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Neil Morrice (English Racing Journalist) 

MY first encounter with the man who would become a dominating factor in my love of sport worldwide happened at Folkestone racecourse exactly 41 years ago.

As a reporter for the Press Association – based in those days on Fleet Street and a powerful entity as the National News Agency – I was instructed to approach Lester in the paddock and ask him to affirm that he was riding Shotgun in the Derby the following week.

The Long Fellow was a god in my eyes, and I have to admit to a feeling of trepidation that in his own inimitable and unique style he would say either very little, or indeed nothing.

I was however encouraged that the company’s ‘jockeys’ man’ in the South, the Captain Mainwaring-esque Bill Garland, would in fact warn Lester that a colleague was to visit Folkestone and ask him the big question, and apparently the great man nodded in tepid agreement.

After he had confirmed he would partner the grey Shotgun at Epsom, and that he would not in fact ride the horse in work before the Classic, little did I know that life would deal me a hand that one day would enable me to play a part in securing part of Lester’s legacy in a more tangible form.

Not that many years later I moved to the Oxfordshire town of Wantage, to be based as the newly formed Racing Post’s Lambourn Correspondent.

Apart from admiring the gigantic stone statue of the town’s oldest son King Alfred The Great in the market square, I also gleaned that a man who in my view was a lot more famous had been born at the town’s cottage hospital.

Indeed, on November 5th 1935 there were more fireworks than Guy Fawkes and his gang could ever have dreamed up as Lester Keith Piggott touched down to Earth.

The then Berkshire town had welcomed a boy who through teens and manhood would reach heights within the jockey ranks that were unimaginable, and this as he contended with part deafness and a speech impediment. Those inhibiting ailments were of course things that Lester used to his advantage on numerous occasions in his distinguished and unparalleled career.

As time moved on into the Nineties and that incredible comeback that saw him as a 55-year-old win on Royal Academy at the 1990 Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park, New York, there developed a hankering within my psyche that something needed to be done within his home town to recognise his achievements.

It remained with me after his second and final retirement from the saddle, and popped out of my head each time I saw him at the races.

Then in 2017 I decided to take the bull by the horns, meet Lester in his new comfort zone in Switzerland and try to engineer a verbal agreement that he was onside with the concept of a project that would not only see a statue erected in Wantage, but at several racecourses throughout England and Ireland where he amassed so many of his marquee race successes, and developed the following that turned him into an instantly recognisable household name.

It was agreed that we would meet at the aptly-named Roberts’s Restaurant in Geneva, where Lester accompanied by his partner Barbara Fitzgerald listened to my plan.

Above what I had outlined on the telephone, there would in fact be a number of statues unveiled at various racecourses including Epsom, Ascot and Newmarket.

All I needed was to find a suitable individual or company to back me in the scheme. Wantage was already aware of the project as I had consulted it’s Rotary Club and Town Council, but the racecourses had to be approached and the money found.

Not long after, I enjoyed a productive meeting with Geoffrey Hughes, a Mayfair art gallery owner and close confidante of one of Lester’s greatest friends, the late Sir Peter O’Sullevan. Geoffrey agreed that an approach to Christine St George, widow of Charles St George, might bear fruit and it was Christine who through her sons David and Christopher agreed to fund the statues project.

Lester was delighted. He had built up a close relationship with Charles when riding his champions Ardross, Abergwaun and Bruni in the seventies and eighties. Charles’s office on Brook Street had been a regular meeting point for the owner and jockey when away from his Bedford Lodge Stables on the Bury Road in Newmarket.

At this point Lester and Barbara increased their visits to London and Newmarket. Lester was ‘measured up’ for the statue by sculptor William Newton and as plans were drawn up for the first unveiling at Epsom on Derby Day so followed ceremonies at Ascot, York, Wantage and finally Newmarket.

Picture below: Lester with former England footballer and now racehorse trainer Mick Channon and his wife Gill at the Wantage statue unveiling ceremony.. 

Lester spent more time with me in the first half of 2019 than I could ever have dreamed of. It seemed he liked having me around him. It didn’t matter if there were long silences because that was the way he always played it. Importantly, when he needed to make a point he would discuss it. Such moments were scarce but the things he said and his facial expression when doing so were elevated by their rarity.

I have visited Lester both at his former home on the Hamilton Road and at Barbara’s Newmarket residence on several occasions. He was a light luncheoner and during part of the celebrations to welcome him to Wantage he quietly asked me to take him into the local bookmakers’ office to watch one of his son-in-law William Haggas’s horses run in France (see below picture).

Lester allowed me to purchase a silver cup presented to him by the Brighton executive after he’d ridden a 40th winner and I shall treasure it for the rest of my days.

On the day of his passing I heard the news just as I reached Longchamp racecourse and in hindsight I can’t think of a more appropriate place to be.

Memories of his Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe successes on Rheingold and Alleged came flooding back, but then there were so many. They were like the stars in the sky.

Main Picture: Lester And Neil At The Unveiling Of The Statue In Wantage.