Lester Piggott, possibly the most recognizable British professional athlete of the last 60 years, passed away this past weekend.
As befits a man who operated at the very top of his sport for 40+ years, amassed 11 UK flat jockey championships, and 30 English Classic wins (including a record 9 Epsom Derby wins), the obituaries were fulsome, but nearly every obituary simply documented all of the well-known highlights (with passing references to Piggott’s collision with the UK tax authorities, which saw him serve a year in jail in the late 1980s), and failed to mention some key parts of Lester’s life that are laudable and noteworthy.
One aspect is that virtually all of Piggott’s fame was achieved without much of his own help in public relations terms. More than many other high-performing athletes, his reputation was built almost entirely by his winning record, particularly in Classic races. He looked mega-serious sitting on a horse, with a face which one journalist memorably summarized as “looking like a well-kept grave”. Monosyllabic in public, with a speech impediment and limited hearing in one ear, Piggott was seldom a good interview, but in private he was said to be much different, with a sly, dry wit, and an ability, which he occasionally showed in public, to turn a pithy phrase.
Most of his interviews were notable for his well-developed ability to deflect awkward questions, or swat away questions he perceived as pointless. Occasionally, he could be snarky and cutting. In 1968, he won the Washington International on Sir Ivor, coming from the pack with a late run to win near the line, on a horse that needed to be held up until the last minute to preserve his speed. US journalists, used to the American jockey style of toe-in-irons, a short rein, crouched almost up the horse’s neck (think Bill Shoemaker), did not know what to make of a really tall guy riding very short, his posterior high in the air, riding with a long rein, and Piggott’s style led to some negative media commentary. In 1969 he returned again and won the race on Karabas. Asked afterwards “when did you know you had the race won”, he replied, deadpan, “about 2 weeks ago”.
The most interesting interview I found was this one, which seems to begin unpromisingly with Lester being, well, Lester, giving short, almost monosyllabic answers to the questions. But somewhere along the line, for whatever reason, he warms up, and proceeds to give detailed and interesting responses to questions. It is a fascinating insight into the thought processes of a man who, beneath the unsmiling exterior, was very smart and very cunning.
Lester was born into UK horse racing, his family’s horse racing roots going back 6 generations. However, he was not born into upper-crust horse racing life. The Piggotts were hard-working horsemen and women, jockeys and trainers. They lived comfortably, but not large.
At the time that Lester Piggott began to ride racehorses for a living, jockeys were regarded as lower-status servants, small men whose job it was to ride the horses, preferably win riding them, and to doff their caps and be suitably grateful for the privilege of riding Their Horses, and the small amounts of money that even successful jockeys earned. Hanging over the life of a jockey was the ever-present threat of the big accident that could end their career, or if they were unlucky, their life.
Lester, as he became more successful in the late 1950s and early 60s, would have noticed the vast income disparity, not only between him and his owners, but also between the amounts of money that he and his fellow jockeys earned, and the rapidly escalating earnings of other professional athletes. The salaries of professional soccer players in England in the 1960s escalated rapidly after the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961, before which pro soccer players were also little more than averagely paid indentured servants.
Born into a household that imbued thrift and care with money as a virtue, Lester would also have noticed the very high marginal tax rates on high earners in the UK. A number of leading showbusiness people had quietly become tax exiles in the 1950s and 1960s. Noel Coward, Ian Fleming and Richard Burton all became tax exiles rather than hand over way too much of their earnings to the Inland Revenue. In the 1970s, the trickle of celebrities moving their residence outside of mainland Britain, or taking “tax holidays” to coincide with the arrival of large sums of money would become a flood, and tax avoidance would become a burgeoning industry for lawyers and accountants.
Apart from the danger of injury and worse, Lester also experienced the sheer effort involved in riding out, traveling, studying form, and, in his case, the privations of having to run his body at close to 30 pounds less than its normal weight. “What with all of the riding out and the travel, I put in a lot more hours than the average chap”, he remarked in an early 1970s biography.
Piggott, although operating from his own personal motives, which as Peter O’Sullevan noted in his own autobiography, came from his austere upbringing, and his monastic existence, both of which fostered a “me against the world” gunslinger attitude, decided to change the picture.
