Sixty years ago on Saturday, Lester Piggott won his first 2,000 Guineas on Crepello, and as we sit together looking across at a statue of Frankel, that Guineas-winning wonder horse, it seems a good idea to ask the great jockey whether this was the finest of all Flat racers.
Piggott’s answer to the Frankel question is typically concise, and at first enigmatic. “Not really,” he says. “There were two better horses, a long time ago.” Then silence. A gentle push is required. “Sea Bird and Ribot were the best horses. This horse [Frankel] was very good. And he had a very good trainer who saved him.” Piggott, now 81, and still pin-sharp, is recalling Sir Henry Cecil, the maestro of Newmarket Heath, lost to cancer in 2013 at the age of 70, who “saved” Frankel by teaching him not to be a tearaway.
Frankel’s statue is just across the courtyard from us at Newmarket’s new Heritage Centre at the former Palace House Stables. To many, Piggott is racing’s heritage on spindly legs: one of the few British sportsmen or women who deserve the label “genius”.
Before we speak, Sean Magee, the author, shows a picture of a Derby field coming round Tattenham Corner. The shot is taken from the infield, behind the runners. But Piggott is instantly recognisable from the height of his rear, his angle in the saddle, his balance. In the same photo, other jockeys are fighting the descent, fighting the camber. Piggott, though, is perfectly poised, as befits a rider who won nine Derbys in a haul of 30 Classic wins.
Still almost at riding weight, and still unable to eat much after decades of brutal dietary privation (“three prawns is plenty,” a friend says), Piggott reigned in the Sixties and Seventies with the idols of his era. He belonged up there with Muhammad Ali and Pele. But while those names were globalised, and turned into industries, self-promotion was never an option for Piggott, whose life was a ritual of self-denial (food wise, anyway), and whose speech impediment and taciturn nature did not lend themselves to celebrity fog-horning.
“My life was a bit different because I had to waste [shed weight] all the time,” he says. “I couldn’t go round eating and drinking. I wouldn’t have been riding, you know? It was a struggle to keep low.”
Watching his successors over the past two decades, Piggott developed a soft spot for a jockey in another discipline: Tony ‘A P’ McCoy, whose 20 champion National Hunt jockey titles eclipsed even Piggott’s 11 on the Flat. Perhaps it was the dedication and longevity that appealed.
Piggott rode his first winner in 1948, aged 12, and accompanied 4,493 in all: the last on October 1994, 46 years after the first. In between, he managed to squeeze in a death threat, a lively personal life, at least one stalker and partnerships with such great horses as Nijinsky and Sir Ivor before taking out a trainer’s licence: a progression cut short by 366 days in prison for tax evasion, which cost him his OBE.
The death threat came on the day of Nijinsky’s St Leger win. “Somebody said, ‘Did you see the bullet?’ ” he recalls. “Someone phoned the racecourse to say they were going to shoot at me. I had a police guard all day.” The stalker seemed not to bother him much: “Yes, all famous people have problems like that, whether you’re good looking or not.”
After his spell inside for tax evasion, Piggott’s son-in-law, William Haggas, met him at the gates and asked: “How was it?” And Piggott replied: “Stupid f------ question.” Haggas laughs at that now. He also trains a 2,000 Guineas entry his father-in-law bred, though Rivet is more likely to contest the equivalent race in France. For our sit-down, Piggott was in Newmarket on one of his visits from the home in Switzerland he shares with Lady Barbara Fitzgerald.
Interviews test his patience, but a small part of him still craves the limelight, his friends say. There is a flash of appreciation in his eyes when people tell him how good he was. In conversation he is supremely understated about the great horses he rode. He never wavers either from believing Sir Ivor was the best of them. “He was a complete racehorse,” he says. “I think I said to Vincent [O’Brien, the trainer] after he won as two-year-old in France, ‘This is a racing machine’.”
The late O’Brien was the author of one of the greatest comebacks in sport, five years after Piggott had retired. ‘The Long Fellow’ takes up the story: “That summer, they asked me to ride in a charity race in Tipperary. There were four or five of us, including Jonjo O’Neill. A mile and a half race. Jonjo beat me. A week afterwards, Vincent said to me: ‘You should think about coming back.’ I’d never thought about it. I said: ‘Well, I don’t know about that, but I’ll come and see you and talk about it.’ ”
Twelve days after his first ride back, Piggott landed his richest prize, the Breeders’ Cup Mile at New York’s Belmont Park, on the O’Brien-trained Royal Academy. John Reid, the horse’s regular jockey, had broken his collarbone. “That was a stroke of luck,” Piggott says. Reid will have thought otherwise.
The Frankel conversation, meanwhile, expressed the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his memory. “He was exceptional, and he’s going to be an exceptional stallion,” Piggott said. “You’d like a couple like him, wouldn’t you?”
In the long fellow’s long view however, Sea Bird, who won the Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1965, and Ribot, who won two Arcs in the mid-Fifties, retain a lustre not even Frankel can match, despite his 14-race unbeaten career. Piggott’s recall is so sharp that he can summon Crepello’s first race as a two-year-old, 61 years ago, and just about every detail of his subsequent career.
He won the 2,000 Guineas on Crepello (1957), Sir Ivor (1968), Nijinsky (1970), Shadeed (1985) and finally Rodrigo De Triano in 1992. In Crepello’s year, the average house cost £2,000 and the average weekly wage was £7.50.
“There were no agents, then, put it that way,” he says, straying towards a subject people still tease him about – his supposed willingness to ring owners and pinch good rides off other jockeys. “It’s very different today. A jockey has to have an agent because he’s working all the time. There are about 100 per cent more horses than there were even in the 1970s.”
He says he felt he reached the summit in Flat racing in 1960. “I was a bit stronger then,” he says. But ask him about his supernatural timing on a horse – the judgment of pace so evident round Epsom – and his mind closes somewhat, in the way of all great sports people when you ask them how they did it. He smiles. “That’s how it was, really.” Some secrets are staying locked inside.
The 2017 QIPCO British Champions Series starts at Newmarket on Saturday with the QIPCO 2000 Guineas.