Lester Piggott, Superstar British Jockey, Dies at 86

Lester Piggott, one of Britain’s greatest jockeys, who won nearly 4,500 races on his native soil but whose yearlong imprisonment for tax fraud in the 1980s detoured the latter part of his career, died on Sunday near Geneva. He was 86.

His daughter, Maureen Haggas, confirmed the death, at a hospital, but did not give a cause. She said her father, who lived in Switzerland, had had heart problems.

Tough, taciturn, partly deaf and tall for a jockey at nearly 5-foot-8, Piggott rode thoroughbreds for more than 40 years and was as famous in Europe as American jockeys like Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro were in the United States.

He won his first race at age 12 and his last in his 50s, spanning an era when horse racing was still a major British obsession and television coverage stoked the interest of fans and bettors.

With 30 victories, Piggott holds the record for the most wins by a jockey in the five British Classics races — the Epsom Derby, the 2,000 Guineas Stakes, the 1,000 Guineas, the Oaks Stakes and the St. Leger Stakes — and he is the last British jockey to win his country’s Triple Crown, aboard Nijinsky in 1970.

Piggott combined an instinctive talent for ambitious riding with a deep thirst for knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of rival horses and jockeys, said Nick Luck, an international horse racing broadcaster and podcaster who works for NBC Sports.

“The way he rode, with an unusually short length of stirrup for a relatively tall man and his bottom high in the air, must have made the horses feel there was no weight on them,” Luck said in a phone interview. “People said to him, ‘Why do you ride with your butt in the air?’ And he said, ‘Well I have to put it somewhere.’”

Luck added, “Piggott ushered in a golden generation of riders in Europe; he was the one they all aspired to.”

Piggott was known for acts of aggressive midrace gamesmanship, like stealing one jockey’s whip and squeezing another’s testicles so hard that the rival teared up. He was referred to as “The Long Fellow,” for his height, and as “Old Stone Face,” for his determined demeanor.

Piggott with the Daily Express Top Sportsman of the Year trophy, presented to him at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1968.Credit…Associated Press

In all, Piggott won 4,493 races at British tracks — third most among British jockeys — and several hundred more around the world.

“He had an empathy for the animal and knew what a horse was thinking,” the British jockey Willie Carson told Racing Post, a daily sports-betting publication, after Piggott’s death. “He knew what a horse wanted, be it tough, soft, holding up or using his stride, and he always seemed to get it right.”

Lester Keith Piggott was born to horse racing on Nov. 5, 1935, in Wantage, Oxfordshire, England. His father, Keith, was a jockey and trainer, and his mother, Iris (Rickaby) Piggott, came from a horse racing family. His paternal grandfather was a champion steeplechaser.

Lester was an apprentice at his father’s stables in Lambourn, Berkshire. He got his first professional ride at the age of 12, in April 1948, and rode to his first victory four months later at Haydock Park Racecourse.

In 1954, when he was 18, Piggott rode Never Say Die in capturing his first Epsom Derby victory; eight more would follow, setting a record. In the other British Classics, he won eight times in the St. Leger, six in the Oaks, five in the 2,000 Guineas and two in the 1,000 Guineas.

But one of his most significant victories came in the United States, at the prestigious Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park on Long Island in 1990. It wasn’t only his age, 54, that made the win unusual.

Piggott had retired from riding in 1985 and was training horses when he was convicted of tax fraud in 1987. While serving 366 days out of a three-year prison sentence, he was directed by Queen Elizabeth II to forfeit his Order of the British Empire.

Paroled in late 1988, he returned to training, then renewed his jockey’s license in October 1990. He went on to win four races at the Curragh Racecourse in Ireland before heading to New York to replace another jockey atop Royal Academy.

Piggott, center, with Queen Elizabeth II at the unveiling of a statue of him at the Epsom Downs Racecourse in 2019. In the late 1980s, after he was convicted of tax fraud, the queen directed him to forfeit his Order of the British Empire.Credit…Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA, via Shutterstock

Piggott brought Royal Academy slowly from the rear of the field to ninth place after a half mile, and he was in eighth place with a just quarter-mile left. He then accelerated quickly to win by a neck.

Jerry Bailey, who finished sixth with Who’s to Pay, recalled in a phone interview that Piggott’s late finish “was typically European” and “wasn’t anything spectacular if you didn’t know his background and his age.”

“That’s what made it remarkable,” he said.

After the race, Piggott said, “It looks like I came back at the right time.”’

When Racing Post polled its readers in 2007 on the greatest rides, they put Piggott’s Breeders’ Cup victory at No. 2 and two of his Derby victories at No. 7 and No. 9.

Piggott retired for good in 1995.

In addition to his daughter Maureen, he is survived by another daughter, Tracy Piggott, from his marriage to Susan (Armstrong) Piggott, whose father was a trainer; a son, Jamie, from another relationship; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Although not divorced, Piggott lived for the past decade with Lady Barbara FitzGerald near Geneva.

In 2001, he named Nijinsky the best horse he had ever ridden, in terms of raw ability.

“He got nervous before his races, and I was always anxious until he had jumped out of the stalls,” Piggott told British newspaper The Observer, referring to the starting gate. “Then he’d drop the bit and you could put him anywhere in a race.”

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