I think I called him sir in the stalls – Fallon on Lester Piggott

Kieren Fallon recalled a pivotal educational moment in his early days as a jockey, handed down to him by Lester Piggott, who died in Switzerland at the age of 86 on Sunday morning.

The six-times champion admitted to being a little star-struck in one of his first races against Piggott, having arrived from Ireland as a wet-behind-the-ears rookie.

“Everybody has a Lester Piggott story,” said Fallon, who went on to win 16 British Classics in a glittering career in the saddle.

“Everybody was in awe of him, especially us young riders. I had just started off, having come over from Ireland.

“I was in the stalls, riding a good filly, and Lester was in the stall beside me.

“He said ‘what are you doing?’ and I could not wait to tell him what I was doing – I planned to make the running.

Kieren Fallon won the Derby three times
Kieren Fallon won the Derby three times (Sean Dempsey/PA)

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“He popped in behind me and 100 yards from the line he pulled out and…boom. He had beaten me a short head. He gave me a riding lesson. He educated me that day. I will never forget it.

“He knew she was the one to beat and if I hadn’t have told him what I was doing, it might have been a different story. It was a great education to get from a master.

“You never reveal your hand. It was just typical of him. I think I called him sir in the stalls as well.

“He was such a legend. Everyone tried to aspire to be like Lester and I was no different.

“Lester was such an icon, a brilliant rider and a superb tactician.”

Three-times champion jump jockey Richard Dunwoody did not ride against Piggott, but rode out with him at the late Paul Kelleway’s yard as a teenager at Newmarket.

“I grew up with Nijinsky and all of those good horses and wanted to be a Flat jockey like Lester. We were all excited that Lester was riding out on Swiss Maid,” Dunwoody recalled. “We cantered down alongside the Rowley Mile and I was tailed off.

“By the time I had got my reins sorted, he was gone. That was the highlight of my life, aged 15.

Richard Dunwoody was a huge admirer of Lester Piggott
Richard Dunwoody was a huge admirer of Lester Piggott (Rebecca Naden/PA)

“I got to meet him when I was riding a bit. On a rare day off, I remember taking my dad to Chepstow to watch Nicholas, which was Lester’s first winner back from retirement in October 1990 for Susan (Piggott), just a few weeks before he rode Royal Academy to victory in the Breeders’ Cup.

“People say they should never come back but it was brilliant to see him riding again. I remember Peter Scudamore’s dad was there as well, so dad had a great day.

“My father actually looked after Luca Cumani’s Commanche Run, whom Lester won the St Leger on in 1984.

“He had jocked Darrel McHargue off and there was the famous quote where Lester was asked ‘don’t you feel sorry for Darrel today?’

“Lester turned and said ‘I hope he enjoys his game of golf’.”

Piggott also had ties to Dunwoody’s trainer grandfather, Dick Thrale. He added: “He rode Indigenous for him. Indigenous holds the five-furlong world record (53.6 seconds, shouldering 9st 5lb), winning the Tadworth Handicap at Epsom in 1960. That was hand-timed, so I don’t think it will ever be beaten.”

Piggott retired for the first time in 1985, but his burgeoning training career was cut short when he was sensationally jailed for tax fraud. He was stripped of his OBE before being released on parole after a year in 1988.

He then returned to the saddle in 1990, a comeback which enhanced his status, executing a ride on Royal Academy that was as brassy as it was brilliant to win at the Breeders’ Cup.

“I don’t think words can describe just how good Lester was,” said Dunwoody.

“It was obviously very sad with the way things went with the tax and everything else, but in some ways it added to his legend, really.

“To come back and ride to the standard he did well into his fifties was just absolutely incredible.

“He was iconic. People tried to emulate how short he rode, but they were never going to do it the way he did it. His strength in a finish was absolutely incredible and the winners he rode is testament to his brilliance.”

The pair met on social occasions and Dunwoody remembers Piggott could always turn on the charm at will when it suited him.

“Just after I retired, I remember having lunch at Motcombs in Belgravia with him and Sir Peter O’Sullevan (BBC commentator). They were good friends, but Peter was in awe of him. We all were.

“I remember one time at The Lesters with my girlfriend at the time. She was seated in the middle of myself and Lester.

“He got a bottle of champagne which he only shared with her, all evening. He didn’t give it to anyone else – it was just her and him! But that was him, he was totally charismatic.

“The last contact I had with him was when my daughter, Milly, was born. I sent him a text saying that ‘we are very happy, and the best thing about it was that she was born on your birthday’, and he sent one back offering his congratulations.

“It is really sad to learn of his passing and we send our heartfelt condolences to Maureen (Haggas, daughter), William (Haggas son-in-law) and all Lester’s family and friends. He was much loved by so many and a hero to me.”

Master French trainer Andre Fabre paid his tribute to Lester Piggott
Master French trainer Andre Fabre paid his tribute to Lester Piggott (Nigel French/PA)

Andre Fabre was among a slew of high-profile French racing figures to pay tribute to Piggott, whose magnetism and sense of devilment he remembers fondly.

“What a charming man,” said Fabre. “He was not talkative but he was touching with his kindness to me.

“One story I would like to relate is how unlike other jockeys he would, on occasions and at the last minute, release his irons a notch, just to show how good he was. I will miss him.”

Former French champion jockey and successful trainer Freddie Head added: “I loved the man. We enjoyed a lot of souvenirs together riding against each other. He was a great character and a great man.”

Gerald Mosse was close to tears as he recounted: “When I heard the news it really shocked me. We lose one of the best ever people on this planet in my eyes.

“He was a model figure, and no one will ever do what he did. He was a proper man and a top-class jockey worldwide.

“It was an honour to be a guy that he talked to. We were great friends.”

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