Lester, in his pomp, speaks to the late Kenneth Harris for The Observer – best sports interview I’ve read

Kenneth Harris, who died in June 2005, was one of the most remarkable interviewers in The Observer’s history. 

Whether the subject was Bertrand Russell, the Archbishop of Canterbury or Lester Piggott, he worked without the aid of a tape recorder or extensive notes. Harris wrote this interview, which at its original full length was 6000 words, from memory. It appeared in The Observer magazine on 7 June 1970

Well, here you are, Mr Piggott, some say you are the greatest jockey riding today, some say the greatest jockey of a generation, and some say the greatest jockey ever. How did you come to be a jockey in the first place?

Born into it.

Did you ever want to do anything else?


If you had your time over again would you like to be a jockey again?


Supposing you were reborn and you had to grow up into a different career what would you chose?

Motor-car racing.



You remind me of the late Lord Attlee, you answer questions as if you were filling in an application for a driving licence. Let me put to you some more general questions and try to get you to expand. For instance: what is the particular kind of excitement about motor-car racing that appeals to you?

You go as fast as you dare; you get hurt if you lose control; you’re competing with other people; you’re doing it to win.

And to make money?

Most of us would be doing it whether there was money or no money. Some of the best trainers are very wealthy – they don’t have to do anything for money. But they work at it as if they were broke. I’d be in racing if I had to pay to be in racing. I don’t know another kind of life.

I do well out of racing. I know plenty of people who lived for racing who haven’t done as well. Racing costs them a lot. It’s not a game you go into, as an owner, to make money. I love it, and I try to earn as much as I can.

You say you were born into racing. Could you tell me about your family? Did you have a happy or unhappy childhood?

I come from racing families on both sides. My uncle won the 1,000 Guineas four times; the only time I won it was this year. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever win it. Funny how some races get away from you. Gordon Richards didn’t win the Derby till he was 49: the year before he retired. My father’s father was a jockey. Jumping. He won the Grand National three times. I think it’s harder to do that than win the Derby three times. My father was a jumping jockey, and then he became a trainer.

Yes, I had a happy childhood. I didn’t like school much, though. I was born near Wantage and I went to St Alfred’s School there. I was slow at lessons; a dunce. They said my reactions were slow. I think I’d have been quicker if I’d seen the point of it. Every day I wanted to get back to the horses. I’d been riding since I was four. There were only two things I understood outside family: horses and races. I didn’t really know what school was for, except that you had to go to it.

I was deaf, too, in one ear. I wouldn’t have liked to teach me. I’m not so deaf now and I lip-read, and I watch people’s faces; they’re more expressive than horses’ faces, but not so reliable. But even now if somebody says something when I’m not looking directly at them I may not hear. So sometimes people think I’m rude. Sometimes they think I’m disagreeing when I’m not. Sometimes they think I’m agreeing when I’m not, which is worse.

Nobody knows how I got deaf. And nobody could do anything about it. It made you a bit shy. But it had its good points: you got on with things, and did them your own way, and you didn’t rely on praise or blame because half the time you never heard it.

You asked about my parents. My father taught me everything I know about racing. He’s different from me – he’s easygoing, enjoys life, goes out a lot. But when it came to riding, racing, or generally being with horses, I was his pupil, not his son. Except that he’d have never done for a pupil what he did for his son.

He was a small trainer – he only had a few horses, so he could keep an eye on everybody and everything that was going on. If I slouched in the saddle, or had my hands too high, or let a horse go too fast, he’d see it and be on me. He never let me know I was any good. He didn’t believe in it. A taskmaster. I think it’s the best way. I knew he knew his stuff, and I tried to please him because I knew he knew his stuff. I wanted to be good and I was ready to take it from him.

He’s just the same today. One year, after I had ridden 200 winners, I went to see him, and I said: ‘I’ve ridden 200 winners this year.’ He said: ‘What about the ones you should have won on?’

Has any jockey influenced your riding?

No, if you’re as tall as I am, 5ft 7in, you’ve got to work out your own method. There weren’t any models for tall jockeys like me in my time. Gordon Richards was small even as jockeys go: he could do eight stone without effort. There’s an advantage in being tall, big: I think it’s my main one. A horse responds to a good weight on its back, live weight – not dead weight, lead, under the saddle – to make up the right scale. When a biggish jockey gets up, the chances are that the horse feels, well, authority. Not always. There is a great American jockey, Willie Shoemaker, and he’s only seven stone. And Gordon Richards again – eight stone. If you’ve got a good length of leg, you can communicate more with the horse, squeeze him with your knees, control him generally, show him you are there.

