The charm of horse racing lies primarily in the animals that do
it—their beauty, grace, power and their degree of class. But there is an
undeniable attraction to the colorful human beings that make it happen.
The purpose of this blog is to share my stories about some of these
characters. My requisites in the selection: I had dealings with them,
their antics and accomplishments should not be forgotten, and that at least most of them are
no longer with us. — Cot Campbell
[Editor's Note: Due to an error in source material, an earlier version of this blog had the incorrect winner of the 1984 Epsom Derby. The content below has been corrected.]
Piggott is the greatest jockey who ever lived.
I did not know the English rider well, but he was certainly
one of the most interesting humans I have ever been around, or known about. He
was the quintessence of charisma, but with some distinctly negative vibes
thrown in. God knows he did not invite small talk...and did not suffer fools
gladly, if at all.
But when Lester Piggott walked into a paddock, or anywhere,
you knew "somebody" had arrived.
Lester was called "The Long Fellow" (among numerous other
things!), because he stood five foot eight, and did 112 pounds. He should have
weighed 145 pounds. He had a battleship gray complexion, a face like a prune,
and the disposition of a puff adder. Lester ate practically nothing. It was
said that dinner usually consisted of a leaf of lettuce, a glass of champagne
(Dom Perignon), and a cigar.
He came from a racing family that could trace its roots back
to the 18th century. He began riding races for his father's stable when he was
10 years old. Lester became a sensation, winning the Epsom Derby when he was
18. And then he went on and won it eight more times. He won close to 4,500
races, so to say that he was a superlative rider is not even scratching the
surface. Let that suffice. It was also his personality that made him
His personality was fashioned not from traits of exuberance
or clownish behavior; nor from charm, warmth, or jovial wit; and God forbid
that the milk of human kindness would have contributed to Lester's persona!
The makeup of Lester Piggott would have more to do with his
fanatical determination to win; his ruthless approach to securing the right
horses to do it with; his taciturn, dour, penurious nature; and his completely
independent, mischievous, impertinent demeanor.
These are not usually endearing character traits. Therefore,
you would think Lester Piggott would surely have been the most detested man in
European racing. Not so. While not beloved perhaps, he was accepted and sought
after socially. Why? Probably because he has always been authentic. During his
years as a jockey, Piggott could, and did, deliver the goods better than anyone
else ever had. He was the king.
Lester took the art of miserliness to the same lofty plane
at which his riding prowess stood. He had quite a reputation for going on the
cheap. This may have been a factor that lead to his conviction of tax fraud. He
was jailed for a year. The Queen had bestowed on Piggott the distinguished
Order of the British Empire. Sadly, the disgrace of his jail time caused the
honor to be rescinded.
He resumed his career as a rider in 1990, and about 10 days
into his comeback he came to America and won the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT).
In a brilliantly timed race, he produced Royal Academy at just the right
moment, came roaring down the middle of the stretch, pumping and flailing and
riding like a "man with his pants on fire." Surely one of the greatest moments
in the history of the Breeders Cup. Lester Piggott was 54 years old.
One of Lester's greatest talents, and a contributing factor
to his enormous success, is that he knew practically every horse in his country
and the good ones around the world. I remember seeing him in the winter of
l990, vacationing and lolling around the bar at the Hialeah 2-year-old sales
grounds in Miami. Dogwood's good colt Summer Squall was in Florida and
preparing for a Classics campaign. Lester-in his sly, impudent way-stopped me
and said, "You are not going to run that horse a mile and quarter are you?" He
thought he knew what practically every horse could and should do. This
knowledge and the skillful presentation of it at the right time enabled him to
steal mounts from other riders, and did not endear him in the jockey community.
He was often abrasive, but when there was a worthwhile objective, he could-in
his mumbling, compelling way-charm the pants off of his target. It should also
be said that when a fellow jockey was injured, Lester was inevitably the first
caller at the hospital.
For many years he was stable rider for the great Vincent
O'Brien. When he thought Lester was getting a little long in the tooth, he did
not renew the contract. The next year in the 1984 English Derby, the trainer ran the
royally bred El Gran Senor for the powerful owners, Robert Sangster and John
Magnier. That colt was outgamed in a furious stretch drive to Secreto. Piggott was aboard Alphabatim in the race and even though he didn't win, he couldn't help but offer a dig to the dejected trio as he walked back to weigh in. The rider looked over impishly and mumbled, "Missing me?"
Stories about this interesting man would easily fill a book,
and several have been written. The following simple incident probably
demonstrates clearly all of the foregoing observations on the intricacies of
Lester was invited to go pheasant shooting by Harry Carr, a
prominent English horseman, on his property at Wickhambrook, near Newmarket.
Lester was standing in a line of guns between two well-known
jockeys of yesteryear, Jimmy Lindley and Joe Mercer. Quite a few birds had come
Lester's way, and none thus far had suffered any ill effects.
Toward the end of the drive when the beaters and their dogs
had approached to within 50 to 60 yards, a large cock pheasant came running
down the fence line.
To Carr's absolute horror, Piggott quickly threw his shotgun
to his shoulder and took aim.
Harry shouted, "No, no, Lester! You cannot shoot it when it
"The bugger won't stand still!" Lester replied and quickly
followed this with a blast that practically blew the bird in half.
The rider is very much alive, and, I gather, enjoying a
quiet life in England. He has certainly had his share of excitement, and has
created an untold amount of it.