The Inside Track

He is the greatest jockey of our time - perhaps the best ever. But behind the legend lurks a view of Lester Piggott which isn't quite so pretty

George Best in soccer, Muhammad Ali in boxing, Stirling Moss in motor racing, Michael Jordan in basketball. They are names that people who don't know their off-side trap from a pit stop, their right hook from a slam-dunk recognise instantly as being touched with a greatness that has nothing to do with chasing balls around a park or driving small cars at high speeds.

Horse racing has Lester Piggott. Lester - one of the few athletes who can be recognised by just his first name - dominated his sport like no other. He first rode in public at the age of 12 and finished his competitive career just three years ago at the age of 59. Riding winners across six decades, he was champion jockey 11 times and rode a record 30 Classic winners.

His unsmiling face, which looks like it has been carved from weather- beaten stone, became as familiar as his Derby-winning exploits (nine in all, a record unlikely to be beaten). He was the housewife's choice and he was the expert's choice. He had books written about him: over 20 biographies that detailed his genius in the saddle, his ability to make the thoroughbred racehorse run faster than anyone else could, to dig into its reserves like no other jockey and produce it on the winning line ahead of the pack.

His biographers assiduously chronicled his battles with authority and with his weight, his travels around the world and the travails with Her Majesty's Customs & Excise that would lead to a three-year jail sentence for tax evasion.

They wrote about his charisma and how enigmatic he was, they wrote about his determination, his will to win, his strength. Anecdotes were told about his love of money and his reluctance to part with it.

And, of course, they told the story of the great horses - Nijinsky, Sir Ivor and The Minstrel, Petite Etoile, Crepello and Alleged - horses which Piggott had coerced, cajoled, beaten or fooled into greatness, tapping into their foibles like a friendly analyst, understanding them and starting a relationship between man and beast that was a mystery to outsiders.

Piggott's biographers told the truth: everyone in racing knows the man was a genius. But his biographers didn't dare look beyond the legend, just in case the view wasn't quite so pretty. And it isn't.

At The end of a great career, the sporting world embraces its heroes. There is so much to learn from such talent and experience that it must remain harnessed - to be used for the next generation. They are put on committees, on coaching courses, they are asked for their opinion and their opinion is revered like an 11th commandment.

But not in the case of Lester Keith Piggott. He is not on any committee, he gives no advice to young jockeys. He has no role in the running of racing. He doesn't lend the years of his experience to anyone else's ears.

When we set out to make a film about Piggott for Secret Lives, Channel 4's documentary series, this was something that puzzled us. Why was the greatest figure in racing this century - if not ever - so ignored by the very sport that made his name? Gradually, over the course of dozens of interviews, the answer became clear.

It was as if a different lexicon was in use. Instead of hearing of the sportsman's merits of determination, will to win and competitiveness, we were told about a ruthlessness that bordered on the psychotic, an arch-manipulator who wanted everything and would do almost anything to get it.

The Lester Piggott who wasn't in the books was a Lester Piggott who had to have everything: he had to have all the money in the world, he had to have the cutlery from a plane, he had to have his wife, his mistress and as many other women as he could. He wanted not just to control the horse that he sat on, he wanted to control the owners and the trainers and where they raced their horses. He wanted to control the rules, the way the business was run - and he did it in such a way that when his distinguished riding career was over, some were reluctant to do business with him again.

Willie Carson was one of Piggott's great rivals. From Stirling in Scotland, he became a jockey largely because he was so short and light: around the 5ft mark, weighing less than eight stone.

He grafted and grafted until he became a champion - and all anyone could talk about was Lester Piggott. He rode five Derby winners - but still he was overshadowed by Piggott. Few people asked on the morning of the Derby, "What's Carson riding?" Talking about the difference between himself and Piggott, he says: "I was thinking, 'Why can't I make it look as easy as that?' But I couldn't. You know, I could do the job but it would never look easy. It would look hard work for me. But for him it was just so easy, so matter of fact. Everything was just rolling along like a train on the rails. You know he just kept rolling on, beautifully."

Carson has built himself a Cotswold-stone mansion in Gloucestershire. He has a stud farm that he runs virtually single-handed, he is a commentator for the BBC, and he has recently become a racing manager to an Arab sheikh.

The house is desperately clean: the silver is polished and you feel you should leave your shoes at the door. Sitting on a wooden bench outside in the August sun, Carson, who has a brain that switches to red alert when the camera comes on, sums up the present-day Piggott.

"I am not a psychologist but there are no doubts that the route he took has come to a dead end. You know it was a sort of dual carriageway, always going the right way, a straight road.

