Lester Piggott, a life well lived and better ridden

July 1, 2022

Lester Piggott : The Greatest Comeback Since Lazarus*

Lester Piggott’s Breeders’ Cup win, truly one of the most remarkable comebacks in The Sport of Kings

Out of jail and into The Breeders’ Cup winners’ circle, Lester Piggott

Comebacks, they are one of the best things about sports. Who doesn’t love a great comeback?

Comebacks have always been one of the most exciting aspects of sports. They defy the odds and accomplish what we think can’t happen. Sports have been generous to us with comebacks. It’s one of the reasons we watch, it helps us understand, and even in our personal lives, maintain that never give up attitude we all really need.

Comebacks have taught us other things as well. We, along with the television networks, learned to never change the channel as we watched “The Heidi Game” unfold. Nobody could have ever imagined the Oakland Raiders would overcome a 9 point deficit to beat the New York Jets in the last minute of the game. They scored two touchdowns in that historic final minute. The problem was not many saw it. At 7pm sharp NBC changed from the game, thinking it was hopelessly over, to the movie Heidi. We would have to check history but maybe my favorite one liner of all time, Yogi Berra, had not yet uttered “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Can we ever forget the Babe Ruth cursed Boston Red Sox overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series to beat the New York Yankees 4 games to 3 and advance to The World Series? How about when the Buffalo Bills overcame an insurmountable lead of 35-3 by the Houston Oilers to win in overtime 41-38 in a game now known simply as “The Comeback”.

On a more intimate and personal level, boxing has provided us with some of the most memorable and dramatic toe to toe comebacks in sports. Julio César Chavez knocking out Meldrick Taylor in the last seconds of the last round in their championship bout comes to mind. Chavez had been pretty much dominated by Taylor’s speed and crafty pugilist skills but kept chipping away until it paid off with a TKO in the last seconds. People who saw Jose Luis Castillo knock down Diego Corrales twice in the 10th round of their first epic bout still don’t believe Corrales got up off the canvas and beat him in what is affectionately called “The Round”. How can we not mention all-time great Muhammad Ali and his governmentally imposed three year hiatus from boxing, forcing him to relinquish the heavyweight title, which he won back after being reinstated? Ali declared himself “The Greatest of all Time.” Nobody wanted to argue with him.

Jonathan Stettin

The racing media said that he was too old to ride in a Breeders’ Cup race. Moreover, he had recently been released from a UK prison for income tax evasion of over $3.25 million. More humiliation was heaped when Queen Elizabeth II, an admirer, was forced to strip him of his treasured O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) because he been the subject of a conviction. Piggott was found to have hidden money in numerous offshore accounts under different names, estimated to be upwards of $20 mil. That was why he got such a walloping fine.

Lester Piggott was always too something. He was tall for a jockey. Too tall that at 5’8”, Lester rode with his butt high in the air and his stirrups cranked close to the saddle, a distinctive riding style that when questioned about it, he replied “well, my butt has to go somewhere.” He was known to be hard on everyone including his fellow riders who it is said he would not hesitate to take a good mount from. he was equally tough on himself maintaining riding weight at his height.

Frankie Dettori has often talked about an experience he had with Piggott when he was up and coming in his career and Lester was winding his down. This is something that doesn’t happen frequently on the racetrack. At Glorious Goodwood, Dettori has said Piggott, who was just behind him, reached over, grabbed him between the legs and squeezed hard, causing Frankie pain that must be experienced to be believed.

“That’ll teach you to be cocky, you little s**t,” Piggott told Dettori.

“The Long Fellow” as he was nicknamed, was also partially deaf and spoke with a slight impediment. One story has a young stable hand leaning into Piggott and asking for 5pounds. “Cannot hear, try the other ear” said Piggott. The boy obliged and upped the amount to 10 pounds. Piggott winked at him and said “Go back to the first ear, I think that I heard it better”. Yet Lester Piggott had gifts. Grit, great hands and a quick wit. Since the‘60s, Piggott had been a famous jockey, skilled on the track and equally fast witted with his handling the media. Fame had its rewards. He was a national sports hero. He was mentioned in pop songs and along with the Royals, had his own likeness portrayed as a puppet in British television’s “Spitting Images”.At one point, Piggott garnered the nickname of the “Housewives Choice”, so popular was he with the ladies. Then came the tax conviction of three years in prison, his jockey license revocation and the mudslinging. The English tabloids were savage and the stand-up comics giddy with their jokes. As aforementioned, the jockey was found to have squirreled millions, under assumed names, in foreign banks, in Singapore, the Bahamas and the Caymans. After his downfall, Piggott was tenacious enough to attempt a phoenix-like rise and de-fang the soothsayers. Piggott was released from prison after a year and went back to his passion, seeing the world hurtle by from the back of a fast horse. He exercised horses, training them to his liking and quietly waited to get his revoked jockey license reinstated, something that was politely called retirement.The record books will show that Lester Piggott and Vincent O’Brien had been a winning combination. O’Brien still believed in Piggott’s ability to coax his lookalike Nijinsky sired colt to a career best. O’Brien was familiar with Piggott’s timing and his patience with moving his mounts at just the right moment. Piggott ,more importantly, knew the personalities of the Nijinsky-bred as he, himself had ridden on and against ROYAL ACADEMY’s sire.

On a bright Saturday, at Belmont Park in 1990, Lester Piggott, ten days into a re-sanctioned jockey license, rode Vincent O’Brien’s ROYAL ACADEMY to a win in the Breeders Cup Mile. Lester Piggott was 54 years old. The horse, a 1988 Keeneland graduate and a $3.5 million purchase was a long shot and his pilot, a man riding for redemption. Together, it was their biggest win.

This was Piggott’s fourth score in the US. In the United Kingdom alone, Lester Piggott rode 4,493 winners, being named eleven times the top British Jockey of the Year.

Born on Guy Fawkes Day in 1935, Piggott was the son of a Grand National winning trainer and the grandson of Ernest Piggott, a three-time Grand National winning jump jockey. Lester Piggott won his first race at the age of 12 and his last race, in his 60s.
Some racing fans regard him as one of the greatest jockeys to ever pilot a racehorse. Others remember him for his dry wit. In his first US win aboard KARABAS at the Washington International, a reporter asked Piggott at what point did he know that KARABAS had the win. “About two weeks ago”, he replied.

The racing industry lost a memorable jockey this past May 29, 2022, in Geneva, Switzerland. Piggott’s Breeders Cup partner, ROYAL ACADEMY passed away at 21 as a pensioner at Coolmore Australia in 2012.
ROYAL ACADEMY, never stellar in his racing career, triumphed as an international stud, producing 56% winners including Australian BEL ESPRIT, sire of Aussie super mare BLACK CAVIAR.

*The title line is attributed to the late British comedian, Sid Waddell

Watch the amazing comeback ride by legendary Lester Piggott aboard Royal Academy in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup, courtesy of Breeders’ Cup video:

Speaking of comebacks and The Sport of Kings, Gary Stevens’ wasn’t too bad either. Recall that one HERE

Photo: Royal Academy wins the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile, @AtTheRaces Twitter feed, Sky Sports Racing partner

Contributing Authors

Kate Richards

Kate Richards

Kate Richards began her fan career in racing at the impressionable age of six when attending her first horse race with her grandmother at Aqueduct....

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That was a phenomenal article Jonathan. Thank you for writing it and sharing it. Ruffian was my second love (after Man O' War) and I simply cannot stop the tears from falling every time I read about this magnificent black beauty.

Maria Schlemmer Ackerman View testimonials

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