The 5ft 8in giant whose life was a rollicking ride: On the turf Lester Piggott captivated millions, not least the Queen but behind his granite mask lay a flawed miser who was jailed for tax evasion and raised two families at once
- The Queen’s favourite jockey and one of the best ever was a master on the saddle
- ‘Good old Lester’ was the perfect sporting hero for the 1950s and 1960s
- Yet Piggott spent years in prison and raised two families at the same time
- Even when he was disgraced, Queen sent her well wishes after he suffered fall
As the Queen’s favourite jockey stood in the dock at Ipswich Crown Court in 1987, having admitted to defrauding Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (to use its modern name) out of £3.25 million in unpaid taxes, his barrister attempted to unravel the arcane complexities of Lester Piggott’s character.
It was an impossible task. Yet in attempting — vainly — to spare the greatest jockey in the history of horseracing from a prison sentence, John Mathew QC came as close as anyone, before or since, to unveiling the man behind that chiselled granite mask.
In the saddle, he averred, Piggott was undoubtedly a genius. His uncanny ability to communicate with a thoroughbred and manipulate the beast to his will while galloping at speeds of 40 mph, was honed by ‘ruthless determination, dedication and self-sacrifice’.
The Queen’s favourite jockey, Lester Piggott is pictured with Bonita, a two-year-old filly
Upon dismounting, however, his preternatural powers abruptly deserted him, said Mr Mathew. He became ‘an introverted, isolated person with an inability to communicate. A person of extreme thrift and a hoarder of money. A man with no interests, no relations, or indeed any knowledge of anything outside racing; brilliant within his own, tiny sphere but, really, uneducated in all other aspects of life, about which he was uninterested, uncaring, and probably without the mental or physical energy even to try to cope’.
For the watching nation, devouring every morsel of a sensational case that saw Piggott jailed for three years, it was a rude awakening. For by then he had been a legendary figure for almost 30 years, and his many admirers had cultivated a romanticised image of him: an image enhanced by his unfailing ability to deliver on their annual Derby Day flutter.
Viewed through the grainy prism of a cathode-ray television set, back in the 1950s and 1960s, ‘good old Lester’ was the quintessential English sporting hero, a gentleman genius much in the mould of Compton, Moss, Cooper and Charlton — others whose universal fame made the usage of both their names redundant.
After gliding past the winning post at Epsom or Ascot, he would doff his cap to the radiant young Queen, in whose colours he often rode, and modestly defer the credit for his triumph on to his horse.
Piggott spent a year in prison for tax evasion and as a result forfeited his OBE and the near certainty of a knighthood. Pictured the former jockey greets the Queen at the Epsom Derby
Piggott rode a classic winner, Carrozza, in the 1957 Oaks at Epsom Racecourse, for the Queen
When the English Flat Season finished, this self-avowed patriot would board a propellor-driven plane to show a clean pair of hooves to American or Australian riders, flying the flag for Britain and Empire.
With his cheeky-chap one-liners, mumbled in the impaired, high-pitched voice that developed from his partial deafness, and his uniquely crouched riding style, adapted to suit his gangling, 5 ft 8 in frame, he wasn’t merely the ‘Housewives’ Favourite’ (a soubriquet that carried no derogatory connotations in his heyday). He was a national treasure. In truth, however, Piggott — who died peacefully, yesterday in a Swiss hospital, aged 86 — was a flawed character, like so many of the greatest sportsmen and women.
Within racing circles, his willingness to stoop to dirty and often dangerous tactics in pursuit of victory became evident in his teens. Vying for position with the veteran jockey Doug Smith, the 16-year-old prodigy cracked the older man over the head with the heavy end of his riding crop; an assault that brought him one of many bans.
When he accidentally dropped his whip, during a race in Paris, he pulled alongside a French jockey, stooped low and brazenly snatched that of his rival clean out of his hand, like a backstreet pickpocket. Like Diego Maradona, with his ‘Hand of God’ he would do anything it took to win.