There’s the other side, the disadvantages: I’ve got to earn my living in a pretty strenuous game working at about one-and-a-half stone below my natural weight. Some people exaggerate how I live: I don’t starve, and I don’t live on cigars and the Financial Times, and I don’t drive to every meeting in a rubber suit. But you can’t eat and drink what may come naturally to you.

If I’m riding at eight stone six, I have a boiled egg and a bit of toast for breakfast. If I have to make eight stone five that day, I’ll give up the egg. I have a sandwich in the jockeys’ room after I’ve finished riding, and I’ll always have a meal at night. You lose the habit of eating, really – the less you have, up to a point, the less you want.

You were asking me about influence. Susan’s a great influence on me [his ex-wife]. She’s almost like my manager. She’s a trainer’s daughter, and she rides well, and if I can’t hear somebody on a long-distance telephone call, Susan talks. Sometimes she persuades me to do things I don’t want to. Like this interview, because she says it’ll do me good to do something I don’t normally do. And the two girls influence me – [daughters] Maureen and Tracy. If I’m getting a bit serious about something they come in, and one of them’s bound to say something that makes me laugh.

Another disadvantage about being big is style. Style is how you look. If you’re small, it doesn’t matter so much how you look, there isn’t so much of you to be seen. And your legs don’t take up so much room. If you’re big you can be seen better, and there’s less horse showing. It’s difficult for me to look stylish because I like to ride short. People ask me why I ride with my bottom in the air. Well I’ve got to put it somewhere.

One of the things often said of you is that you’re a tremendously ‘strong’ jockey. What does ‘strength’ mean? Is it the kind of strength that bends iron bars?

Well, you need muscular strength to hold a horse that’s pulling for his head, a big horse and a real puller, on his way down to the post. And if a horse is big and broad, and he’s lazy, and he needs to be squeezed and kicked along to keep him exerting himself, a small, tight jockey can’t do it so well. But when you talk about a jockey being ‘strong’, or being able to ride a strong finish, it’s a bit different.

It’s like this: a lot depends on the horse’s balance. If he loses balance, he loses speed and direction, and that might cost him the race. Part of a jockey’s job is to get his horse running balanced, and keep him balanced, and this means you’ve got to be balanced yourself all the time to fit in with the horse.

The horse has his own centre of gravity just behind his shoulders. The jockey has a centre of gravity. But the jockey can shift his, and the horse can’t. At every stride the horse’s centre of gravity is shifting in relation to the jockey’s. Getting a horse balanced means keeping your balance, every stride, every second, to suit his.

Where strength comes in is that to keep doing this all the time without throwing yourself around in the saddle needs a lot of muscle control – you’ve got to be holding yourself as still as you can while you’re making the right movements. The more control you have over your body, the fewer movements you have to make – but the more muscular effort you need. You need more strength to stand still on one leg than to walk down the street.

No, I don’t say it’s the strength that bends iron bars. It’s the strength of an acrobat on a tightrope. Or of a juggler.

In the finish of the race, as well as keeping your horse balanced you’ve got to be doing things with him. You’ve got to be encouraging the horse – moving your hands forward when his head goes forward, squeezing him with your knees, urging him on with your heels, flourishing with your whip, maybe giving him a crack, and all this without throwing yourself off balance, which means doing all these things and not letting yourself get thrown around in the saddle.

In a tight finish a strong jockey may seem to be doing nothing in the saddle except throwing his hands forward – that’s all you’ll see, but the horse is going flat out, and still going straight. In the same finish a ‘weaker’ jockey will be throwing himself around in the saddle, and his horse will be rolling about off balance. Keeping the horse balanced in the last hundred yards, and making him put it all in, can take a lot out of a jockey. It’s got to be there to start with.

Weight and length come into it again. If a jockey is strong, and he’s good, I reckon live weight is better than dead weight. If all of the weight the horse is carrying is live, and the jockey can put it in the right place at every stride, the horse runs freer than he will if part of the weight is in a fixed place, in a bag on his back.

