In a riding career spanning five decades, Lester Piggott had the distinction of becoming Champion Jockey 11 times and is, quite rightly, regarded as one of the greatest jockeys in the history of British Flat racing. Piggott became an overnight sensation when, in 1954, as an 18-year-old, he became the youngest jockey ever to win the Derby, on Never Say Die, trained by Joe Lawson. A reckless boy wonder, he was suspended for the rest of the season after riding the same horse to finish fourth in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot but, on his return, succeeded Sir Gordon Richards as first jockey to Noel Murless.
Piggott was Champion Jockey for the first time in 1960, the year in which he won the Derby for a third time – and the second time for Murless, after Crepello in 1957 – on St. Paddy, and partnered 170 winners in total. The Murless-Piggott partnership continued – with further jockeys’ titles for Piggott in 1964 and 1965 – until, in 1966, the 30-year-old champion insisted on riding the eventual winner, Valoris, trained by Vincent O’Brien, in the Oaks. The decision left Murless adamant that, in future, he would look elsewhere for a partner for his horses, while Piggott announced, in typically laconic style, that he would ride as a freelance jockey.
Nevertheless, the ‘Long Fellow’, as Piggott was affectionately known, enjoyed the most successful of his career, numerically, in 1966, with 190 winners. Unsurprisingly, he became Champion Jockey for the third year running, and the fourth time in all, and didn’t relinquish his position at the top of the jockeys’ table until 1972, when he finished fourth behind Willie Carson, Tony Murray and Edward Hide, with 103 winners. In 1968, Piggott completed the 2,000 Guineas-Derby double on Sir Ivor, trained by Vincent O’Brien, and won the St. Leger on Ribero, trained by Fulke Johnson Houghton. However, two years later, he partnered Nijinksy, also trained by O’Brien, to victory in the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St. Leger, making him the first horse since Bayram, in 1935, to win the Triple Crown. Nearly five decades later, the feat has yet to be repeated.
Piggott rode two more Derby winners for Vincent O’Brien – Roberto in 1972 and The Minstrel in 1977 – before the pair parted company in 1979, but wouldn’t be Champion Jockey again until 1981. By that time, he’d replaced the retired Joe Mercer as stable jockey at Warren Place, Newmarket, now in the hands of Noel Murless’ son-in-law, Henry Cecil. Piggott won the 1,000 Guineas on Fairy Footsteps, trained by Cecil, and the Oaks on Blue Wind, trained by Dermot Weld and took the jockeys’ title with 179 winners, 65 more than his nearest rival, Willie Carson. He retained the title in 1982, too, with 188 winners.
Piggott retired from the saddle, for the first time, at the end of the 1985 season, at the age of 50 but, after an abortive spell in the training ranks and a year detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure for tax evasion – which cost him the OBE he’d been awarded in 1975, and possibly a knighthood – he unexpectedly returned to race riding in 1990. He retired for the second, and final, time in 1995, with 4,493 winners to his name in Britain alone.