Anecdotes relating to his almost pathological meanness are legion. In the weighing room, he would sidle up to less well-rewarded jockeys and cadge the price of a newspaper. Lodging with an aunt during his jockey apprenticeship, he presented her with a bouquet by way of thanks, then deducted the florist’s bill from his weekly rent.
Then 24, Piggott married Susan Armstrong in 1961 at St Mark’s Church, Mayfair
And he wasn’t quite as uninterested in the trappings of wealth and fame as his barrister suggested. He holidayed in exotic places such as Tahiti and Honolulu and hobnobbed with the tycoons and celebrities for whom he rode. He taught the 1950s pop singer Tommy Steele to ride for a film role and socialised with pools magnate Robert Sangster.
He was also quick to accept their gifts. At 21, the aristocratic hotelier Sir Victor Sassoon gave him a Lincoln Continental car for winning one race: Piggott, who was constantly in trouble for speeding, promptly crashed it. After he won the 1957 Epsom Derby, the flamboyant society hairdresser ‘Teasy Weasy’ Raymond took off his solid-gold watch and placed it on his wrist.
Then there was his unconventional personal life. For many years, he was perceived to be a regular family man, devoted to his childhood sweetheart Susan Armstrong, a racing trainer’s daughter to whom he remained married for more than 60 years until his death.
They had two daughters, Maureen, who became an accomplished horsewoman, and Tracy, a horseracing presenter for the Irish TV channel RTE. By all accounts, Piggott was a devoted and generous father and grandfather.
Piggott as an apprentice jockey at his father’s training stable at Lambourn in 1950
But Piggott (centre) also raised son Jamie (left) with Anna Ludlow, who worked for his wife
Yet he always had a roving eye and caused a scandal, in late middle-age, by having a relationship with Anna Ludlow, 19 years his junior, who worked for his wife’s bloodstock business.
Rumours about their affair had echoed around the stables for years but Piggott always insisted they were just friends. The truth emerged when he had a serious riding accident in the U.S., in 1992, and Anna dashed to his bedside.
KEY MOMENTS IN THE CAREER OF LESTER PIGGOTT
1948: Piggott, aged 12, has his first ride in public on The Chase at Salisbury on April 7. The horse provides him with his first success at Haydock on August 18.
1950: He rides 52 winners as he finishes the season champion apprentice.
1954: Piggott, now 18, partners Never Say Die (33-1) to the first of his nine Derby victories.
1960: Successes in the Derby and St Leger help to win a first jockeys’ championship with 170 successes. Marries Susan Armstrong on February 22.
1965: Rides eight winners at Royal Ascot, a score bettered only by Sir Gordon Richards with nine.
1966: Piggott wins fourth championship with his highest ever total 191, 94 clear of his nearest rival.
1970: Wins 2000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger on Nijinsky, the first horse to win the Triple Crown for 35 years. The pair also finish second in the Champion Stakes and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
1973: Rides Rheingold to record his first success in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe after 16 previous failures.
1975: Awarded OBE.
1976: Rides record seventh Derby winner on Empery.
1977: As contract rider to pools magnate Robert Sangster, Piggott wins the Derby, Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes on The Minstrel.
1981: Having split with Sangster the previous year, Piggott – now attached to Henry Cecil – wins 1000 Guineas on Fairy Footsteps a week after nearly losing an ear in a starting stalls accident.
1982: Wins the last of his 11 jockeys’ championships.
1983: Teenoso carries him to his ninth win in the Derby.
1984: Piggott breaks record set by Frank Buckle 157 years previously when winning 28th classic on Commanche Run in the St Leger. Loses job with Cecil, who signs up Steve Cauthen.
1985: Retirement is announced at end of season. Rides 29th classic winner, Shadeed in the 2000 Guineas, but records only 34 victories, the last of which is on Full Choke at Nottingham, bringing career total to 4,349. Finishes second on final ride.
1986: Piggott sets up as trainer in Newmarket, saddling 30 winners including one at Royal Ascot.
1987: Wins first Classic as trainer with Lady Bentley in the Italian Oaks. Jailed for three years for tax evasion in October.
