Lester Piggott honoured by York statue tribute on day one of Ebor festival

THE smile said it all as Lester Piggott – still revered as the greatest jockey of all time – returned to York to unveil a life-size bronze sculpture of himself.

Lester Piggott admires the life-size bronze that the legendary unveiled at York with racecourse chairman Lord Grimthorpe.

A racing legend off characteristically few words, the delighted etched across Piggott’s very familiar faces spoke volumes about the tribute as he gently patted the statue – just like he did to horses in his riding pomp.

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Now 83, and still held in awe by all those York racegoers who queued to shake his hand and ask for an autograph, the statue is one of nine designed by famed racing sculptor Willie Newton.

Lester Piggott with the Willie Newton-designed statue - one of nine erected around the country.

Commemorating Piggott’s record nine victories in the Epsom Derby when he became famed as the ‘housewives’ favourite’, they’re being erected at those racecourses where the jockey had most success as well as his home town of Wantage where a large crowd turned out for Monday’s unveiling and to greet their local hero.

And while the statues – which all bear an incredibly striking resemblance to Piggott – were crafted to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the legendary rider’s first Derby win, he has always regarded York as his favourite track because of his success on the track and affinity with the Yorkshire racing public.

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Racegoer Debbie Grogan, from Sheffield, on day one of the Ebor festival.

The winner of 4,493 races in a career that began when he was 12, he specifically asked for the bronze to be sited in pride of place outside the old weighing room where he spent so much time before big races – often on a starvation diet to make his racing weight.

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Genuinely touched, he said that he was “really honoured and grateful” by the bronzes – and the response of the racing.

This was echoed by York’s chief executive William Derby who disclosed: “Lester says that the Knavesmire was always his favourite track.”

Phoebe Phillips from Melbourne, Australia, was among those at York on day one of the Ebor festival.

ITV Racing’s Brough Scott, who has been integral to the project, said: ”Lester loved York, the crowd understood a good horse and a good ride, generous in their praise and astute in any criticism. Bringing home Jupiter Island as a 9-1 winner of the Ebor in 1983 went down well in these parts.”

And York’s chairman Lord Grimthorpe, who presided over the unveiling as a vivid red cover was removed to reveal Newton’s masterpiece, said: “I have fond memories of the summer of ‘69 when he partnered My Swannee to victories in a brace of traditionally competitive Knavesmire Hhandicaps, including the Magnet Cup of that year.”

The short ceremony took place on the opening day of the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival. It was first staged in 1972 when won by Roberto – the Derby winner that Piggott ironically deserted in favour of Rheingold.

A rare setback for a jockey who always had an uncanny ability to get on the right horse, Piggott went on to win the race, then sponsored by Benson & Hedges, five times – a record he shares with racing’s current crowdpleaser Frankie Dettori.

Treble tribute

LESTER PIGGOTT is the third racing great to be honoured at York in recent years.

A bronze of legendary racehorse Frankel – who put up a career-best performance at the track in 2012 – has been erected.

And the main gates from the Knavesmire now celebrate Frankel’s late trainer Sir Henry Cecil.

The tributes are part of York’s determination to honour the heritage of racing as part of ongoing improvements.

Plane drama

LESTER PIGGOTT nearly lost his life when Rodrigo De Triano won the International in 1992 – one of the great wins of his comeback.

The then 56-year-old jockey was flying from Newmarket to York the next day with three other riders when their Piper Seneca flipped over in mid-air and started plunging towards the ground.

It turned out the somersaulting plane had been caught in the slipstream of a RAF Tornado.