By 1966, he had been riding as the stable jockey for Noel Murless for over 10 years. During that time, Piggott had won a number of big races on horses trained by Murless. However, in return for a rather modest retainer, he was obliged to ride whatever horse Murless told him to ride. Murless had a very old-world view of jockeys, basically regarding Piggott as just another employee at his beck and call.
Lester was well aware of the rise of Vincent O’Brien in Ireland, who was starting to train top-flight flat horses, after dominating Irish National Hunt racing for years. Piggott chafed at the refusal of Murless to allow him to ride other horses when the Murless horses were not competitive. O’Brien’s horses were becoming too good for an ambitious rider like Piggott to pass up.
At the end of 1966, Lester threw a bomb into the Murless stable yard, announcing that he would be riding as a freelance in 1967. Murless, mistakenly, initially tried to act as if nothing had happened, but soon found out that Lester meant what he said, as he started riding better horses from other stables in preference to the Murless ones. Murless eventually hired George Moore and then Sandy Barclay to replace Lester, who began riding more and more of Vincent O’Brien’s horses.
With top-flight horses from Vincent O’Brien propelling Lester to Derby wins in 1968 (Sir Ivor) and 1970 (Nijinsky), Piggott’s reputation continued to increase, which not only allowed him to ride more Classic-quality horses, but which also meant he began to earn a lot more money. His work situation was awkward. Unlike film or pop stars, who could relocate to more favorable tax havens, while still being able to spend up to 90 days in the UK, Lester worked in the UK, and could not become a tax exile. So he had to resort to creative ways to be rewarded for his efforts without incurring a large tax bill. He began to start asking for (and receiving) additional rewards for his services, in addition to the modest riding fees, and “presents” for winning big races, but preferably not in cash. Lester was fond of indirect payments, especially if they went to an overseas address. Stallion nominations in winning colts and shares in stallions became two of his currencies.
Lester, whether he realized it or not, was already tip-toeing along the fringes of the law, which would come back to hit him hard many years later.
By the early 1970s, Lester had broken the mould of the jockey as obedient servant to owners and trainers. He won the jockey’s title multiple times while riding as a freelance, and he was able to consistently talk himself onto the best horses. Often a single phone call would see a rider “jocked off” a top-flight horse and replaced by L. Piggott. As Vincent O’Brien himself noted, not having Lester Piggott on your Classic horse was a risk that you dared not take.
Piggott also noticed the rise of the wealthy “super-owners”, often from the Middle East beginning in the late 1970s. With his role as Vincent O’Brien’s first-call jockey about to be taken by Pat Eddery, he returned to Warren Place in Newmarket in the early 1980s, to become stable jockey to Henry Cecil, who had taken over the stables from the retired Noel Murless, and had a powerhouse collection of big-spending owners. Effectively, Piggott was riding as much for the most powerful owners in the Cecil stables as he was for Cecil himself.
Piggott’s tenure as Cecil’s stable jockey would end in strained circumstances after several seasons, partly because of a falling-out with owner Daniel Wildenstein in 1983, but also because of a private letter circulated by Cecil, asking leading owners to make payments to Piggott via overseas bank accounts. The letter was leaked, and it’s last words (“please destroy this letter”) would initiate an Inland Revenue investigation. Despite large cuts in direct taxation rates after 1980, Piggott was still trying to shovel cash into his bank accounts via numerous means, some legal, some dubious, and some (it would eventually be ruled) illegal.
Piggott’s attempt to do financial deals directly with owners (albeit under-the-tax-radar) was signaling the beginning of what would later become a firm trend in flat racing, where some top jockeys would be employed by owners directly, riding that owner’s horses, no matter who trained them and where they were trained. Steve Cauthen, who had moved to the UK to extend his career, and who took over as Henry Cecil’s stable jockey after Piggott left at the end of 1984, enjoyed a period in the late 1980s as the retained rider for Sheik Mohammed until he retired in 1991. Other jockeys continue to be employed to this day by owners or stud corporations such as Godolphin and Coolmore.
