Lester Piggott Q&A: the 11-time champion jockey stars in a brilliant interview
Steve Dennis grabs a few precious words with the peerless ex-rider
Published in the Racing Post on October 12, 2015
A living legend stands quietly in the lobby of one of the less celebrated Mayfair hotels, as oblivious to the constant flow of staff and residents as they are oblivious of him, just another neatly turned out old boy in a light grey suit, pink shirt, black loafers, just another elderly gent passing the afternoon away.
Not just any old boy, though. Not to you, or me, or the racing men and women of the last 60 years. Lester Piggott grins, reaches out for a handshake, seems remarkably cheerful for a man with one interview down and another to go, the same old questions, the same old answers, the same air of reverence on one side of the table and the same air of faintly amused detachment on the other.
Donald McRae of the Guardian has just given the great man a light grilling – “He’s South African, y’know,” says Lester, in a hushed, confidential tone – and now the Racing Post has its turn. Lester sits comfortably; we begin.
Hello, Mr Piggott. Very nice to see you over here again. We don’t see you that often any more.
I don’t come over that much really. Now and again, for big races. I’ll go up to Newmarket and see a few of the old boys, there are a few of the old jockeys still left, we catch up on things. People sometimes come over to Switzerland to see me, of course, but that’s different, y’know?
You’re over here to lend the people at Great British Racing a hand, to present the trophy to the new champion jockey at Ascot on Champions Day.
Yes, Richard Hughes and I will be presenting the trophy to Silvestre de Sousa. I don’t really know him but I know him to say hello to, he’s a good rider. He must be, he’s the champion. And he really tried to be champion, he worked very hard. So many jockeys these days find it very hard to win the title because they’re tied down to one owner. Silvestre has done very well, and he’s light, of course, which is a big help.
You won a few titles yourself . . .
Yeah. I was champion 11 times.
Some people say the jockeys’ championship isn’t as important to win as it used to be, that big races are a bigger attraction. What was the feeling when you were champion?
It was much more important in those days to be champion jockey, more so than now, it doesn’t seem to matter so much now. We didn’t get anything for being champion either, but everyone was trying to win the title. If you had a chance from the beginning of October onwards you put everything into it. We used to drive around the country, ride through the muck and the rain, everything. I remember one year  it was me and Scobie Breasley at Manchester on the final day of the season, and either one of us could have been champion. That year it was him, he beat me by one. It was the last year he won it, I won it the next eight years running.
It’s a different championship now though. It only runs from May to mid-October – is that a sensible way to do things?
I think it’s a good idea that the title race finishes on Champions Day. It makes it simpler for the top jockeys, because they can ride all the time through that period, and then it gives them the chance to go off around the world for the big races without worrying about the championship. It’s the best thing to do.
What do you think of today’s jockeys? How do they match up against you and the men you used to ride against?
Today’s jockeys are better, really. They get so much more practice, they ride in more races. I like Ryan Moore, Frankie Dettori, William Buick. They’re very good riders.
Do you wish you could be a jockey these days? How would you have managed in the modern era?
It would be different because I wouldn’t have to ride so light. I could ride at 9st and still have plenty of winners.
You were famous for your weight control. The Lester Piggott full breakfast: a cigar and cough.
After I was about 25 my weight stabilised and I didn’t have to work so hard at it, y’know? I still had to be careful though. I could ride at 8st 5lb, 8st 6lb, maybe a pound or two lower for a good horse. I never managed to get to 200 winners in a season, but a lot of them can get there now. There’s probably twice as many races now as there was when I was in my prime. The most rides I had in a season was about 600 I think.
Nearly 200 winners from 600 rides? You must have been a good jockey.
Some people thought so [laughing].
You mentioned Scobie Breasley earlier. Of all the top jockeys you rode with – Roger Poincelet, Jimmy Lindley, Bill Williamson, Pat Eddery, so many others – was he the one with whom you had the greatest rivalry?
Scobie was a lot older than me, I think he got married on the day I was born, but we had a good rivalry, I suppose. He’d be over 100 now if he was still alive, so there was quite an age gap. When I first started he was old then. He was a very good rider, rode the typical Australian way, which has gone out of fashion now. Another jockey I remember well was Yves Saint-Martin, I rode against him for years and years, he was a very good jockey, one of the best. He rode all those good horses for Francois Mathet and Angel Penna. But there’ve been so many good jockeys over the years that you could never say ‘oh, he was the best’ about any of them.
Not even you?
[A beaming smile transfigures the Piggott visage, and he chuckles again]. Impossible to tell, isn’t it?
