The legendary jockey Lester Piggott, who died in Switzerland on May 29, exerted an unexpected influence on breeding due to his mastery of the craft of race riding, and its components of pace, balance, and timing.
The Long Fellow’s mindfulness in the saddle allowed him to maintain his composure under pressure, and those qualities were of special value in the most prestigious races, such as the Derby Stakes, and the Derby’s importance to the Thoroughbred is paramount. The great breeder and trainer Federico Tesio famously remarked that the winning post of the Derby had exerted greater influence on the breed than any other single factor.
Piggott rode nine winners of the Epsom classic, beginning in 1954 as an 18-year-old with Never Say Die (by Nasrullah), and that fact alone is an indicator of the importance of this rider to the development of modern breeding.
The Maestro’s subsequent winners of the Derby were Crepello (Donatello) 1957 (in which year he also won the Oaks with the Queen’s Carrozza), St Paddy (Aureole) 1960, Sir Ivor (Sir Gaylord) 1968, Nijinsky (Northern Dancer) 1970, Roberto (Hail to Reason) 1972, Empery (Vaguely Noble) 1976, The Minstrel (Northern Dancer) 1977, and Teenoso (Youth) 1983. Piggott retired for the first time in 1985, and yet his influence on the breed has lived on through the accomplishments of many of those classic winners at stud.
In particular, Piggott was effective at evaluating a horse’s turn of foot and knowing when to ask for it to get the most effect in a race. This is especially important at Epsom, with its gradients and turns, and the rising ground to the finish has found the bottom of more than one doubtful stayer. So a rider who understands the course and who understands the horse he is riding is a serious asset in the quest for classics. This made Piggott the most sought-after jockey in racing.
Once the young riding star had proven his talents in the classics of the 1950s, Piggott was able to pick and choose from the prospects for the race, and he was known to accept rides on horses from differing stables and then to ride them in the classic preps with as much interest in evaluating their capacity to cope with Epsom as with winning the race at hand. This practice was not always popular with owners, trainers, or punters.
As a regular rider for the stable of the great trainer Vincent O’Brien, Piggott rode the first two Derby winners by the 1964 Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer (Nijinsky and The Minstrel), and it is famously reported that, after Piggott’s split with that elite outfit, their hot favorite El Gran Senor (Northern Dancer) had just finished a close second to Secreto (Northern Dancer) in the 1984 Derby, and Piggott walked through the unsaddling area on his way to the jockey’s room and remarked archly, “Missing me yet?”
In addition to helping showcase the importance of Northern Dancer and his adaptability to the European racing environment, Piggott was a great evaluator of a horse’s ability. He said of the only English Triple Crown winner from 1935 to the present that “Nijinsky was one of those horses you could win on really easily yet – and this is hard to understand – he never felt as good to ride as he actually was.”
Sent to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, Nijinsky became the first great stallion son of his famous sire and an immense influence on the classics, both in Europe and the States. Nijinsky sired three winners of the Derby (Golden Fleece 1982, Shahrastani 1986, and Lammtarra 1995); and two grandsons of Nijinsky – Kahyasi (Ile de Bourbon) 1988 and Generous (Caerleon) 1991 – won the Epsom classic during this period.
Although many of the sons and daughters of Nijinsky were sent to race in Europe, the stallion’s foals were just as effective in the U.S., and Ferdinand won the 1986 Kentucky Derby, as well as the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and was named Horse of the Year that season, as well.
Prior to the 1970 Derby, there had been no shortage of speculation that the 12 furlongs would find out the stamina of Nijinsky. He was, after all, by that small American stallion who hadn’t stayed the distance in the 1964 Belmont Stakes. As the classic and subsequent racing proven beyond question, Nijinsky himself was eminently suited to the full classic distance.
In that race, Piggott rode the bay son of Northern Dancer and Flaming Page for speed, which he showed with a flair up the rising ground to the winning post at Epsom, then again in subsequent starts at the Curragh and Ascot. Piggott rode Northern Dancer’s second Derby winner, The Minstrel in 1977, who needed a strong rider to get the most out of him over the full classic distance, but that is what his jockey supplied.
In Piggott’s Derby victories immediately prior to the one with The Minstrel and the rider’s final success in 1983, both Empery and Teenoso were colts who needed to make the classic as strong a test of stamina as possible because they possessed strength and stamina far in excess of acceleration. Realizing their needs, Piggott controlled the pace and the race, bringing them home victorious. Piggott could not make either of them a good sire – they were both lamentable – but his tactical understanding and ability to adapt to what the horse required gave them as much opportunity as they could hope for.
Adaptability and presence of mind made Piggott a masterful competitor for the classics, and he won more of them than any rider in history, even though “it’s easier to lose a race than to win ’em, y’know.”