They descended on Leicester racecourse that October Monday afternoon in their droves, writes Tony Stafford. I arrived in the smooth-riding Mercedes driven by Bryn Crossley – incidentally, for one season, “my” project as we pieced together an apprentices’ title. But that was years before.
Now I was observer on the trip up from Newmarket on the day that Lester Piggott, newly out of prison after being found guilty of tax offences, was back in the saddle with three rides.
He was a fortnight short of his 55th birthday and I was travelling along to get the inside story for the Daily Telegraph. Leicester was what it was all about, but the three rides produced no wins, the nearest a short-head second place on Henry Cecil’s Lupescu for the pair’s great friend, Charles St George.
Another of his rides was on the John Jenkins-trained Balasani in a mile-and-a-half handicap in which he was a disappointing favourite. Owned by my friend Mark Smith, although he was not known to me at the time, Balasani was to bring Mark a big win in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham a few years later after transferring to the care of Martin Pipe.
Pragmatic as ever, and aware there would be a scrum after his final mount of the day, Lester asked Bryn to give me the keys and said: “Bring the car round by the exit ten minutes before my last ride.”
I got to the car park in plenty of time, but having opened the driver’s door, I was confronted by a space that had been occupied by a 7st7lb waif, the steering wheel maybe two inches away from the seat. Add maybe another ten stone, you might have been close. But then there was the issue of how to move it forward.
I remember even now the sensation of sweat trickling down my back in my anxiety. Which button do you press to move the seat? It seemed like ages, but eventually my random and increasingly panic-stricken efforts from outside paid off and the seat glided forward.
Then all that was needed was to switch on. I did. Nothing! Looked for a manual – none to be seen. Tried again and all the while the cacophony from the track as that last race in which Lester was riding came full volume to my ears, drowning out any other sound. Then, suddenly, as they passed the post there was silence, and I could just discern the quietest hint of an engine purring that had ever befallen my ears.
I was off. I belted round to the gate – the crowd was already dispersing – and they caught up Lester and Bryn in their path on the way. Without hesitating, he jumped in the car, saying: “Close the windows”, and at my suggestion that he might want to speak to Graham Rock, sadly passed from us some time after, he uttered a word inappropriate for the occasion but which left no confusion as to his answer.
We high-tailed it out of there, me relishing my job as relief driver, but as we approached a service station just going out of Oadby, he said: “Pull over, Bryn’ll drive!”
As the story had not materialised, Lester suggested on the way back to Newmarket that I might like to travel down to Chepstow the following day. I would drive up to the house in Hamilton Road, from there we would go to the July racecourse, catch a flight to Badminton and from there take a taxi to Chepstow.
I was pleased to come on that leg of the comeback as the best chance was a horse his wife Susan trained for Henryk De Kwiatkowski, a man I had known for eight years since meeting him at Keeneland for the July Sales. I introduced him later to Jim Bolger and he sent him some nice horses to train including the fast filly, Polonia.
The horse that was running at Chepstow was called Nicholas, named after one of his sons and the colt was by De Kwiatkowski’s brilliant stallion Danzig out of Lulu Mon Amour, Lulu being one of the polo-playing aircraft magnate’s daughters.
Nicholas duly won and later won in Group company in Europe, becoming a minor stallion. The journey back was in sharp contrast to the day before and we hatched a plan to tell his own story of the comeback to the Daily Telegraph readers.
In those days, getting words from journalists to the printers for setting required an intermediary stage. These were the telephonists, who listened to your dictated offering, typed them up and, after they were put into type, another layer – the “readers” – would then check the spelling of the typesetters. Basically, we were only able to intervene if a major mistake had been perpetrated at one of the various stages.
The typists and readers were in the same union and their jobs were rigidly and jealously guarded. Anyway, I was lucky to get one of the best of the bunch at the time and while she waited for each phrase, originated by Lester and relayed by me, he got annoyed.
“Give me the phone,” he ordered, and, to be fair, on finishing off his tale of how proud he was to show that people in their mid-50’s could still have a lot to offer, and how he was hoping it would be an example to them, he was brief, to the point and very humble.
I felt humble when upon writing The Little Black Racing Book a few years later, Lester generously supplied the foreword, and the next edition, this time with a Daily Telegraph title, had Henry Cecil’s endorsement.
Now 31 and a half years after the events at Leicester and Chepstow, Lester is no more; and neither is Bryn Crossley or, of course, Sir Henry. I can confess that, more than once, the nightmare of that impossible to move seat and seemingly dead engine have come back to haunt me.
Nine Derby wins starting from 1954 and Never Say Die when he was just 18 wove a fabric with the great race for almost 30 years. His riding career, which started with a winner aged 12 on The Chase at Haydock in 1950, lasted for around 45 years. After the initial comeback, which we learned over time had been simply designed to show Vincent O’Brien, his greatest fan, that he was still the man to ride a fancied horse at the Breeders’ Cup later that month, he duly moved into the realms of fantasy.
Here I interject, an “amusing?”, nay embarrassing, headline put up in the Press Association racing office in Fleet Street by the then Assistant Racing Editor, a few years after I’d left the place. George Hill was in the room that morning and he was proudly shown the offering. “Never Say Die – but he did!” How awful! I had not heard of Lester’s passing until a text from George yesterday 47 years after its forerunner. “Never Say Die – but he did!” To think he waited all those years!
But to return to Lester’s most unlikely triumph. On Royal Academy, he won the Mile with a most amazing run from the back of the field, at Belmont Park, at a time when the Vincent O’Brien magic was to some degree wearing a little thin. This was the time when the Robert Sangster/O’Brien/John Magnier initial era of international thoroughbred dominance had been gently declining as fellow investors like Danny Schwartz withdrew their funds, and the money and competition from ruling families from the Middle East took full effect.
As an attempt to replace their buying power at the sales, Vincent headed up the formation of Classic Thoroughbreds, the theory being that Irish racing fans might well be tempted into joining the most successful man in thoroughbred history. He would train great horses and continue to win the world’s most important races as he had been for decades.
They had some initial success in raising significant capital and Vincent went all out to land the Nijinsky colt out of Crimson Saint at the 1988 Keeneland Sales. He was Vincent’s pick of that sale and he thought he could be a re-embodiment of Nijinsky himself, the most recent winner of the UK Triple Crown, in 1970 and, 52 years later, still the most recent. Nijinsky had been ridden in all his UK races by Piggott and O’Brien was determined to get the colt for his new project. <Incidentally, Nijinsky’s Derby was the first I saw in person and the image of his beating the French star, Gyr, is also still engraved on the memory.>
In the end, having won the July Cup that year while Lester was still out of the picture, Vincent’s star buy was on the way to justifying expectations and, after the Breeders’ Cup triumph, he went off to be a stallion with Coolmore, first in the US and then later in Australia where he died in 2002. Classic Thoroughbreds’ management team soon found that trying to keep thousands of small shareholders happy as against five or six very rich men in the old days proved almost impossible, but anyone that did participate in that epic win in the US, will never have forgotten it.
Nobody but Lester could have done it. The sheer will to win for this singular man can never have been matched, certainly not until Tony McCoy came along. But I bet even AP never had the cheek to pinch rides in big races off his pals in the way Lester did. In the week of the Derby, his loss to the game is even more poignant.
Many people in racing knew him better than me, but I have loads of happy memories of Lester and, especially, his almost girlish giggle when recalling a misfortune that befell one of his friends. Priceless and, until yesterday, ageless. But the memories will always be just that.