There can be few still living whose childhood memories of racing aren’t shot through with images of Lester Piggott. For nearly half a century, from the time he won his first race aged 12 in 1948 until he rode his last winner decades later, his name and frame were as familiar to race-goers as John McCririck’s deerstalker.
It is difficult to put into context quite how successful ‘The Long Fellow’ was. The numbers ought to speak for themselves: 4,493 career wins, 30 Classics, and 116 winners at Ascot, including 11 Gold Cups. However, numbers such as these inevitably fail to express the historical and cultural significance of his career, nor its extraordinary longevity.
For those young striplings under forty who can dimly remember weekend afternoons spent trying to get a sly glimpse of Channel 4 racing, let us try a different context.
Piggott was born a year before the BBC Television Service was launched: you’d having been trying to cock an ear to the wireless to follow the racing back in 1935, you young pre-war scamp, you. By the time a second grainy black-and-white channel was introduced (ITV, 1955), he’d already ridden his first Epsom Derby winner (Never Say Die, 1954). By the time BBC2 came into being in 1962, he was positively a veteran, though still familiar only in monochrome. When your beloved Channel 4 hit the air in 1982, he was still going strong – though now in colour - and it wasn’t until four years after you were getting your telly programmes from space (Sky Sports was first bounced off a geostationary satellite in 1990) that he rode his last winner. By eerie coincidence it was only a couple of years after his retirement we were first exposed to the somewhat inexplicable Channel 5 and things like Big Brother.
It would be tempting to think that the country went to the dogs at around the same time. Fortunately, however, it went to the races instead.