This weekend is the 81st birthday of Lester Piggott, the retired (but still very much alive) former flat race jockey.
Piggott occupies the same space in the horse racing world in the UK that Bill Shoemaker occupied decades ago in American racing.
The two men came from very different backgrounds, and looked completely different. Piggott, born into a horse racing family in England, was uncommonly tall for a flat racing jockey at 5 foot 8 inches, and by all rights should have been a hurdles and steeplechase jockey instead (he did in fact ride occasionally over hurdles in the winter in the 1950s). He rode with a long rein, his tall body standing up on the hourse. Shoemaker, born prematurely in Fabens Texas, grew to be a perfectly proportioned miniature man at 4 feet 11 inches. He rode in the classic American jockey style with a much shorter rein, his hands way up the horse’s neck, almost welded to the animal. Shoemaker’s, drive and will to win matched that of Piggott, but Shoemaker would accumulate a much higher number of race winners (8,833 to Piggott’s 4,493), partly because he could ride at any weight, and partly because of the more intensive US racing schedule.
Piggott, from his late teens, had to diet ferociously to be able to ride at a reasonable weight, and his lined face would become a reminder of his daily struggle to be able to continue in his profession. If he had been born in the USA, he would probably have not had a long career, for riding weights in the USA are 4-5 pounds lower than in the UK and Europe. Steve Cauthen, realizing that his increasing weight would soon consign him to the ranks of retired jockeys in the USA, would move to Europe in 1979 and enjoy 12 more years of success, thanks partly to the weight difference.
This image of a group of UK and US jockeys shows the difference in stature between Piggott, the tallest jockey, in the checked silks, and Cauthen and the miniature dynamo Shoemaker, at the right end of the line.
Piggott’s riding history is abundantly documented. Something of a child prodigy, he first rode in the English Derby at age 12. At the age of 18, not long after winning his first English Derby on Never Say Die, he was banned from racing for 6 months, as his hyper-competitive nature collided head-on with the hammer of racing officialdom after a racing incident. He would have frequent collisions with stewards for much of the rest of his career.
Piggott was born with deafness in one ear and a speech impediment, which made him appear shy and diffident in public and almost monosyllabic with strangers, and it probably handicapped his ability to make his case after races when called in to explain his riding tactics. However, it probably insulated him from excessive public scrutiny throughout his life, and being the smart man that he is, he almost certainly worked out after a while how to use it to his advantage.
Throughout the 1950’s, Piggott consolidated his reputation as a fine, competitive rider. He seemed to be at his best in big races, where his competitive instincts kicked in. Before long he was one of a small number of flat race jockeys, along with Gordon Richards, and Scobie Breasley, who were household names.
However, within racing, jockeys were still paid and treated like indentured servants. Most of them rode for a primary trainer, for whom they were expected to ride work every day, sometimes multiple times, and the trainer expected them to ride their horses anywhere on command. Some top jockeys were paid a retainer by trainers, but even jockeys like Lester Piggott were not paid a lot of money as a retainer. Jockey riding fees were fixed, so Lester and other top jockeys could not demand extra money as a riding fee. Winning jockeys in big races could expect a “present” in the form of a one-time cash payment, again usually modest. Jockeys rode for trainers whose owners, in many cases, were multi-millionaires or even royalty, but the relationship was decidedly one-sided. Most jockeys made only modest amounts of money, as reward for working a lot of hours, with the ever-present risk of death of debilitating injury. Sooner or later, riding large animals traveling at 35+ miles per hour, jockeys fall and hit the ground at speed.
In the early 1960’s, Piggott served notice of his leading-edge nature and influence, when he began to ride with what were, at the time, incredibly short stirrup leathers, instead of the much longer leathers that were the norm at the time. This led to the famous Piggott crouch, his posterior way higher in the air than his head as he rode down to the starting gates. He also refined his compact, driving finish, much imitated but never equalled. The new style horrified many racing purists, but the race wins and championships continued to flow, and soon an entire generation of younger riders, taking note of the Long Fellow’s success, began to ride with shorter stirrup leathers.
By the mid-1960’s, Piggott’s new, distinctive riding style, coupled with his lined face, seemingly fixed somewhere between a frown and a scowl (his face was memorably described by a journalist as “looking like a well-kept grave”, and he became known occasionally by another nickname of “Old Stoneface”), made him an instantly recognizable figure in British sport.
Piggott has always been very astute at spotting up and coming trainers, and is also a fine judge of the abilities of young racehorses. He was the retained jockey to the Newmarket trainer Noel Murless for a long period of time until the middle of the 1960s. He rode all of the top animals in the Murless stable. However, Piggott was noticing that a former National hunt trainer, Vincent O’Brien, training out of Ballydoyle in Ireland, was beginning to become a powerhouse trainer of flat racehorses. O’Brien had courted American owners, who were sending some of their best-bred horses to him to train. Piggott became a beneficiary of this new trend in 1968, when he won the Derby on Sir Ivor, bred in the USA and trained by O’Brien. Piggott began to realize that being a retained jockey to one trainer, even one as prestigious as Noel Murless, was potentially limiting his ability to ride the best horses in big races. As a retained rider, he was contractually obligated to ride Murless horses in big races if instructed to, even if they were no-hopers.
So Piggott, once again operating as the iconoclast, told Murless that he wanted to go freelance. Murless attmpted to dissuade him, but Piggott forced the issue by simply refusing to accept a contract renewal. His decision was greeted with stony hostility by the UK racing authorities, who even held an enquiry, although it was far from clear exactly what Piggott had done wrong, other than to piss off a leading trainer. Once again, the former child prodigy was tweaking the nose of authority and bucking the system.