I suppose it’s the same with horses. You can’t really say this one was the best, or that one was better, they’re from different eras. Did you see the Arc? What did you think of Golden Horn?
He’s a good horse.
That’s quite a Lester-y answer. Did you think anything else?
The best way to put it is that he’s a top-class horse owned by a top-class owner, trained by a top-class trainer and ridden by a top-class jockey. He’s a very nice-looking horse too. He put his best foot forward and he was pretty impressive, he did it well. And Frankie made a good move at the start, y’know. It’s great to see a Derby winner go on and win the Arc.
Where would you rank him?
[A long Lester pause] Nearly in the same class as Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Sea The Stars, that sort of horse, but not quite as good as them. He’s very consistent, isn’t he? Only beaten once, at York when the ground was a bit soft and he ran too free in the early stages. Does he go for the Breeders’ Cup now? Sometimes that’s been a step too far for lots of very good horses, and he’s been on the go for a long time this season. He’d win it, though, wouldn’t he?
There’s been a lot of talk about the St Leger, the disqualification, the appeal. What’s your opinion on what happened?
I didn’t think they’d change it back again, because the two horses did come together. Andrea Atzeni did push his way out.
No worse than a few things you did . . .
You could get away with a lot more when I was riding because there weren’t so many cameras everywhere. But I think the good jockeys of that time would be just as good today, they’d adapt to the different rules they have today. But is it necessary to have the stewards’ inquiry on TV? I’m not sure about that – it was quite amusing, though. Colm O’Donoghue was very good, wasn’t he?
What were you like when you walked into the stewards’ room? Were you like O’Donoghue?
[A Lester pause] Some of the boys could talk much better than others. Looks like they still can.
You had your moments with the stewards, but nothing quite like what happened at Royal Ascot when you were a youngster. You got a very harsh punishment, a six-month ban. Did Gordon Richards do all the talking that day?
The stewards decided it really, they did all the talking among themselves, they didn’t listen much to me or Gordon. What happened that day was nothing really. These days the jockeys would have got two or three days I suppose, if that. I got six months. I think the stewards were looking for a chance to teach me a lesson, I’d had four or five bans already and I think they wanted to get me. I was lucky to come back, y’know, with the weight I put on. In the end they let me off a couple of months but it was still October before I came back, and then I had to take the weight off in just a few days. It was quite a bad punishment, wasn’t it?
It was almost inhumane. I just mentioned it because you’ll be back at Ascot on Saturday . . .
A lot of things happened at Ascot, y’know.
Yes, I suppose. And now the Champion Stakes happens there. You won that a few times.
Last time I won it was on Rodrigo De Triano, that was a very good day. It belongs at Newmarket, though, doesn’t it. Doesn’t seem the same at Ascot, it’s a different race now. But you have to say that Champions Day has worked out okay.
Are you surprised that you’re still in demand to present trophies and to attend the big meetings? Do you enjoy all the attention or does it get on your nerves a bit?
It’s very nice of people to ask me to present awards and things. I sign a few autographs, shake a few people’s hands, have a chat about the old days – you have to do it, don’t you, it’s not hard work, is it? When you’ve spent your whole life doing something it’s only right you have to help out a bit later on, you have to put a bit back.
Once you were one of the most famous sportsmen in the world. Do you still feel famous? Do you think of yourself as a famous man?
I think a lot of older people still remember me, I’m probably famous to them, but the younger ones wouldn’t really know who I am. Time goes by. A lot of people wouldn’t know me now.
There are so many stories about you, and not all of them are true. Is the Wilson Pickett one true?
[Almost a giggle] Yes, that one’s true.
You were driving up the Finchley Road, a hot day, you fancied an ice-cream, spotted a kiosk, went in. The girl behind the counter said “Aren’t you Wilson Pickett?”
And you said?
Yes, I am [laughing].
But Wilson Pickett was a black American soul singer. And you’re a little white English jockey.
It seemed easier to say yes. I didn’t want to get into a long discussion about it, y’know.
Thank you very much for your time, Lester. One last thing, it’s your 80th birthday next month, quite a milestone. How do you plan to celebrate it?
There’s nothing really planned. I often go out to Dubai around the time of my birthday for two or three weeks, it’s the best time of year to go out there, so I might do that, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I expect we’ll end up doing something. Anyway, 80 is just a number. You never think you’re going to be 80, do you – look at you, I expect you can’t imagine being 80. You don’t imagine yourself getting old. It doesn’t seem possible.
Not so much fun, then?
It’s all about how you feel [grinning]. I should be all right for a bit yet, anyway.
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