1988: Stripped of OBE. Released from prison after serving a year of sentence.
1989: Returns to saddle with three rides in Peru.
1990: Return to race riding announced and Piggott finishes close second on first ride back. Rides first winner of comeback on Nicholas, trained by wife Susan, at Chepstow. Gains memorable triumph in 1million Breeders’ Cup Mile in New York on Royal Academy.
1992: Wins 30th British classic on Rodrigo De Triano, owned by Sangster, in 2000 Guineas. The pair also collect the Irish 2,000 Guineas, Juddmonte International and Champion Stakes to earn tilt at Breeders’ Cup Classic. Fractures collar-bone and breaks two ribs in horror fall from Mr Brooks in opening race of Breeders’ Cup meeting in Miami, Florida.
1994: Rides last winner, Palacegate Jack, at Haydock on October 6.
The following year she gave birth to their son, Jamie, who attempted to follow in his father’s hoofprints as a jockey in his teens but is now a bloodstock agent.
Treated so shabbily, many wives would have headed for the divorce court. Not Susan, who permitted Piggott to spend half the week with her, in their luxurious Newmarket bungalow, and the remainder with Anna and the baby, a couple of miles down the road. They were all ‘good friends’, she maintained.
As for Piggott, in a rare personal interview, granted to The Mail on Sunday, he played the down the scandal with a trademark shrug of his shoulders. Though he admitted Susan had found it all ‘bloody difficult’ at first, he even attempted to make his behaviour seem virtuous. ‘In my position, some people might have chosen to divorce and abandon their first family, but I had no desire to do that. I chose to become the head of two households instead,’ he declared.
All those involved in the ménage, including his daughters, were ‘comfortable with it’, he said, adding: ‘What others think is of no importance to me.’
Lester Keith Piggott had lived in his own ‘tiny sphere’, as his QC described it, almost from the moment he was born, in Wantage, then in Berkshire, on Bonfire Night 1935. It wasn’t only his congenital deafness (a disability that went undiscovered until he was eight, when his parents saw him pressing the radio tightly to his ear) that set him apart from other children.
His grandfather was a champion jockey; his father, Keith, rode some 500 winners before running a racing stable, and his mother, Iris, was an accomplished amateur rider, so Lester was predestined for a career on the turf.
He showed no interest in school, making friends or other hobbies. Hoisted on to his first mount, a half-tamed New Forest pony named Brandy, when he was four, he wanted to spend every spare moment riding. His first competitions were wartime gymkhanas, but in 1948, by then apprenticed to his father, he took part in his first full horse race against adult professionals. He was just 12. Today, a racing jockey must be at least 16.
Though he wasn’t placed, his youthful appearance brought his first local newspaper headlines. Two years later, he left school without even sitting his exams.
His mother constantly drummed into him the need to make as much, and spend as little, as he could, reminding him of all the talented jockeys she had known who ended up on skid row.
His early successes soon brought him to national attention. In 1951, he appeared on a popular radio show with singing starlets Petula Clark and Shirley Bassey.
By then 16, Piggott’s physique was proving problematic. He had grown to 5 ft 8 in — overly tall for a flat-racing jockey — and, worse, he was piling on the pounds. He took drastic action. Resolving to keep his weight at around 8 st 3 lb — two stone below average for his height — he brutally and systematically starved himself: a regime he called ‘wasting’. His diet consisted solely of lean protein, fruit, and vegetables, the portions of which were mouse-size. He drank only water and black coffee (though he later developed a taste for vintage champagne). To kill his appetite, he began smoking cigars. Driving to meetings, he would wear a plastic suit overlain by thick sweaters and turn up the car’s heater to sweat off a couple of pounds.
According to a friend, Piggott ‘waged war on his body’ throughout his career, and the damage he inflicted on himself was painfully evident. The face that cracked a thousand whips was skeletal, his skin stretched tautly over jutting cheekbones, with as many lines as a Tube map.