Thereafter, Piggott rode as a freelance for many years (although his relationship with Murless was fractured beyond repair, and Murless employed other top riders to replace him), and the era began of riders in England and Europe looking over their shoulders, as they wondered if Piggott was going to “jock them off” their prized ride in a big race. Piggott’s winning record in big races was second to none, he knew that many owners had the last word on who rode their horses, and he was unafraid to pick up the phone and lobby for the chance to ride a fancied horse. Once again, Lester was changing the game, converting the jockey from a passive order-taker into an entrepreneurial go-getter.
In addition to riding as a freelance, Piggott also began to ask for different rewards for winning big races. He began to move away from the “present” reward system, asking for other instruments of reward, such as shares in colts once they became stallions, and breeding rights slots for fillies when they became broodmares.
There was a strong economic rationale for this; Piggott was reaching his earnings peak at a time when income tax rates in the UK were confiscatory for high earners. At the time, the highest marginal rate of income tax was an astonishing 83%. Piggott realized that instead of accepting a one-off cash payment which would be heavily taxed, it made more sense to take an opportunity to earn money over time in the future.
Some leading showbusiness personalities and wealthy businessmen left the UK mainland to either live in offshore UK provinces or further afield in order to minimize their income tax bills. Piggott, based in the heart of the UK in Newmarket, and riding most of the time in the UK, could not physically relocate in the same way. Tax exile was not an option for him. His move to accept payments in kind and setting up investments that would reward him over time was therefore part of his own personal tax avoidance strategy. Piggott, like many top practitioners in many professions, was not content with just the public plaudits and prestige of his success. For him, money, over time, became his own private way of measuring success, a means of keeping score. He gained a reputation for being very careful with his money, which may have been unfair. He was however, adamant that jockeys deserved to be paid well, noting “when you add up all of the riding out, and the travel and the pressure, we put in a lot more hours and effort than the average chap”.
Piggott’s status and reputation kept growing through the 1960’s and 1970’s, as he won more jockey’s championships and Classic races. He forged a winning partnership with Vincent O’Brien, riding a string of big-race winners on his horses. His fame grew exponentially, with racing neophytes regularly betting on horses in big races whenever the name Piggott appeared alongside the name of the horse. His riding style was much-imitated, with most jockeys following his move to shorter stirrup leathers, and his freelance-based approach and creative demands for side payment began to be imitated by other top jockeys. He had, single-handedly, changed the relationship between horse owners, trainers and jockeys from one where the jockey was the indentured servant, sometimes almost an afterthought, to one where the jockey was a much more highly-rewarded, sometimes equal partner in a winning partnership. For the first time, top jockeys in the UK and Europe were being well-paid for a hard-working and somewhat risky profession. Retainers, from the lower tens of thousands of pounds, rose by an order of magnitude at the end of the 1970’s due to an influx of new wealthy owners, with rumours abounding that one or two top jockeys were on contracts paying them close to $1m a season before they had so much as sat on a horse. Piggott himself, who had started the freelancing trend, went back to being a retained jockey for Henry Cecil after a while, and, being Piggott, it is safe to assume that his retainer was one of the ones approaching telephone numbers, with a foreign area code…
Piggott, however, would overreach on his personal tax avoidance strategies and tactics. At some point, he began to conceal payments and rewards from the tax authorities, and eventually, after he had initially retired from riding and become a trainer, he was charged with tax evasion in the UK, found guilty and sentenced to 3 years in jail. The jail sentence led to him being stripped of his OBE, and is probably the single reason that he is not known today as Sir Lester Piggott. Released after one year on parole, he promptly decided to return to race riding and won on his first big-race ride on the horse Royal Academy, again trained by…Vincent O’Brien, at the age of 54. Eventually he retired again, and is now very much the elder statesman of UK racing, giving occasional interviews (his brush with the tax authorities is generally off-limits) and attending reward ceremonies, despite a brief heart scare in 2007, which, in typical Piggott fashion, he dismissed as nothing of any importance.
Privately, Piggott is a lot different to his public image; he is said to smile a lot, and has a ready, dry wit. (Asked once why he rode with his bottom in the air, he replied thusly). In a biography, he once said of the public image, “racing is a serious business, there is not a lot to smile about…but I do smile a lot at home”. He also has a lifetime love of fast cars and driving fast. He regularly used to accumulate speeding tickets and fines while he was an active rider, and at least one other jockey, Harry Carr, refused to travel to races with him after Piggott scared him witless. (Sadly, Bill Shoemaker, like Lester also a lover of fast cars, would crash a road car and wind up as a quadriplegic after his own retirement).
However, one less-noted area of Piggott’s life that makes him very interesting is that he is a polyamorous person. Married in 1961 to Susan Armstrong, the daughter of leading trainer Sam Armstrong, Piggott had a seemingly conventional married life for a long time, fathering two daughters, but then he formed a long-term relationship with another woman, which gave him his son Jamie. More recently, he has been living with Lady Barbara FitzGerald, who remains married to her husband, dividing his time between the UK and her home in Switzerland. He remains married to Susan, and all of his domestic changes appear to have been totally amicable, so my conclusion is that Piggott is polyamorous, which is another way that he appears to have broken with convention.
As as he celebrates his 81st birthday, let us raise a glass in toast to a great jockey, a trail-blazer and an all-round interesting person.