A man, a horse... and a moment of electrifying genius

IT was a hesitant conversation at my bookmakers on Derby day last year that perfectly illustrated Lester Piggott's greatness and enduring legacy.

The talk was whether Frankie Dettori could finally win a first Derby as a pensioner reached up to the till and slowly counted out her pennies..

"I'll have 50p each way, please, on whatever Lester is riding," she asked politely. "I'm so sorry love," said the betting shop assistant. "He retired 12 years ago."

"Oh dear," said her customer hesitatingly. "What a shame. I'd better have 50p on Frankie's horse – but I'd be much happier if it was Lester."

Her worries were unfounded. Dettori enjoyed an armchair ride as Authorized ended his Derby jinx at the 15th time of asking.

But, despite the charismatic Italian's prowess and exuberance, this career-defining win still left him eight shy of Piggott's unsurpassable record around Epsom Downs.

And even Dettori probably does not possess the tactical acumen that Piggott demonstrated 40 years ago this week when he guided Sir Ivor home. It was one of the greatest ever pieces of horsemanship.

"Electrifying," recalls Piggott's close confidant Sir Peter O'Sullevan, the retired commentator.

"The special memory of Sir Ivor, even though I had supported him and backed him, was that he could not win from two furlongs out.

"It took a ride of supreme coolness. Vintage Piggott."

Piggott was not called Old Stoneface – in honour of his poker-like facial expression – without good reason.

The background to the 1968 Epsom Derby had seen Sir Ivor's trainer, Vincent O'Brien, stake a 500 each way bet 18 month previously with William Hill that his then unraced colt would win the race – at improbable odds of 100-1.

Yet, despite such financial confidence, many harboured doubts that Sir Ivor would not stay Epsom's one and a half mile endurance test.

And, unlike traditional racecourses like York and Doncaster, with their long, galloping straights, Epsom is unique – horse racing's equivalent to a roller-coaster ride.

The fast start, the steep uphill climb, the long sweep downwards to Tattenham Corner, the sharp bend, the home straight where the course's camber can unbalance a horse, the wall of noise from punters perched on the top of double decker buses – and a deceptively steep final few yards.

It's racing's equivalent to the undulating greens of the Augusta National golf course or the slope that so unnerves bowlers at Lord's.

Balance, rhythm and calmness are key; three assets that Piggott, now 72, possessed in abundance as he plotted his big-race tactics in customary silence.

He had elected to hold Sir Ivor up – and hope that this great strapping colt had sufficient reserves so that his devastating turn of pace could be used to its greatest effect in the closing stages.

Yet, no one believed Piggott's audacity on the raceday. He waited. He waited. And he waited. Was this to be Piggott's greatest misjudgment?

Four lengths clear, Connaught had looked a certain winner for 19-year-old Sandy Barclay with just over a furlong to go. Even O'Brien conceded that his horse could not win – and that he had lost his bet.

No less a judge than Sir Peter O'Sullevan agreed.

Then Piggott asked Sir Ivor to go. With one shake of the reins, the race was over. Sir Ivor won by a length as he pulled away from the valiant long-time leader. The racecourse commentator declared that Sir Ivor "had grown wings like Pegasus".

Piggott was to acknowledge later: "Of all my nine Derbies, 1968 on Sir Ivor was, without question, the most exciting."

It was exciting, too, for the horse's American owner Raymond Guest – even though he had missed his horse's finest hour.

As America's ambassador to Ireland, Guest was required to attend the opening of the John F Kennedy Memorial Park in County Wexford in honour of the assassinated US President.

Ireland's love affair with racing, and Piggott, meant no one objected to the ceremony being delayed momentarily on May 29, 1968, until the result of the 3.35pm – The 189th Derby Stakes – was known.

A relieved Guest, however, was present for a celebration dinner that evening at London's Savoy Hotel where a large television offered the opportunity for guests to enjoy a rerun of the race – and a George Best-inspired Manchester United winning the European Cup.

Piggott did not watch Sir Matt Busby's side secure its place in folklore. He was too immersed with his own performance.

But Sir Peter, whose charitable trust supports countless animal welfare charities, has no doubt that his idol deserves to be vying alongside George Best for the title of Britain's greatest ever sportsman.

"Joint favourites, perhaps, in a field of greats," he muses.

"How can you compare? Horsemanship is so essential, keeping a horse balanced and having the right temperament.

"Lester had this amazing faculty to make room for himself in the Derby – it was just like George Best on a football field.

"The subtlety of his hands was amazing as he communicated with his horse. It was like Best who could almost make a football talk.

"The vital element of any Derby is the run down to Tattenham Corner, the flashpoint of any Derby, and he was always there, having positioned himself to avoid the early pacesetters whose chances had gone.

"It has always saddened me that no jockey has featured in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Perhaps riding is more aesthetic than football."

Among the backmarkers in Sir Ivor's Derby was Laureate – a first ride in the world's greatest flat race for a young Willie Carson who had recovered from a broken femur.

"My first Derby ride, my eyes were popping out of my head – and it was all over so quickly," the former champion rider and BBC pundit told the Yorkshire Post.

"I don't remember Sir Ivor going by me. Like everyone, we thought Sandy had won on Connaught. I should have known better.