During his tax trial, his barrister suggested that this martyrish obsession might somehow have been linked to his criminal compulsion to stash away his vast earnings. ‘Nobody really knows the effect of this type of physical self-denial upon the mind and character,’ he said.
A psychiatrist who examined Piggott before the hearing concluded that malnutrition could have impaired his judgment. Determining Piggott’s IQ to be either average or somewhere below, he also stated that the jockey’s irrational behaviour might have been affected by brain damage sustained in his many racing falls. In a career spanning almost 50 years he broke almost every bone in his body.
His supposedly limited intellect was perplexing. For watching him studying the stock market and cutting wily deals with the rich owners for whom he rode, Piggott’s associates believed his business acumen was second only to his skill in the saddle. Asked what he would do if he won £1 million, one top jockey replied instantly: ‘Give it to Lester to invest for me.’
By his mid-20s he bestrode the sport of kings in princely style. His 1960 wedding reception, at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, was followed by a honeymoon on the French Riviera. He and Susan moved into their stylish Newmarket home and he acquired an E-type Jaguar.
That same year he claimed the third of his record nine Derby wins, and the first of his 11 champion jockey titles. While he was paid handsomely, and his purses were doubtless augmented by cash backhanders and personal wagers, as was the custom before racing was more tightly regulated, he thirsted for a greater share of the spoils.
Piggott’s father Keith (left) was also a successful jockey but his son’s achievements dwarfed his
As author Roy David explains in his best-selling inside account of the jockey’s demise, Lester Piggott: Downfall Of A Legend, as the 1970s dawned, the jockey saw an opportunity to capitalise on his talent. At the time, racing was being transformed into a multi-billion-pound industry by oil-rich Arab owners, yet many old-school jockeys were still content with a pat on the back and a few pounds in their pocket.
Not Piggott. As he recognised, in racing the serious money is to be made from breeding, for the best thoroughbreds can be worth many millions when they go to stud. Stallions are syndicated into 40 shares, and each shareholder receives a portion of the breeding rights. The fee for coupling a mare with a Derby winning stallion could be £250,000, even then.
So Piggott, when signing a contract, began demanding a share of the breeding rights in addition to his jockey’s retainer and bonuses. As he could turn also-rans into champions, his paymasters were happy to agree. Soon, other star jockeys were cutting similarly lucrative deals.
If only he declared his massively increased earnings, and paid his taxes, we would doubtless be remembering him differently today. He would have been lauded for bringing future generations of jockeys their just rewards. Yet unbridled greed and hubristic arrogance were his downfall.
Investigated twice by the Inland Revenue, he convinced inspectors that his only bank account was with NatWest in Newmarket, and never held more than a few thousand pounds. In fact, he had stashed millions in a network of at least 17 secret offshore bank accounts. He didn’t even tell his own accountants about them. However, his Dublin accounts were said to have come to light when Special Branch officers probed the funding of the IRA. Another theory was that MI5 tapped his phone calls.
Yet his deceit might never have been uncovered but for a banal business wrangle, in the early 1980s, between the top trainer Henry Cecil, for whom Piggott was then riding, and an embittered and shady bloodstock agent named Melvyn Waters.
Hellbent on taking revenge on Cecil, Waters remembered a letter he and others had received from the trainer, setting out the details of Piggott’s proposed contract for the 1982 racing season.
It made for eye-watering reading. On top of his official retainer of £10,000, Piggott was holding out for a secret lump sum of £45,000 in cash. His regular jockey’s winning percentage was to be supplemented by another bung: 7.5 per cent of the first-prize purses he won, and 10 per cent of the place money (usually if the horse finishes in the top four spots in a race). Again, payable in crisp pound notes that could be concealed from the taxman.
All this was against the rules of racing’s ruling body, the Jockey Club. But his demands didn’t stop there. He would, of course, require breeding rights shares.
Small wonder that, when circulating the details of this bombshell confidential contract, Cecil had sent an accompanying letter, advising its recipients to ‘destroy it as soon as you’ve read it’. Waters had other ideas. Seeking to expose Cecil — not Piggott, whom he admired — he hawked it around Fleet Street, asking a fee of £50,000.
