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The legacy of Lester Piggott

31 May 2022 Written by Andrew Lemon

As the racing world mourns the loss of one of its greatest jockeys, Lester Piggott, we remember his impact on the sport, and his special place in our own Flemington history.

Among the greatest names as jockeys in British and international racing in the past century, Lester Piggott stands alongside Sir Gordon Richards, Pat Eddery, Australia’s Scobie Breasley and Frankie Dettori. It’s not just about the number of wins. It’s about the quality, the standards, the horsemanship. Eleven English jockey premierships. Nine Epsom Derby victories, on turf legends including Never Say Die, Crepello, Roberto, The Minstrel and his favourites Nijinsky and Sir Ivor. Eight St Legers at Doncaster. Six Epsom Oaks. Three Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Multiple Grade or Group 1 wins in France, Germany, Ireland, North America and Singapore along with the Australasian Oaks at Morphettville …

And one win at Flemington: the ‘Hollywood Highweight Handicap’, First Division, 1957.

Lester died in Switzerland on 29 May 2022, aged 86, and world racing mourns his passing. His was a career in three acts. Thirty years a champion jockey. A stint as trainer which landed him in prison for a year for tax fraud. A brilliant return to the saddle in 1990. His last big race ride came the year he turned sixty, winning Canberra’s Black Opal Stakes on Zadoc in March 1995, after he retired from riding in Britain.

Why the 1957 ‘Hollywood Highweight’? The Melbourne Racing Club in the 1950s was an alliance between the defunct Williamstown Racing Club and the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association, which once operated three Melbourne racecourses. With all these tracks permanently closed by 1942, the MRC ran some of its allocated feature race meetings at Flemington while planning its own racecourse at Sandown Park. In 1963, the MRC merged with the Victoria Amateur Turf Club at Caulfield. An International Stakes in Melbourne was inaugurated in 1955 by the MRC. The 1957 running was at Flemington.

Lester Piggott at just 21 was the star attraction. He had won the English Derby twice, and the Oaks at Epsom for the Queen. He was hailed as the golden boy of British racing and already ‘one of the greatest jockeys Britain has produced’.

His international rivals at Flemington that day were Charlie Barends from South Africa, Germany’s Hein Bollow, Italy’s Lionello Milani and the Frenchman Maxim Garcia. Victoria’s own champion Bill Williamson ended up winning the race, on a horse called Harry Lime.

But there was a nice twist to the story. After finishing unplaced behind Harry Lime, Piggott rode the New Zealand-bred gelding Sir William to narrow victory in Race 6, the ‘Hollywood Highweight’. Sir William was a popular horse, winner of the inaugural 1955 MRC International and a Melbourne Cup placegetter. The crowd gave Piggott a huge reception.

Lester Piggott’s last visit to Flemington was as a guest of the VRC for the 2017 Melbourne Cup, Rekindling’s year. It was Lester’s 82nd birthday. By happy chance the great Aboriginal jockey, the late Darby McCarthy, was also a Club guest that day. The two had become friends when Darby had a contract to ride in France in the 1960s, but had not met in fifty years since. Lester, famously shy, taciturn and hard of hearing, was delighted to see his old friend. And it made Darby’s day. It was another quiet moment of history at Flemington.

Image caption: Lester Piggott returns to scale to the applause of the crowd after the Legends Race held on Stakes Day at Flemington in 2000. (Darrin Braybrook/Getty Images)

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