Carson and Dettori pay tribute to ‘iconic’ Lester Piggott

Willie Carson and Frankie Dettori have led the tributes to Lester Piggott, who died in Switzerland on Sunday morning at the age of 86.

Carson and Piggott held sway on the track in the 1970s and 80s when both jockeys were in their pomp and five-times champion Carson said he felt like a part of him had died with the most “iconic” racing figure of the 20th century.

“I feel as though I have lost part of my life in way, as Lester has been part of my life ever since I came into racing,” said an emotional Carson.

“I came to his in-laws as an apprentice and he was part of my life right from the word go, until the end. He was an iconic figure in the horse racing world. He is a legend.

Willie Carson and Lester Piggott share a joke at Doncaster's St Leger meeting
Willie Carson and Lester Piggott share a joke at Doncaster’s St Leger meeting (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

“We had the luck of some ding-dongs on the track and he was a person who made us all better – because we had to be better to beat him. We had to up our game to compete with him, because he was so magical on top of a horse.”

Piggott was known for his single-mindedness and was not averse to phoning up trainers to get rides he thought he could win on, regardless of the incumbent jockey.

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Carson added: “He was confident. He had the confidence, because he didn’t care about others, where normal people worry about doing the wrong thing.

“That man, for some reason, never showed any pressure. He never seemed to be under any pressure. He rode his horses with such great confidence.

“I wouldn’t call him a close friend, but as the years go on, the more endearing you are to one another – we had a racing life together and I wish I had been as good as him.”

Asked if there had been anyone better before or since Piggott, the Stirling-born winner of 17 British Classics added: “Maybe Gordon Richards and possibly you might put Frankie Dettori up there – those are the three iconic jockeys in the last 250 years.”

Carson added that he was hopeful that his great rival had begun to pull through after being hospitalised last week and hopes were high that he had recovered enough in time to go home over the next few days.

“That is the worst part,” said Carson. “That has made things worse – I was drafting a letter in my head for a card to say ‘welcome home’ for when he got out.

“It is so sad. Part of my life has gone – that is how I feel.”

Piggott was the ‘housewives’ favourite’, particularly when it came to riding in races such as the Derby, and Dettori has long since taken up the baton as the sport’s flag-bearer.

The Italian had a close relationship with Piggott through the pair’s association with the late bookmaker turned gambler and charity fund raiser Barney Curley.

Three-time champion Dettori said: “It is a shock when you hear news like that. He has been part of our lives forever really.

Frankie Dettori with Lester Piggott
Frankie Dettori with Lester Piggott (Lynne Cameron/PA)

“Lester was a hero of mine and a good friend. The impact he has made in racing, on all of us, is second to none.

“I will always try to remember him for the good things and I offer my sincere condolences to his family and his many friends.

“He was a legend. We always tried to aspire to be like him and none of us can do it.

“I am not old enough to remember him riding when he was in his peak but, I’m talking as a professional jockey, we all grew up wanting to be like him.

“I kind of got close to him personally, because obviously we were both good friends with Barney (Curley), and Lester was a good friend to me. He will never be forgotten.”

Aidan O’Brien is the current trainer at the Ballydoyle yard in County Tipperary from where Piggott enjoyed so much success with Vincent O’Brien. Should he win the Derby this weekend, he will take his tally to nine – the same as Piggott.

Aidan O'Brien paid his tribute to Lester Piggott
Aidan O’Brien paid his tribute to Lester Piggott (Brian Lawless/PA)

He told Racing TV: “He was a very special man, he used come here every year around Classic time and we’d go through all the horses and he would give his thoughts on them. His thoughts on where they should go and what his favourites were. It was something that I will never forget, his knowledge was second to none.

“He didn’t say a lot, but every word he said you really hung on to. It always meant so much and you knew there was so much experience in there, so much knowledge and so much natural ability to assess a horse.

“I remember when we started training and Lester rode a filly for us called Far Fetched, it was such a big thing for us for Lester to come over to the Curragh to ride our filly. We’d never experienced any aura or presence around a person like that before really, he was just one of those very special people.

“We’re just so sorry for everybody that he has passed, what a special man. It was an absolute privilege that we did know him and got to know him after the years.”

Top trainer John Gosden was assistant to Vincent O’Brien during the Piggott era, and recalled how important the jockey was to the operation.

Gosden told Sky Sports Racing: “He was absolutely key, there is no doubt. He was with Noel Murless in Newmarket before, that’s when I first got to know Lester, all in the 1970s. He rode for Noel for the last two years of his training career, they had a close relationship and great respect and then he went on to Vincent in ’77.

John Gosden hailed Lester Piggott as the
John Gosden hailed Lester Piggott as the “consummate horseman” (Mike Egerton/PA)

“They listened to everything he said, they were very interested in his opinion, but he never really said much. He had a great sense of humour. He was very keen, whenever he rode work, that he would assess all the horses for himself as well. He was very singular, very much his own man.

“He was intensely competitive and determined, you could say in a sense there was something coolly ruthless about his approach to it. He would always want to be on the right horse, well, that is the right thing to do. When you think about what hell he was putting his body through all those years, he had to have incredible strength of mind when you think he was riding so much below his weight and wasting all the time to do it. The fact Lester made it to 86 is some testament to him.

“He was a consummate horseman, he rode in his own style and those that imitated him were always a poor imitation. He very much was the man who set the tone on everything.

“When you travel with jockeys you learn a lot. You can pick up a great deal, you’re like blotting paper at that age, you pick up everything you can. He was great fun in a conversation, but you never quite knew where you were going to end up with him. He’d just disappear to the airport, that was just Lester, he was somewhere else.”

He added: “He was the great jockey of Europe, along with Yves Saint-Martin of that era.

“When he won the Derby in ’77 (on The Minstrel), that was an extraordinary ride. The way he rode him that day, he was a horse that was not thought to stay and he (Piggott) had a very different viewpoint.”

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