At first the red-top tabloids showed no appetite for a story that would ruin the reputation of the Housewives’ Favourite. But in February 1985, when the Sunday People decided to publish, Lester’s tax-dodging race was run.
It triggered an exhaustive new probe into his financial affairs. Then nearing his 50th birthday, Piggott had planned the 1985 season to be his last. He had no idea undercover officers were watching him every time he raced and spying on him as he socialised and attended meetings. When they raided his home to question him, in early 1986, they already knew all the answers.
Intriguingly, when searching his locked cabinets, the investigators also found a loaded rifle, two other guns, and 468 rounds of ammunition.
As anonymous callers would phone him before big races, threatening to shoot him, one wonders whether he kept them for self-protection. However, when he was taken to court for illegally possessing the weapons, he claimed they were merely gifts from a retired police officer.
He escaped with a £1,000 fine, but there was no leniency from the judge who presided over his tax case. Millions of hardworking people paid their dues, said Mr Justice Farquharson. Sparing a man of Piggott’s riches would be an open invitation for others to cheat the system. The saddest photograph of the iconic jockey captures him peering forlornly from the window of a bus taking him to Norwich Prison after his sentence.
True to form, however, he never explained his dishonesty. Nor did he express remorse. In his autobiography, he merely spoke of getting his affairs in a ‘mess’, as if he had forgotten to account for a few pounds, and he dismissed his stretch in the open prison to which he was transferred as ‘a waste of time’. He was only required to serve a year of his three-year sentence.
It clearly hurt the patriotic Piggott badly, though, to receive a letter from Buckingham Palace demanding that he return the OBE awarded to him in 1975. The more so when it became known that, at the time his offences came to light, he had been nominated for a knighthood.
‘Why an honour which had been awarded to me for services to racing had been removed on account of my misdemeanours in a different area altogether was beyond me, and I felt saddened at the pettiness,’ he wrote in his book, clearly failing to accept the gravity of what he had done.
He took comfort in the fact that the Queen quickly forgave him. That much became clear when he came out of retirement following his release.
Piggott was crowned champion jockey 11 times and racked up 4,493 race wins in Britain
Racing in America, he was thrown from his horse, kicked in the head and dragged along the track, suffering horrific injuries. Languishing in hospital, though, his spirits were raised when the British consul arrived bearing Her Majesty’s personal ‘get well’ message.
Amazingly, Piggott recovered to ride again, even winning the prestigious Breeders’ Cup in the U.S, in 1990, when he was 54, before retiring for good on Bonfire Night, 1995, his 60th birthday.
His later life was lived largely out of the spotlight but for the occasional story about his domestic arrangements, which took a belated twist when, aged 77, he eloped to Switzerland with Lady Barbara FitzGerald, a long-time racing friend and the sister-in-law of the Duke of Leinster.
Impenetrable to the last, Piggott declined to subject himself to analytical interviews. And so, the great man leaves us with many unsolved mysteries. Again, it was his barrister, John Mathew, who summarised them most eloquently.
How was it conceivable, he asked, that a colossus such as Lester Piggott should find himself in such a sorry predicament?
How was it conceivable that someone who had become ‘one of the world’s greatest sports personalities in all history — a man who has given so much pleasure to so many, and commands so much adulation and respect’ — should find himself in the dock, with the ‘castle of his achievement and reputation in ruins at his feet’? One wonders whether the genius behind that granite mask knew the answer himself.
At the Epsom Derby this Saturday, 40 jockeys who have worn the purple, gold and violet royal livery will form a guard of honour for the Queen to mark the Platinum Jubilee. According to insiders, Piggott would certainly have been invited to take part, were it not for his health.
Hopefully, the greatest horseman ever to grace the turf was made aware of this as he lay in a Swiss hospital. For the patriotic Lester Piggott would doubtless have been comforted to know that his transgressions had been forgotten, and he had been accepted back into the fold.
Lester Piggott: Downfall Of A Legend, by Roy David, is available on Amazon.
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