The investigation by the Inland Revenue in the mid-1980s led to Piggott being charged with tax evasion. Ultimately, despite paying back a lot of money to the Inland Revenue, Piggott would be jailed in 1987 for 3 years (he served 1 year and 1 day), mainly because he was found to have lied to Inland Revenue investigators about his secret bank accounts. Not even his own accountants knew about one of the bank accounts, which speaks to Piggott’s fiscal cunning and deviousness.
However, Piggott’s laser focus on being paid well for his efforts would help numerous other top riders, who began to be treated far better and given much more credit, private, public and financial, for their efforts. His high public profile, and his unique style of riding, with his posterior high in the air (he famously quipped “well I’ve got to put it somewhere” when asked why his posterior was so high in the air) also paved the way for some other jockeys to drop their anonymity and become public figures, which led to some of them (like Willie Carson) becoming as well-known both on and off the racetrack.
Amusingly, according to the Inland Revenue, Piggott’s sentence for tax evasion also led to a number of other jockeys confessing to the Inland Revenue about certain, ahem, under-the-counter benefits and payments that they themselves had been receiving. Lester had led the way again. Imitation is one of the more sincere forms of flattery, even when (as in this case) other people imitate the dubious stuff.
An innovation that also originated from Lester was a new style of flat race jockey riding position and crouch. During the mid-1960s, he gradually changed his riding position, from a conventional long-leather position (see the image of him on Carrozza), with a straight horizontal back, which was the norm in the UK and Europe at the time, to riding with very short stirrup leathers, with his knees seemingly tied together over the horse’s withers. The change started around 1964, and by 1967, Lester’s riding style was different to nearly every other jockey riding at the time, especially the Australian riders, who always rode with longer leathers than anybody else in the first place. This article from Horse and Hound shows images of Lester from 1966, where he was still transitioning from his previous riding position, and 1971, by which time the famous riding position was cemented in the public view, with his posterior way higher than his head. It became the subject of much comment, but it certainly seemed to work for him, and it led to a rapid move by other jockeys to ride shorter, such that by the mid-70s, just about every flat jockey was riding short, some as short as Lester. (Later, in the mid-1980s, the influence of Steve Cauthen in the UK and Cash Asmussen in France would lead to a further evolution in riding position and style, with many European jockeys adopting the toe-in-iron position that most US jockeys use).
Lester also shared a love of fast cars and driving fast with his American counterpart Bill Shoemaker. Numerous fellow jockeys had tales of Piggott regarding a 90+ mph dash to a race meeting as simply a jog-trot. (Harry Carr, a peer of Piggott’s in his early career, bailed out of driving to race meetings in Piggott’s car, noting “good driver though he was, it was impossible to stand the strain”). Unlike Shoemaker however, who ended up crashing a high-performance road vehicle after his retirement, and suffered injuries that rendered him a quadriplegic, Piggott was smart enough and good enough to stay out of crash trouble, although he collected speeding tickets at a considerable rate, with the odd driving ban. Sir Mark Prescott tells a hilarious tale of him and Lester, both late in getting to London Heathrow Airport, racing through the London suburbs to get to the terminal, with Lester winning the race by going the wrong way around a roundabout, and when they arrived in Paris, pretending to be the trainer Jeremy Tree and essentially hijacking his rental car. It is perhaps not much of a surprise, that in the earlier-referenced interview, when asked what he would have liked to have been if he could not have been a jockey, Lester replied “motor racing driver”.
Another aspect of Piggott’s life that did attract elliptical comment was that he was polyamorous. He married Susan Armstrong in 1960, and had two daughters, but later had publicly-known affairs with other women, and in 1993 he fathered a son (Jamie, now a bloodstock agent) with Anna Ludlow. In 1997 he quietly left Susan Armstrong (to whom he still remained married) and set up home in Switzerland with Lady Barbara FitzGerald, who also remained married to her previous husband. He lived in Switzerland with her for the rest of his life. His wife professed to be unfazed by the arrangements, and Lester seemingly cared not a jot about what other people thought.
Of course, not caring what anybody thinks can lead to trouble. When you flip the bird to the tax authorities in your country of residence, that tends to end in problems after a while. But we can certainly say that Lester lived his life on his own terms, and most people would like to look back and say that.