Lester Piggott, a life well lived and better mounted

Lester Piggott: The biggest comeback since Lazarus*

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

Released from jail and into Breeders’ Cup winners’ circle, Lester Piggott

Comebacks are one of the best things in sports. Who doesn’t love a big comeback?

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

The feedback also taught us other things. We, along with the TV networks, have learned never to change channels while watching “The Heidi Game” unfold. No one could have ever imagined that 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 wasn’t that many saw it. At 7 p.m. sharp, NBC switched from playing, thinking it was hopelessly over, to filming Heidi. We should check out the story, but maybe my all-time favorite understudy, Yogi Berra, hadn’t uttered “It’s not over until it’s over.”

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

On a more intimate and personal level, boxing has given us some of the sport’s most memorable and dramatic comebacks. Julio César Chavez knocking out Meldrick Taylor in the dying seconds of the last round of their title fight comes to mind. Chavez had been pretty much outplayed by Taylor’s speed and shrewd boxing skills, but he kept snacking until he paid off with a TKO in the dying seconds. The people who saw Jose Luis Castillo knock down Diego Corrales twice in the 10e round of their epic first fight still can’t believe Corrales rose from the canvas and beat him in what is affectionately known as “The Round.” How not to mention the all-time great Muhammad Ali and his government-mandated three-year hiatus from boxing, forcing him to relinquish the heavyweight title, which he reclaimed after being reinstated? Ali declared himself “the greatest of all time”. No one wanted to argue with him.

Jonathan Stein

Racing media said he was too old to ride in a Breeders’ Cup race. Additionally, he had recently been released from a UK prison for tax evasion of over $3.25 million. More humiliation was heaped up when admirer Queen Elizabeth II was forced to strip him of his prized OBE (Order of the British Empire) because he had been the subject of a conviction. It was discovered that Piggott had hidden money in numerous offshore accounts under different names, estimated to be over $20 million. That’s why he was fined so much.

Lester Piggott has always been something too much. He was big for a jockey. Too tall only at 5’8″, Lester rode with his buttocks up and his stirrups bent close to the saddle, a distinctive riding style which when asked about it he replied. “well, my butt has to go somewhere. He was known to be tough on everyone, including his fellow riders who are said to have had no hesitation in taking a good mount. He was just as tough on himself by maintaining his weight at his height.

Frankie Dettori has often spoken of an experience he had with Piggott when he was booming in his career and Lester was finishing his. It’s something that doesn’t happen often on the circuit. At Glorious Goodwood, Dettori said Piggott, who was right behind him, reached out, grabbed him between his legs and hugged him tight, causing Frankie pain that you have to feel to believe.

“That’ll teach you to be arrogant, you prick,” Piggott told Dettori.

“The Long Fellow”, as he was nicknamed, was also partially deaf and spoke with a slight handicap. One story has a young stable hand leaning on Piggott and asking for 5 pounds. “I can’t hear, try the other ear,” Piggott said. The boy agreed and increased the amount to 10 pounds. Piggott winked at him and said “Go back to the first ear, I think I heard better”. However, Lester Piggott had gifts. Courage, good hands and a sharp mind. Since the 1960s, Piggott had been a celebrated jockey, skilled on the track and equally quick-witted with his media handling. 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 was given the nickname “Housewives Choice”, so popular was he with the ladies. . Then came the tax conviction of three years in prison, the revocation of his jockey license and the disparagement. The English tabloids were wild and the comedians giddy with their jokes. As mentioned above, the jockey turned out to have accumulated millions, under assumed names, in foreign banks, in Singapore, the Bahamas and the Caymans. After his fall, Piggott was tenacious enough to attempt a phoenix-like ascent and take down the Soothsayers. Piggott was released from prison after a year and returned to his passion, seeing the world go by at full speed from the back of a fast horse. He exercised horses, trained them to his liking, and quietly waited for his revoked jockey license to be reinstated, 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 Nijinsky-like colt into achieving the best of his career. O’Brien knew Piggott’s timing and his patience in moving his mounts at the right time. Piggott, more importantly, knew the personalities of the Nijinsky race as he himself had ridden on and against the ROYAL ACADEMY father.

On a beautiful Saturday in Belmont Park in 1990, Lester Piggott, ten days after starting a new jockey license, rode Vincent O’Brien’s ROYAL ACADEMY to win the Breeders Cup Mile. Lester Piggott was 54 years old. The horse, a 1988 Keeneland graduate and $3.5 million purchase, was a long shot and its rider, a man looking to redeem himself. Together, it was their greatest victory.

It was Piggott’s fourth scoring in the United States. In the UK alone, Lester Piggott rode 4,493 winners, being named British Jockey of the Year eleven times.

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 consider him one of the greatest jockeys to ever ride a racehorse. Others remember him for his dry wit. During his first American victory aboard KARABAS at the Washington International, a reporter asked Piggott when did he know KARABAS had won. “About two weeks ago,” he replied.

The racing industry lost a memorable jockey on May 29, 2022 in Geneva, Switzerland. At Piggott’s Breeders Cup partner, ROYAL ACADEMY died aged 21 as a retiree at Coolmore Australia in 2012.
ROYAL ACADEMY, never brilliant in its racing career, triumphed as an international stud, producing 56% of winners including Australian BEL ESPRIT, sire of Australian super mare BLACK CAVIAR.

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

Watch the legendary Lester Piggott’s incredible return aboard the Royal Academy in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup, thanks to the Breeders’ Cup video:

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

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

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