Iconic jockey Lester Piggott is dead aged 86 after battling heart problems – 48 hours after his daughter said he was on the mend in hospital.
His mercurial career in the saddle, which inspired a mass of films and documentaries about his turbulent life, spanned almost 50 years and saw him ride 4,493 winners.
Piggott’s son-in-law, Derby-winning trainer William Haggas, said: “Sadly we can confirm that Lester died peacefully in Switzerland this morning. I really don’t wish to add much more than that at this stage, although Maureen (Piggott’s daughter) will be making a statement later.”
Hailed as Britain’s most famous rider and dubbed ‘The Long Fellow’ as he was 5ft 8in tall, it was the third highest tally of victories behind only late jockeys Sir Gordon Richards and Pat Eddery.
Piggott, who had been hospitalised in Switzerland on May 22, was said by his daughter Maureen to be improving.
She said at Haydock Park on Saturday (28.05.22): “I went to see him earlier in the week and he’s improving, which is good news. He’s much better than he was earlier in the week and hopefully he’ll be going home on either Monday or Tuesday.”
Crowned champion jockey 11 times, Piggott became synonymous with the Derby, which he won a record nine times.
He also often unwittingly found himself in the limelight and glare of controversy.
Famously jailed for tax evasion, Piggott started riding as a young boy and, rode his first winner as a jockey in 1948 aged 12 on a horse called ‘The Chase’ at Haydock Park.
His first Derby winner at Epsom was on ‘Never Say Die’ in 1954 when he was aged just 18.
He went on to win eight more – on ‘Crepello’ (1957), ‘St. Paddy’ (1960), ‘Sir Ivor’ (1968), ‘Nijinsky’ (1970), ‘Roberto’ (1972), ‘Empery’ (1976), ‘The Minstrel’ (1977) and ‘Teenoso’ (1983).
On 15 May 2007 Piggott was admitted to intensive care in a Swiss hospital following the recurrence of a previous heart problem.
His wife stated the illness was not life-threatening and he was recovering in intensive care as a precaution.
He was seen at Royal Ascot the same year and at the Epsom Derby in June 2008 where he tipped the winner, ‘New Approach’, during a BBC television interview. Piggott was also presented for Gold Cup day at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2009, where he was interviewed in the parade ring.
Piggott was convicted of tax fraud in 1987 and sentenced to three years in prison.
TV presenter Rishi Persad, 48, tweeted: “Lester Piggott. The best jockey and one of the most iconic sport stars to have ever lived. RIP.”
Former jockey turned presenter Brough Scott, 79, told Racing TV: “He cast the longest shadow anyone has ever cast over racing.
“For me, he was my first and greatest hero because I was five when he ran his first winner. He was quite incredible, he danced to a different tune than any jockey before or since. You can argue about his relative merits but there hasn’t been and will never be anyone like Lester Piggott.”
The Great British Racing account said on Twitter: “Lester Piggott, the legendary rider, has passed away at the age of 86. We send our deepest condolences to all his family and friends at this sad time.”
And the Racing Post added: “Racing has lost one of the biggest names in the sport’s history following the death of Lester Piggott at the age of 86.”
Among the reams of mentions of Piggott in pop culture, British band ‘James’ recorded a song named ‘Sometimes (Lester Piggott)’ on their album ‘Laid’, and Van Morrison song ‘In the Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll’ also mentions Piggott by name in the line: “When we let, then we bet / On Lester Piggott when we met [ten to one] / And we let the goldfish go.”