Seventy years ago this August Lester Piggott rode his first winner under rules as a 12 year old at Haydock Park. On Saturday 11 August Lester was back at the North Western race course to celebrate his 1948 victory on the 3 year old filly The Chase in the Wigan Lane Selling Handicap at odds of 10/1.
The legendary Lester went on to ride another 4,492 winners, a record 30 English Classics including a record 9 Derbys in a career which spanned six decades
One of his closest friends, Palace House’s Frank Conlon joined him on his special day. With Frank’s help we were able to capture the story on the day Lester returned to Haydock, the course where he also rode his last British winner in October 1994 on Palacegate Jack.
Lester’s first ride had come on 7 April 1948 when he rode The Chase for his father Keith in an apprentice handicap at Salisbury. He had nearly tasted victory at Chepstow on 31 July when he was second on Secret Code at Chepstow.
Lester, who now lives in Switzerland, called to see Frank on the night before the celebratory day at Haydock to discuss ticket and lunch arrangements. Unfortunately the day didn’t go exactly to plan for Frank and his son Tony as their journey from HQ took 7 hours due to major traffic tailback. “It was gridlock, we even missed the first two races” said Frank.
Interestingly when the Conlons walked from the course car park they heard race goers in their twenties saying Lester is here today. One of the most famous sportsmen of the 20th Century, known by his first name, was in town.
Frank then joined a select group in Lester’s private box at the course which included Lester’s son Jamie, daughter Maureen Haggas, his ex wife Susan, Mrs Winter and horse racing journalist and personal friend Sean Magee.
Frank asked Lester what was it like to come back to Haydock after all those years and the great man just smiled and said “I came back a few times in the middle”. As for the race seventy years back Lester remarked “It didn’t seem so important at the time, I just rode a winner”. A post war Britain had no idea what was to come and how the boy who rode on that summer’s day at Haydock became the legendary Lester, known as the Long Fellow, who became one of the greatest jockeys of all time.
Lester recalled that in 1948 he had travelled overnight with the filly, The Chase, and that his cousin Bill Rickaby had been due to ride in the race but on the day he was unable to get to the course due to bad weather. Bill was replaced on the horse Prompt Corner by Welsh jockey Davy Jones. Other jockeys in the race included 3 time War Derby winner Willie Nevett and future classic winner Frankie Durr, the joint leading apprentice in 1945.
A 4ft 6in Lester, weighing less than 5st got up to win the race 1 and half lengths clear of Davy Jones on Prompt Corner. The Chase was owned by Mrs B Lavington, the mother of Newmarket councillor Phillippa Winter who enjoyed her day in Lester’s private box on Saturday.
“He loved it on Saturday and wondered what all the fuss was about” said Frank. Lester later presented the trophy to the winner of the fourth race on the card, The Smarkets Lester Piggott 70th Anniversary Handicap Stakes.
As for Frank and Tony their journey home was straight forward after a memorable day. “We were home by 8.30pm” said Frank.
Blog by Stephen Wallis, Visitor Services