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Gary Moore echoes his father’s opinion: Lester Piggott was ‘the greatest’

The Moore family shared a special relationship with the late Lester Piggott, a jockey George Moore rated as the best he had ridden against 'By lengths. On his own.'

Gary Moore remembers the day in 1967 that he first met ‘The Long Fellow’. He was 15 years old and Lester Piggott was staying at the family home in Sydney, invited there by his father, the late, great Australian jockey George Moore.

“Dad had so much admiration for Lester so I knew he was a special rider,” Moore told Asian Racing Report in the wake of Piggott’s passing in Switzerland on Sunday at the age of 86.

“Dad rode against him in England that year: he took the job with Noel Murless after Lester gave it up to go freelance. I then rode against Lester in France, Hong Kong and Australia and he was probably the greatest: in my eyes he was the greatest, like dad said.”

Broadcaster John Tapp, during an interview on the TV show Inside Racing, once questioned George about which jockey he considered to be the best he had ridden against, internationally. His response was immediate and unequivocal: “Piggott. By lengths. On his own.”

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Lester Piggott winning the 1970 St Leger at Doncaster on Nijinsky (Photo by Getty Images)

Piggott’s list of achievements contains 11 jockey championships and 30 Classic victories in Britain, including a record nine wins in the Derby; he notched 4,493 wins at home, while his overseas successes included three Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes, three Washington Internationals and a Breeders’ Cup Mile, as well as a host of other races major and minor from Mahalaxmi to Happy Valley.

Those triumphs and the manner in which they were achieved made the fiercely competitive and infamously miserly Piggott a cultural icon, the ‘housewives’ favourite’, a rider who was famous beyond the racing arena and, within it, well beyond the borders of Europe.

Piggott was a global phenomenon. (Photo by Getty Images)

He first headed to Hong Kong in the 1971-72 season and through the ensuing decade – the era of his bounteous alliance with Vincent O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stable – became a regular visitor as the Moore family established their legacy: George was champion trainer, Gary was champion jockey and his brother John was gaining a hands-on education that would lead him to his own record setting career as a trainer in the city.

“The English jockeys went to India during the off-season back then but then some of them started going to Hong Kong and Lester was among them. The Hong Kong people were already very well aware of what a great rider he was, so it was something special to have him riding there,” Moore continued.

“He really was the best jockey that we ever rode against. Lester revolutionised the way jockeys rode, coming after Gordon Richards, he shortened the length (of stirrup) he rode at and he was so talented; he had great hands and was beautifully balanced.

“Even when I was champion jockey in France, you’re still always looking at the better jockeys to see how you can improve your style, and while I didn’t ride as short as Lester, I tried to take bits of what he did to improve my own riding. But he was gifted.”

Piggott had a rare knack: the ability to conjure extra effort from within a horse and claim victory when defeat had seemed a more likely outcome. His famously fierce, rampant drive was exemplified when The Minstrel responded to reel in Hot Grove in the 1977 Derby, while his victory on Commanche Run in the 1984 St Leger stands as an exquisite case study in astute tactics and exemplary hands.

“I never had the opportunity to ride in a tight finish with him; if I had, he would have beat me,” Moore said with a chuckle.

“He did things that other jockeys couldn’t do, like everyone said you can’t win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe from the front and he went and won it on Alleged, on the lead.”

Piggott’s abilities were intact when, after a five-year ‘retirement’ that included a prison stretch for tax evasion, he returned to the saddle two weeks shy of his 55th birthday. It was horse racing’s equivalent of The Beatles announcing one final tour.

His surging win – from an improbable, deep position – 10 days later, aboard Royal Academy in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, has become the stuff of legend.

Piggott continued until 1995, wrapping up further Group One victories, including aboard the 1992 champion three-year-old Rodrigo De Triano, at the tail end of a career that began in 1948 and which also saw him partner such equine icons as Crepello, Petite Etoile, Right Boy, Sir Ivor, Sagaro, Le Moss, Ardross, Dahlia and the last English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky.

Lester Piggott riding the great champion Nijinsky at Newmarket, circa July 1970. Photo by Getty Images

“To come back after retiring and to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Royal Academy, that was special. He rode some great horses, especially for Vincent O’Brien,” Moore noted.

Piggott’s all-time Hong Kong haul was 36 wins from 241 rides spread through three decades and featured a Classic Trial victory on the Ivan Allen-trained Sterling Town. He matured to become one of the sport’s elder statesmen, a wise sage to many younger riders, and continued to be a popular visitor to Hong Kong long after he had hung up his saddle.

“I have a lot of great memories from riding against Lester, he was a wonderful jockey. It’s sad to lose him,” Moore added.

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