English international racing journalist, tipster and broadcaster Neil Morrice’s lifelong sporting hero has been the legendary jockey Lester Piggott and thanks to his determination to have the great man recognised in perpetuity nine statues have been sculpted, two of which have already been unveiled at Epsom and Ascot respectively.
The Epsom statue was unveiled by The Queen on the day of the Derby and Morrice pointed out that this could well have been interpreted as an unofficial pardon for Piggott’s brush up with the taxman in the 1980’s which cost him his OBE.
The second one was unveiled on the first day of Royal Ascot last Tuesday.
Morrice lives in Wantage in Oxfordhire, England, where Piggott was born on November 5, 1935.
He regards Piggott as the greatest sportsman England has ever produced.
Lester’s career encompassed almost five decades. He dominated the golden age of jockeys in the 1960s and 1970s and won the British Flat Jockeys Championship eleven times. He rode 4493 winners in all, including 116 Royal Ascot winners, the Gold Cup a record eleven times, the Derby a record nine times, the 2000 Guineas five times, St. Leger eight times, the Oaks six times and the 1000 Guineas twice.
Piggott also made one of the most celebrated comebacks in sporting history.
The racing world were staggered when he announced his plan to return to the saddle in 1990 at the age of 54. He had retired at the end of the 1985 season and a burgeoning career as a trainer, sending out 34 winners, had been ended by his brush with the taxman.
Within ten days of his return he rode the Charles O’Brien-trained Royal Academy to victory in the Breeders Cup Mile. There have been few moments in racing history which have caused as big a media sensation.
Morrice believed it was high time Piggott was officially recognised for his contribution to British sport.
Lester was happy with Morrice’s idea of drumming up support to have a statue of him erected in Wantage.
Morrice consequently formed a project partnership with Geoffrey Hughes, owner of the Osborne Studio Gallery in Belgravia, London. The project was expanded to three statues, one for Wantage, one for Newmarket and Piggott was asked which site he would like for the third and he chose York racecourse. Morrice was personally thrilled with the latter choice as it was the first racecourse his father had taken him to as a boy.
Piggott loved the York racecourse and was adored by Northern England racing fans, as he won all of their big races.
The next step was to find a backer to fund the project.
Piggott suggested the family of the late Charles St George, a flamboyant owner whose offices as an underwriter for Lloyd’s were in Upper Brook Street in Mayfair, London. Piggott twice rode Ardross to victory for St. George in the Gold Cup, he rode his horse Giacometti to win the Group 1 Champion Stakes, Abergwaun to win the Group 1 Vernons (Haydock) Sprint Cup and he rode the St. George-owned Bruni to victories in the Group 2 Yorkshire Cup and Group 3 Cumberland Lodge Stakes. Piggott became a close friend of St. George’s and was a pall bearer at his funeral.
Charles’ widow Christine put the proposal to her sons David and Christopher after lunching with Morrice, Hughes and top racing journalist Brough Scott at Claridges.
The St George brothers agreed and nine statues were then commissioned.
Piggott chose William Newton to both design and sculpt the statues.
The next statute to be unveiled will be in the Wantage museum and significantly it will take place on August 18, the date of a twelve-year-old Piggott’s first winner 71 years ago at Haydock racecourse on a horse called The Chase trained by his father Keith. The unveiling date will also see the launch of an exhibition in the Wantage museum of the life and times of Lester Piggott, which will run for four months.
The fourth unveiling will take place on the first day of the York August meeting on Tuesday 20 August, the day of the Group 1 Juddmonte international.
Piggott won this race five times, including on Rodrigo de Triano, who gave him the last of his 30 English classic winners when winning the 2000 Guineas in 1992.
The fifth statue will reside in the paddock of the Rowley Mile course in Newmarket.
The fate of the other four statues is still to be firmed up, although one of them has been pencilled in to be auctioned at the annual Sir Peter O’Sullevan charity lunch towards the end of the year.
The bulk of the money raised will go to racing charities.
Piggott and Morrice have been very good friends for a long time and have become closer since the statue project began.
Morrice has an enviable collection of Piggott memorabilia.
The various Piggott-worn silks he has include the Ardross Gold Cup-winning set.
He has many racecards signed by Lester, including all nine of his Derby-winning and all eleven of his Gold Cup-winning racecards.
He also has a signed racecard of a meeting in which Piggott, unbeknown to many, rode Red Rum. This flat horse subsequently switched to jumps and became a living icon by winning the Grand National a record three times.
Piggott has a hearing and a speech impediment which has resulted in his reputation as a taciturn character.
However, Morrice concluded, “Lester chooses his words parsimoniously, but this brings about a greater resonance and meaning when he puts forward his opinion. I feel privileged to have learned so much about the man and become closer to him over the two and a half years it’s taken to see the statues project bear fruit.”
By David Thiselton
Image: Lester Piggott in front of the statue unveiled in his honour at the first day of the Royal Ascot meeting on Tuesday last week. He is alongside racing media personality Neil Morrice, who drove the project to have Piggott officially recognised.