"Piggott? His Derby record will never go. But let me tell you this. He was a cool cucumber on any racecourse – not just Epsom. He was a phenomenon. Oh, and he was exceptionally good at getting on the right horse."

The stories of riders being "jocked" off top horses in major races have grown with the Piggott legend. Some are true; others have been embellished for effect.

Yet Piggott often knew from the gallops which horse would win a major race, and 1968 was no different.

It had been widely assumed that he would ride Petingo, the Guineas and Derby favourite, who was trained by his father-in-law Sam Armstrong, who had moved his training operation from Middleham to Newmarket after the war.

However, family loyalty counted for nothing. Piggott believed Sir Ivor's "relaxed style of running" made him the more likely winner of a Derby.

"He had this mystique – and everybody believed it," said Carson.

"Everyone said Lester was deaf. But his hearing was always fine if there was a spare ride going. And he always heard you coming in a race if he was in the lead and you were hunting him down.

"No, a one-off. The greatest? Difficult. How do you compare? But, remember, he had his first winner in 1948 as a 12-year-old on The Chase – and his last aboard Palacegate Jack in 1994.

"How many sportsmen can remain at the top of their profession for four decades?"

One of Piggott's 4,493 career winners, a total only surpassed by Sir Gordon Richards and Pat Eddery, came in the 1977 Derby when he used his raw power to drive The Minstrel past Carson's mount Hot Grove in a pulsating finish.

"Where've I seen you before?" Carson can recall muttering as he was denied victory.

But, in many respects, Piggott's proudest Epsom moment came in 1996, a year after his retirement, when his son-in-law William Haggas – a proud Yorkshireman – trained the handsome bay colt Shaamit to Derby glory.

However, the preparation was chequered and Haggas, whose mother Christine Feather owned the 1982 Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Silver Buck asked Piggott to put Shaamit through his paces on Newmarket's rolling gallops.

"When you're married to his daughter and you're training a Derby horse, it would be foolish not to talk to him," said Haggas who, as a schoolboy, was once tipped by Fred Trueman to open the batting for Yorkshire and England.

"He rode him once or twice a week before saying Shaamit had the right balance to handle Epsom. He was not wrong."

In his autobiography, Piggott likens the "thrill" of Shaamit's triumph to "a 10th Derby victory" – even more so considering how he was restoring his reputation after his tax affairs had earned him a jail sentence and even greater notoriety..

It is why so many jockeys now seek Piggott's counsel prior to the classic.

Yet, as Willie Carson points out with conviction, Piggott was "a genius" on every racecourse – and not just Epsom.

As if to prove the point, Sir Ivor went on to become the first European-trained horse to win the prestigious Washington International in 1968 when Piggott produced his charge late on to unleash a great burst of acceleration.

Piggott was indignant, according to Sir Peter O'Sullevan, when the American media accused him of nearly getting the best horse in the race beaten.

His response? Piggott stunned US racegoers the following year by winning the Washington International on the unheralded and unfancied Karabas.

And, when the US journalists asked Piggott when he thought he would win the race, he muttered: "About two weeks ago".

Then he walked away. Revenge was sweet for an icon who let his riding do the talking.

It is why Richard Caborn, the former Sports Minister and Sheffield Central MP, says a mark of greatness is when you are universally known by your name alone.

"Everyone knows who Lester is, don't they?" he says. "You can't compare different sports – but he's one of the best.

Just like the silver-haired pensioner in a Yorkshire betting shop on Derby day last year.

To her, and millions other, Lester Piggott was a born winner – the like of whom will never be seen again.

LESTER PIGGOT'S DERBY WINNERS

1954: Never Say Die (33-1)

1957: Crepello (6-4)

1960: St Paddy (7-1)

1968: Sir Ivor (4-5)

1970: Nijinsky (11-8)

1972: Roberto (3-1)

1976: Empery (10-1)

1977: The Minstrel (5-1)

1983: Teenoso (9-2)

Lester Piggott rode in the Derby on 36 occasions. He was also runner-up four times.

He rode 30 English Classic winners in total – another record.

'TOP OF EVERY LIST': BENAUD'S VERDICT ON PIGGOTT

RICHIE Benaud, the former voice of cricket, is one of the shrewdest observers of modern sport – and offers this exclusive tribute to Piggott's longevity.

"When Wisden decided in the year 2000 to nominate the five greatest cricketers of the century, they asked 100 people to choose their best five and it was significant that Sir Donald Bradman received 100 votes and Sir Garfield Sobers received 90. There is no doubt they were the greatest in their particular spheres," he writes.

"These sportsmen were cricketers in a team. When one comes to look at jockeys riding horses it is a different matter but one man seems to be at the top of almost every list. Lester Piggott, who is just coming to the 40th anniversary of winning the Derby on Sir Ivor, is the one people talk about when I ask the question: 'Who was the best?' I have seen some brilliant Australians over the years, Scobie Breasley for one, but Scobie himself had Piggott as the leader.

"The tale I liked most about him was when Vincent O'Brien and others persuaded him to make his comeback on Royal Academy in the American Breeders' Cup in 1990 and, under his guidance, the horse surged to the line and won. That was one thing. The other was his completely deadpan 'Missed me?' to the winning connections who couldn't stop cheering."