"And all of a sudden - BANG - it's come to an end. It's just a bit sad that he's ended up in a dead end because it was such a high-profile straight road, clear, and now it's down to bushes either side. He's in the back lanes now, with bushes either side hanging over."

He thinks about it a bit: "It was his father who pointed him, he put him on this dual carriageway. He put him on it. And gave him a big push. And it started rolling and it rolled all the way until he stopped riding."

Keith Piggott was the single most influential figure in Lester's life. Towards the end of his autobiography, Lester writes: "[But] there was also sadness in June 1993 with the death, age 89, of my father, to whom I owed so much. He and my mother [who had died in January 1987] had spent their last years in the house we had had built for them next to the yard, and his presence about the place had been an invaluable support." Their relationship was far deeper than the bland words Piggott expresses. When his father died, Piggott could not bear to be in the same room. We were told that when the Vicar of Exning, the nearest church to the Piggotts' home in Hamilton Road, Newmarket, was summoned, "Lester ran crying from the house. He couldn't bear to stay, ran off home."

Keith Piggott was not a brilliant jockey. Too heavy for the flat he turned to jump racing, winning the last Champion Hurdle before the Second World War. After the war he began training, and his reputation was that of a tough, hard man who enjoyed gambling. There was never a doubt that Lester, born in 1935, was going to be a jockey too. His mother, Iris, was a top lady amateur, and had two brothers who were top jockeys. And Keith's father and uncle had also been excellent horsemen. The first race that Lester won, at Haydock Park on a horse called The Chase, was probably fixed by Keith Piggott. Sure Lester (at the tender age of 12) knew nothing of it, and rode the horse perfectly; but it is easier to win a race when not all the field is trying.

Derek Morris was a jockey in that race. He was trying to win but still got beaten. He also used to ride for Keith Piggott. He says that Keith was a "hard" man, who would say to his jockeys, "Don't let anybody get in your way - if they do make sure that you get them out of the way." Keith made sure that Lester knew never to allow another jockey up his inside and so gain advantage by taking a shorter route, something that would have near-tragic consequences in later years.

Everyone had heard of the young Lester, and was aware of his background, his pedigree in racing terms - and everyone knew that much was expected. As Derek Morris says: "He was brought up to be the best, right from the start. He was always going to be number one. Always."

And if he hadn't been, what do you think his father's reaction would have been? "I don't know," Morris replies. "I wouldn't like to say on that one." He laughs. "I wouldn't like to say."

Keith's lessons in race riding were never forgotten by Lester. Or by anyone else. His disciplinary record at Portman Square, HQ of the Jockey Club (which runs racing), is second to none.

One race stands out, a 2,000 Guineas trial at Salisbury in 1985. The television footage has been erased but we spoke to two of the jockeys in the race: Richard Quinn, whose horse, Addenbrook, was killed, and Willie Carson, who rode the eventual winner. The ground that day at Salisbury was soft and the route the jockeys took led them to a piece of the running rail that jutted out slightly onto the course. Easy to go around; easy, that is, if you are allowed to go around.

Carson: "Lester thought that Quinney was taking a liberty, getting up his inside. Anyway, Lester's too busy watching Quinney [to see the rail]. You know: 'You're not, You're not there, You're not, You're not there.' And, of course, he ran Quinney into the rail and the unfortunate happened: the horse hit the rail, came down and got badly injured."

Another observer told us: "Lester put him into the rail. Quinn was shouting, 'Let me out, Let me out.' The horse broke his back and was killed. Quinn was lucky."

Talking generally and not about the Addenbrook race in particular, Brough Scott, a familiar figure to viewers of Channel 4 Racing and editor in chief of the Racing Post, said: "Keith was really tough, he wasn't afraid of anything. Keith wasn't going to suggest to Lester: 'Be careful.' I bet he never said 'Be careful' to him."

Carson finishes his benign version of the story: "This determination. His sheer determination. That's just his brain. His determination, he must win. He must win at all costs."

The desire would make Lester the most successful jockey of his generation. It is the foundation of the route that his father sent him on. But whereas most athletes with that sort of determination are hampered by their inability to control events off the field, Lester admitted no such limitations.

Robert Sangster, the Vernon pools' heir who supplied Piggott with so many of his winners in the 1970s and was pre-eminent in making the jockey a multi-millionaire, said: "Lester has a complete disregard for any authority or any boundaries. I mean his home-life or the Revenue or stewards or riding. I mean he rode to win and that was the essential quality we loved."

Lester - and Keith - realised early on that the key to winning the most races was to ride the best horses. Lester would do anything to get on the right horse. His knowledge of the game was greater than anyone else's. When he was riding in a race he had an ability to note every horse in the field, how tired or fresh it finished, whether its jockey had made a mistake, if it was going to win next time. And then - if the answer to that last question was yes - he tried to ride it.

