What do Lester Piggott and Elvis Presley have in common? They were each born 80 years ago. Of course, Lester has one advantage over the King. He’s still alive. Unless you are one of those who believe Elvis is working down your local fish and chip shop, you have to concede that he’s dead and gone.
Lester Piggott, meanwhile, lives on and celebrates his birthday today, November 5th. How appropriate that the greatest ever flat racing jockey came into the world with a bang. Years later, and for decades, he lit up flat racing.
My late father used to make me watch Piggott in action. Coming from an Irish equine family steeped in the world of hunting, Dad knew a good horseman when he saw one. Along with his own father and brothers, he attended racing at the Curragh and Leopardstown on a regular basis. Dad thought Lester the best jockey he’d ever seen. Few would disagree.
The man himself wants his birthday to be a low key affair. This is the first year he will not celebrate it in the company of his greatest friend, the former commentator par excellence, Peter O’Sullevan. He died earlier this year.
Piggott told Donald McRae of The Guardian: “A lot of people know I’m going to turn 80 – but I wish they didn’t. What can you do? It’s a fact, isn’t it?”
It is perhaps a sign of how racing has become a more marginalised sport that, while Piggott was a sporting face recognised by the majority of housewives in the 1960’s and 1970’s, only those who regularly attended meetings in the last few seasons would have been able to identify Richard Hughes or Ryan Moore.
Lester Piggott was as famous as the Prime Minister, the Queen, George Best or the greatest sportsman of my lifetime, Muhammad Ali.
Richard Hughes idolised Piggott as a child and got to ride against him as the career of the older man came to a close and when Hughes was starting out on one that would eventually see him being champion flat jockey. Of similar build, Hughes sought to imitate the Piggott style of riding.
Lester Piggott stories are many and varied but his parsimony is sure to figure somewhere along the line. I dare say that in thirty years time some folk will first remember Ryan Moore for being rude and surly, rather than the greatest flat jockey of his generation.
Piggott will also be remembered for being in a rare club. The one made up of those stripped of honours received from the Queen. Thirty Classic race wins, including nine Derby victories, and eleven champion jockey titles were not enough to protect him from being prosecuted for tax evasion. He went to prison for one year and one day and ceased to be Lester Piggott OBE. His stony faced persona makes it impossible to judge which hurt him the most.
He told Donald McRae of The Guardian: “It was stupid, really, to be there. I don’t know how to describe it (prison). It was just unnecessary.”
The Queen Mother thought so. She thought it a disgrace that a man who had given so much pleasure was jailed like a common criminal for allegedly not paying £3.25 million to the Inland Revenue.
My favourite memories of watching Piggott in action are of sitting in front of the TV with my Dad. Never more so than when Piggott rode the great Nijinsky, my favourite racehorse.
If ever a jockey and horse were made for each other, it was those two. It could only have been bettered had Piggott been aboard Brigadier Gerard – along with Frankel, the greatest racehorse of my lifetime.
I’ve rarely understood a full sentence uttered by the mumbling Piggott. But it matters not a jot. Every picture tells a story and the sight of Lester Piggott in the saddle is worth a thousand clearly spoken words.
Happy 80th birthday to the greatest!