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Lester Piggott: the remarkable career of ‘Old Stoneface’

Britain’s ‘finest’ jockey was also a figure ‘dogged by controversy’

Lester Piggott, who has died aged 86, was widely regarded as the “finest jockey ever to ride on British turf”, said The Guardian. During a career that spanned 47 years, he racked up several records that are “unlikely to be surpassed” – including the most race wins by a British jockey (a total of around 4,493, including overseas victories), the most British classics (30), and the most Derby victories (nine). Piggott’s achievements as a Flat racer made him a household name, and wherever he travelled around the world, he was “feted in a manner unique for a jockey”. Yet “Old Stoneface”, as he was known, was also a figure “dogged by controversy” – notorious both for the ruthlessness of his racing style, and for his “legendary” stinginess (money, a fellow jockey observed, was for Piggott the “staff of life”). The former trait earned him several bans from racing, while the latter led to a jail sentence for tax fraud in 1987. 

Born in Wantage, Berkshire, in 1935, Piggott had racing in his blood, said The Daily Telegraph. His grandfather, Ernie Piggott, was a champion steeplechaser who won the Grand National three times; his father, Keith, was a successful jockey who became a well-known trainer; and his mother, Iris, hailed from the Rickaby racing dynasty. From childhood Piggott suffered slight deafness and a speech impediment, which made him appear “aloof with other children”, and later contributed to his taciturn public persona. But his affinity with horses was always manifest:  he sat on his first racehorse at the age of seven, and won his first adult race at Haydock in 1948, aged just 12. “He is quite a good rider, but will never be as good as his father,” his mother told reporters after that victory. 

Soon, though, the “teenage sensation” was proving her wrong, said Marcus Townsend in the Daily Mail. He made his first Derby appearance in 1951, aged 15; his “first win in the premier Classic” at Epsom came in 1954, on 33-1 outsider Never Say Die – a victory Piggott celebrated by mowing his parents’ lawn later that evening. Just a fortnight later, however, during a race at Royal Ascot, the young jockey made what was judged an “overly aggressive move”, cutting into the line of another horse: he was suspended for the rest of the season. The authorities also banned him from working with his father, who was thought to be encouraging his ruthless approach. 

Not long after, Piggott became stable jockey for the “hugely respected royal trainer Noel Murless”, and they enjoyed a fruitful partnership over the next 12 years. His contract with Murless made him the best-paid athlete in Britain, but this was “not enough” for Piggott, who grew increasingly resentful that, as a stable jockey, he was limited in which horses he could ride. So in 1967, he “broke with convention and turned freelance” – enabling him effectively to pick his mounts. Many thought it a foolish move, but it led to some of his greatest victories, including winning the Triple Crown in 1970, on Nijinsky (a feat never since repeated). 

Piggott’s relative tallness for a jockey (he was 5ft 7½in) forced “The Long Fellow”, as he was also known, to obsessively watch his weight, said The Times. It was said he subsisted on nothing but cigars, champagne and lettuce: the resulting gaunt look earned him his own puppet on Spitting Image. He announced his retirement in 1985 to move into training, but two years later made headlines again when he was sentenced to three years in prison for concealing £3.25m in income – a fraud perpetrated by using false names to stash money in a variety of overseas bank accounts. He served a year before being released and later had to pay back £4.4m in arrears, but according to friends what “hurt him the most” was the withdrawal of his OBE. 

Piggott’s racing career wasn’t quite over: in 1990, aged 55, he “made a sensational return to the saddle”, and won several more races – including a final classic at the 1992 2,000 Guineas. Appearing “more relaxed” than in his youth – he would now even smile occasionally – Piggott “at last gained the public affection many felt should have been his all along”. He retired for a second time in 1995, after which he largely kept out of the public eye – and spent the last years of his life in Switzerland.

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