In the early days this wasn't always easy. He was contracted - retained in racing terms - by Sir Noel Murless. Clive Brittain, now a successful Newmarket trainer, was then a stable lad for Sir Noel. He remembers that the young Piggott stood out from all the other jockeys. Lester, he says, was a loner, different. And it showed.

"Well, if he didn't want to ride a horse [for Murless], the horse would work badly and you never knew from one day to the next whether the horse would work badly or if Lester hadn't put an ounce into it. So some of the gallops were a little bit funny."

A similar thing happened later with Vincent O'Brien, the Irish trainer with whom Piggott struck up such a successful partnership in the 1970s. Their relationship became increasingly acrimonious before finally coming to a premature end.

Piggott's addiction to success had a two-fold effect on his fellow jockeys, as can be seen from the story of the 1984 English St Leger. Commanche Run was favourite for the race, the final Classic of the season. Owned by Ivan Allen, the horse was trained by Luca Cumani who had a retained jockey in Darrel McHargue. As retained jockey the mount was definitely McHargue's - definitely, at least, until Piggott arrived on the scene.

Piggott has always said that Ivan Allen "insisted" that he, Piggott, rode Commanche Run. But Allen, who is based in Singapore, told us something different. "Lester kept on ringing me up," he recalled. "He told me that McHargue couldn't ride a bicycle and eventually I gave in."

McHargue, an American, was devastated but kept his feelings to himself. When asked what he would do instead, he told the press he would be playing tennis.

Luca Cumani picks up the story: "On the way to the races it was pouring with rain and Lester was reading in the paper that Darrel had said he'd be playing tennis. He turned around to his travelling companion and with a wry smile, he said, 'He won't be doing that either'." Cumani tells the story as an example of Piggott's humour.

Lester duly won the race, his 29th and record Classic. McHargue retired from race riding shortly afterwards.

Taking rides from other jockeys upset the cosy nature of the business. But Piggott repaid in spades. He was the first jockey truly to exploit his talent in financial terms, opening the way for a wave of millionaire jockeys.

Piggott recognised that he was the best jockey and that if an owner wanted him to ride they would have to pay over the odds. He was given shares in horses, and by the time of his downfall in 1987 he had become the richest race rider of his or any generation.

Fellow professional Bruce Raymond remains a close friend of Piggott's. He lives behind electronic gates in a modern house with a Japanese fish pond in Cheveley, outside Newmarket. He told us how Piggott changed the market in other ways. "I remember at one meeting I was about to have my picture taken by a press photographer and Lester said, 'No, no, don't do it. Ask for money.' I laughed, not really sure what he was talking about. Lester insisted I got paid. He knew he was valuable property and if people wanted a piece of him they would have to pay. Soon every jockey in the country was asking for pounds 400 for a picture."

OFF THE race track, Piggott ran with a fast crowd, striking a close friendship with Charles St George, the flamboyant racehorse owner and underwriter with Lloyd's. St George was more generous than wealthy and attracted an eclectic group of people around him. Henry Cooper and Jeffrey Barnard, Private Eye journalist Martin Tomkinson, the ubiquitous journalist / socialite Charles Benson as well as Ian Posgate, another controversial Lloyd's figure. Bookmakers came into play. Cyril Stein of Ladbroke's became a friend, as did John Banks, an independent bookmaker who was once banned from every racecourse in Britain.

It is against the rules of racing for a jockey to bet. Piggott has always denied that he was gambler. But Tomkinson recalls asking him if jockeys ever said anything to each other during the closing stages of a race. Piggott replied: "Really you're too knackered." And then a wry grin spread over his face and he said: "That is unless you want theirs to win, in which case you say, 'Go on you c---, go on you c---'."

Piggott had married in 1960. His wife was Susan Armstrong, daughter of a prominent trainer. But theirs was not a conventional marriage.

"Susan is a very nice, good, grown-up lady and I think she knew what Lester was like from an early stage," Charles Benson recalls. "They got married quite young and she's known him a long time and she knew his games. She knew he was unusual, he wasn't conventional. He doesn't behave as ordinary men behave, he's not ordinary. So she took it ... I think she put up with more than most wives will."

When you move away from Piggott's riding ability into the more marshy areas of his life, his friends and acquaintances become defensive. Even now, at 62 and retired, Piggott retains a remarkable hold over them. Benson, for example, made sure we knew where he was coming from. "I'm not telling you something that no one knows," he insisted. "I'm not telling you something that makes me his enemy, I'm not his enemy. I'm very fond of him but you have to acknowledge people's weaknesses."

