Lester Piggott, champion British jockey, dies at 86

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Lester Piggott, whose 11 jockey championship titles and a record nine English Derby wins made him Britain’s most successful jockey of the late 20th century, died May 29 at a hospital in Geneva. He was 86.

His daughter Maureen Haggas announced the death but did not provide a cause. He had reportedly had heart problems.

In a career spanning 47 years, Mr. Piggott rode 4,493 winners in Britain and more than 850 elsewhere. He won the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park, N.Y., worth $500,000 at the time, on the Irish-trained Royal Academy, powering his way from the back of the field.

He took the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1973 at the Longchamp track in Paris on Rheingold, and the 1968 Washington, D.C., International at Laurel Park, Md., on Sir Ivor. He went on to win the latter race twice more, on Karabas in 1969 and Argument in 1980.

In Britain, although Gordon Richards (4,870) and Pat Eddery (4,632) rode more winners overall, and U.S. jockey Bill Shoemaker had 8,883 career wins, Mr. Piggott’s record in the big races — including the five British “Classics” — remains unsurpassed. In addition to the nine Derbys, the British equivalent of the Kentucky Derby, he won 21 of the other Classics — the 2,000 Guineas, the 1,000 Guineas, the Derby, the Oaks and the St. Leger.

Mr. Piggott was the British champion jockey in 1960, in every season from 1964 to 1971 and again in 1981 and 1982. He captured England’s Triple Crown — the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby and the St. Leger — in 1970 on the brilliant Canadian-bred, Irish-trained colt Nijinsky, owned by the American mining and metals magnate Charles W. Engelhard Jr. No horse has won the English Triple Crown since.

Relatively tall for a flat-race jockey — he stood 5 feet 7 ½ inches — and with the shortest of stirrups, he was easy to pick out in any race, his backside high in the air. He was nicknamed “The Long Fellow” by jockeys because of his height.

Within the racing game, Mr. Piggott also was known as “Old Stoneface” because of his unsmiling determination to win. But the description also partly came about because of a lingering shyness from the partial deafness that had left him with a slight speech impediment since childhood.

He won a reputation from an early age for his aggressive riding and unfettered use of the whip — he once nudged a fellow jockey off his mount and over the trackside rail — and his ruthlessness in eliciting rides from owners and trainers, even at the expense of other jockeys.

Mr. Piggott retired from the saddle in 1985 to become a trainer but had already become embroiled in a tax evasion scandal, dating back to his riding years, which threatened his future in what Britons call “the Sport of Kings.”

A copy of a private letter from a leading trainer, Henry Cecil, to a horse owner, referring to special undeclared payments and bonuses to the jockey, was sold by persons unknown to a Fleet Street newspaper. That got the attention of Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue — the taxman — and police and tax officers raided Mr. Piggott’s home, arresting him and seizing bank statements and other documents.

He was prosecuted on 10 charges of failing to declare income of more than 3 million pounds on which he should have paid around 1.7 million pounds, and of making false statements to the tax authorities. He did not deny the charges, and his trial took only a day in October 1987. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison, a record sentence for tax evasion at the time.

After 366 days in prison — during which time his wife, Susan, ran the training stables — Mr. Piggott was freed and returned to training his string of up to 100 thoroughbreds, although the trainers’ license remained in his wife’s name. He eventually settled with the tax authorities by paying 4.4 million pounds.

Lester Keith Piggott was born in the market town of Wantage, near Oxford, on Nov. 5, 1935. His father, Keith, was a top National Hunt (hurdle and steeplechase) jockey before World War II. He won the coveted Champion Hurdle at the historic Cheltenham track in 1939 and went on to train the steeplechaser Ayala to a 1963 win in the world’s most famous “jumps” race, the Grand National at Aintree, Liverpool.

Lester’s paternal grandfather, Ernie Piggott, had won the Grand National three times in the saddle, while his mother, the former Iris Rickaby, also came from a multigenerational racing family and twice won the Newmarket Town Plate for female riders, a rarity in racing at the time.

Determined to be a jockey, Mr. Piggott became an apprentice at his father’s stables in Lambourn, Berkshire, when he was 12, getting his general education from a private tutor a few days a week. He got his first ride in an official English race in April 1948 and was still only 12 when he rode his first winner at Haydock Park racecourse in August that year. (The current minimum age for a jockey is 16.)

He was 18 when he won his first Epsom Derby, the most prestigious flat race in Britain, on the colt Never Say Die. He was the youngest jockey to win that race since 16-year-old John Parsons triumphed in 1862 on a horse called Caractacus. It is said that instead of celebrating, young Lester hurried home to mow his father’s lawn as he had promised.

He married Susan Armstrong, daughter of a trainer, in 1960 and they had two daughters, Maureen and Tracy.

From the late 1960s, Mr. Piggott became the first British jockey to break away from a specific trainer and go freelance, improving the lot of riders ever since, making many of them millionaires.

He liked to say that balance, for the horse and jockey, was key to success. “If the horse loses balance he loses speed and direction, and that might cost him the race,” the Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying. “The horse has his own center of gravity just behind his shoulders. The jockey has a center of gravity. But the jockey can shift his and the horse can’t. At every stride the horse’s center of gravity is shifting in relation to the jockey’s. Getting a horse balanced means keeping your balance, every stride, every second, to suit his.”

Mr. Piggott became known for his ability to keep his weight down to around 120 pounds, way below his natural body weight, usually on a diet of coffee, champagne, cigars and saunas.

Having initially retired from riding in 1985, as the tax evasion scandal surfaced, Mr. Piggott made a spectacular return to the track in October 1990, just short of his 55th birthday. One of his first races back was his surging win on Royal Academy in the Breeders’ Cup mile at Belmont. After a few up-and-down years in the saddle, he finally retired in 1995, still the most famous name in British racing at the time.

In 2012, he left his wife of 52 years, Susan, and moved to the picturesque lakeside resort of Rolle, near Geneva, with a new partner, the Swiss-born Lady (her father was an English lord) Barbara FitzGerald, and the blessing of his wife and daughters. They all survive him, along with a son, Jamie, from a relationship with his former assistant Anna Ludlow.

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