The Cazoo Derby, in memory of Lester Piggott. How else could one call today’s big race since the man who won it more times than most jockeys even dreamed of participating in it died last Sunday?
Nine times he won the race. There is no dress rehearsal or rerun, no second chance or redemption. It’s only once for the beasts that line up at Epsom and only one Derby winner per generation.
Lester did it twice in the 1950s, first on Never Say Die when he was 18, then on Crepello just after he turned 21. He did it twice in the 60s, on St Paddy and Sir Ivor, his fourth coming 14 years after the first. He won it four more times in the 70s, including two after his 40th birthday, and finally in the 80s aboard Teenoso in 1983, 29 years after his first.
He won it every way, from youthful enthusiasm to an old, experienced rider and proved there was more than one way, winning it over short-priced speedsters and long-priced stayers, starting from the hill, waiting to come late, and with brute force and determination.
I can’t and won’t comment on Lester Piggott. I never met him, which was my downfall, and I only saw him live once, when he was six years old in Phoenix Park with my late grandfather, when he won the Champion Stakes on Commanche Run. He could have ridden more winners that day, but I only remember that one.
I remember his return to riding after his initial retirement and stay in one of Her Majesty’s prisons for tax evasion, his victory at the Royal Academy in the Breeders’ Cup and his crushing fall from Mr Brooks a year later.
I saw him win his last British Classic over Rodrigo De Triano, but I didn’t understand its significance at the time. He proved he could still do it because a sports brain like his never dies, but an aging body couldn’t make it easy for him.
He didn’t dominate then like before, but how could he? Time had passed, and so had the power of knowing where the right horses were. Yet he still scored.
I didn’t make a fuss because I hadn’t seen it in its pomp and was too young to understand how good that brain must be to compete with physically younger, stronger, and fitter.
Riding is physical, and physically competing with men like Steve Cauthen and Pat Eddery in their prime, when you’ve gone five years without competition, in addition to being in your 50s, says enough about Lester’s mentality. Piggott.
He is to running what Pelé is to football. His resume is truly astonishing, but the stories and thoughts of those who marveled at what he could do in real time are compelling. It was a fascinating read this week and made me wish Lester Piggott was practicing his craft when I was old enough to understand what he was doing. Or it should be the other way around: it made me wish I was old enough to have watched it.
He was phenomenal. He rode his first winner at 12 and his last at 58. A sporting career that spanned 46 years – that number alone is incredible, no matter what he accomplished in the middle, and all of that before the internet and cellphones. .
I don’t believe there’s a good time to die, but if Lester was famous for his timing on a racehorse, I’d say he timed things perfectly when he died Derby week.
So, who wins the Derby run in his memory? That’s a whole other topic, and an answer from the great man would carry more weight than my opinion. But the more I look at it, the less ideas I have.
Perhaps Michael Stoute can get more upgrades from Dante’s winner, Desert Crown, and Richard Kingscote’s name will be added to the Derby honor roll. Maybe Ryan Moore made the right choice choosing Stone Age over Changingofhteguard or Star Of India.
William Buick could have done the same by choosing Nations Pride instead of Walk Of Stars or Nahanni. Maybe Donnacha O’Brien will have one against Joseph and win the Derby with Piz Badile before his brother? Or will an outsider triumph? I can’t make up my mind and will watch instead in hopes of seeing a horse that I can say I saw!
It’s the centerpiece of Saturday’s action, and Tramore wraps up his jump card 20 minutes before the Derby starts so those in the south east can hang on and watch it if they wish. Still, Listowel’s flat meeting is taking place alongside Epsom, and their seventh race is due to start seven minutes after the Derby’s announced start time.
Gavin Ryan will be aboard Red Azalea at Listowel, heading for the start as Piz Badile, under Frankie Dettori, rolls down the hill at Epsom. It would have been a tricky watch for him, having lost the race to Frankie, but I bet he’d love to watch it, as any horse racing fan will.
Most would also watch a replay and digest the famous contest before their interests shifted.
Streaming is becoming a key part of racetrack finances, but it requires a wait time to gain attention.
With only Lingfield and Chepstow in the evenings, Listowel could have attracted a lot more attention had he been given an evening slot to follow Epsom and given the opportunity to maximize his off-course income.
Saturday evening followed by Sunday afternoon in the Kingdom might have pleased some during a holiday weekend if they too wanted to spend the night.