Benson still moves in racing circles. Ian Posgate does not. A lugubrious figure with a post-Wodehousian facility of expression, he is less careful with his words: "Well, his [Piggott's] reputation was, as with other gentlemen of the turf, that no delightful young female was safe."

One racing figure, who declines to be named, said: "Lester would come into my office, sit himself down and not say anything. He might stay for 20 minutes and if my wife was sitting over there, as she often was, he would point to her and say, 'Can I fuck your wife? Can I fuck your wife? Oh go on.' "

Charles St George often used to entertain guests in his Mayfair home. In one delightful if apocryphal story, St George told Piggott, in front of some of the usual suspects, that he had a special woman who wanted to meet him. Unsuspecting Lester went upstairs to a darkened bedroom, downstairs everyone held their breath. Finally it came, the unmistakable sound of Lester shrieking, "It's a man, it's a man."

Every time you try and pin Piggott down, a contradictory anecdote comes your way. Although Piggott philandered at will, Susan still held him in thrall. He was in South Africa once on a busman's holiday, booked to ride in an invitational race, when he heard that Susan had left Newmarket and was on holiday in the South of France with another man. Without telling anybody in South Africa, Piggott got on the first flight back to Europe leaving the raceday organisers in the lurch.

The same contradictory note can be heard in stories about Piggott's legendary meanness. Lester stiffed everyone, it seems. Charles Benson said: "Lester is sick with money and general meanness."

Sangster related how Piggott would borrow pounds 100 from a jockey and return just pounds 90 by the simple trick of wrapping a piece of paper around the nine tenners saying "pounds 100". There are stories of Lester hitching lifts in taxis and not paying his share, of hitching lifts in private planes and paying nothing. On aeroplanes he would put the cutlery into his pocket; we heard a story that he had a garage full of knick-knacks. An owner joked about how he had gone around to Lester's house and was served a drink on a tray that he had himself once owned.

Willie Carson said: "He thought it was funny. He'd go around the corner giggling, you know, ha ha. To you or me, it's silly, not very funny. But to him it was great fun. He got his pleasure out of cheating somebody out of sixpence."

Later David O'Halleran, who was in Highpoint prison with Piggott, told us that Lester would cheat at cards to win tobacco which he didn't even smoke. When he was caught he would just laugh, totally unembarrassed.

But, once again, there is another, undiscovered side to Piggott: a generous man whom few have ever met. Clive Brittain said that because Piggott was so successful, he would get "every hard case story coming up. 'Can you lend me a fiver?' So Lester made sure he had very deep pockets and never took his hands out."

Then Brittain told us how Piggott gave him a brand new suit, for no reason other than that Brittain didn't own a suit at the time and with the only proviso that he kept quiet about its origins.

Willie Carson had another insight: "If any jockey would get hurt, he'd be one of the first people on the telephone just to make sure they'd be all right, or the wife's all right ... he wouldn't be the sort to put a tenner in an envelope and sending it along but if you asked him for it, no doubt you'd get it. If you were in dire need, he'd give. I'm sure of that."

Piggott was jailed for tax evasion in 1987. He was sentenced to three years and served one. Many in racing thought he was made a scapegoat for an industry that likes to deal in undeclared cash. In truth he was jailed for his own stupidity.

The most striking facet of Piggott's character is an arrogance that he can control everything and anything. Money, women, owners, trainers, jockeys. When it came to HM Customs & Excise, however, he found there were stronger forces in the world than even his own iron will. When they agreed to settle with him he wrote them a cheque. On a bank account he had not declared.

Piggott adjusted to jail with ease - the strict regimen he had imposed on himself, encouraged by his father, coming to the fore. According to David O'Halleran he was popular with fellow inmates. He would give them winning tips while supplying prison guards with loser after loser.

There was little sign that prison changed anything in Piggott. When he came out, he made a successful comeback as a jockey, displaying all his old skills in winning another Classic and one of the richest races in the world, the Breeders Cup mile in New York. He took a mistress, Anna Ludlow, and had a son, Jamie, with her though he still lives with Susan. He sold the pictures of his child to a newspaper for thousands of pounds, and he paid the Revenue a further pounds 3.5m in back taxes. He goes to all the parties, sometimes with his mistress, sometimes with his wife, sometimes alone. But he cuts a lonely figure.

Willie Carson says: "We all feel a bit sorry for him now because he can't play his game now, that he's retired and not riding. He's lost without his game. That's why we feel sorry for him. Because deep down we all love him for what he did for horse racing. He was great for horse racing."

Lester Piggott may not be the player he once was but he certainly hasn't forgotten the rules. When we first approached him to appear in Secret Lives, he declined. Then he wrote asking for a "substantial sum" of money.

'Secret Lives: Lester Piggott' is at 9pm on 10 December, Channel 4.

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