him. The styles of different era ofjockeys are different – Frankie Dettori is my hero now."

Even 12 years into retirement, Piggott has a magnetic effect on his fans. One, 60-year-old Dave Ellis, made the 380-mile round trip from Helsby, near Runcorn, and he, too, was emotionally stirred by a handshake fromhis idol and the acquisition ofan autograph. "He is just the greatest jockey ever," he said.

Piggott was not only the outstanding Flat jockey of his time but also, despite a year in prison for tax evasion, racing's greatest icon and, for all his solitary, uncommunicative nature, partlydue undoubtedly to the privations of living and working a stone and a half under his naturalbodyweight, its most effective promoter for most of his 47-year career. He rode 30 Classic winners, of whom the Newmarket seven were commemorated by race titles yesterday.

One of the few feature races to elude him was the Ayr Gold Cup, but the Piggott effect was evident nonetheless. Remarkably, he rode six favourites from just eight mounts, starting with third-placed Deer Leap (backed from 5-1 to 5-2) in 1961 and followed by five in a row from 1970: Saratoga Skiddy (unplaced, backed from 5-1 to 4-1), Ballyknockan (unplaced, 8-1 to 5-1), Abergwaun (3rd, 3-1 to 5-2), Bas Bleu (3rd, 9-2 to 5-2) and Sarasota Star, the half-length runner-up after a punt from 8-1 to 9-2. Yesterday's 100th edition of the race went for the first time to Jamie Spencer, who put 20-1 shot Advanced in front of Irish raider Benwilt Breeze (22-1) in the last stride to take Scotland's richest Flat prize by a neck. It came at cost to the title-chasing jockey in the form of a two-day ban for careless riding as his mount drifted right-handed.

At Newbury, Barry Hills' juvenile Dark Angel bounced back to form with an all-the-way win in the Mill Reef Stakes and Henry Cecil's Multidimensional, under consideration forthe Champion Stakes, made a winning return to action after 399 days in the nine-furlong race.