What other attributes must a jockey have?

A jockey has to make horses want to run for him.

Sometimes a horse and a jockey won’t hit it off. Then, you’ve got to have judgment – can you get through the gap or not? Is the pace too slow? Is it so slow that if I poach a lead of four lengths here, three furlongs out, I can hang on and win by a neck? And you’ve got to do your homework – find out as much as you can about the other horses, so that when you see one in front of you, you can guess what he can do.

Sometimes you can work out tactics in advance, but sometimes you’ve got to change them. Sometimes they don’t come off. You’ve got to keep thinking about racing all the time – it’s no good to start thinking about a race just before you get up on the horse’s back. That’s one thing about not wanting to talk very much – I get time to read about racing, and to listen, and to think.

What do you think of some of the courses you’ve ridden on?

York is the best course: Newmarket the easiest to ride. Straight. But it’s the hardest on the horses, no bends to take a breather. Sandown gives you the best viewing, and it’s a very fair test of a horse – some bends on a tough uphill finish.

The hardest British courses to ride are Ascot and Epsom. Ascot’s got a very short run-in. It’s not easy to come from behind and win at Ascot.

Epsom is a very difficult course. There’s a curve in the course early on, a kind of bulge more than a curve, so you have to go fast or get a good forward position by the time you get to that curve, or the horses crossing to it from the right will cut you off and pen you in. Then down the hill to Tattenham Corner, which is a race in itself; there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world. It takes a good horse to get round Epsom.

There’s another trouble at the Derby; it’s a big social occasion. A lot of owners want to be represented even if it means running a poor-class horse. They often get to the front by the top of the hill going down to the Corner and then start coming back to you. Some years I’ve ridden in the Derby half the horses shouldn’t have been in the race.

But in a way Longchamp is the most difficult course I know. There’s no theory of riding it. It’s not the terrain – it’s flat. Nor the bends – there’s only one elongated U-shape. They go very fast in the Arc, the first few furlongs. So you’ve got to have a horse that can go with them. At Longchamp they can be last coming to the straight and win. They come from anywhere. There’s no recipe for riding that course.

Well, you certainly rode the Derby course all right on Nijinsky.

You’re only as good as your last race. I’ve ridden some losers since Nijinsky.

What horses stand out in your mind, Mr Piggott, when you look back?

There’s the ones you remember because of what happened to you on them, and the ones you remember for themselves. When I was younger I used to remember more about what happened than about the horse – like my first winner when I was 12; and the Derby when I was 18. As you get older, you remember more the horses.

When I was a kid I used to think more about the winning. I was racing against the top jockeys, some twice my age, some older than that. I had to compete on the same terms. Now I’ve got more interested in horses, their character. It’s partly getting older. And having children and watching them grow up makes you more interested in individuals and personality.

Crepello was a great horse. He won the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby. He won the Derby copybook; he did what I wanted. I didn’t have to ask for anything.

Sir Ivor, in 1968, was a grand horse. He was good-tempered, friendly, and easy to ride if he knew what he was supposed to do.

Park Top is a great mare. Great character. She knows what she’s supposed to do and she loves it. When I get up on her, she cocks an ear, like saying: ‘Come on, then let’s get on with it.’ She goes down to the start as easy as you like – doesn’t pull, doesn’t sweat, she knows what it’s all about. She goes into the gate as if she was going into church, and she comes out as if hell were after her. She knows more about racing than I do.

You have to be interested in the character of a horse if you want to ride winners. You’ve got to know what they can do and how they want to do it.

With some of them you have to leave them to themselves in the early stages of the race, even if they lose ground. Then, when you feel they’ve settled down, you can get to work on them. It’s not that they’re dishonest; it’s just that they like to do things their own way. You know that if they’re not left to do it their own way, early on, they won’t do it at all. People watching from the stands don’t always appreciate this. They see you sitting still on the horse at halfway, looking as if you’re not doing anything, and losing ground. They wonder what you think you’re doing. Then the horse gets down to it and starts to race, you push him out, he gets beaten a neck, and the people in the stand say: ‘If he pushed a bit more at half way, he’d have won by a length.’ And they might add a few snide comments. But you can’t be explaining this kind of thing all the time: you’d have no time to race.

How far do you think the discipline of having to keep your weight down to this unnatural level changes, perhaps detrimentally, your natural personality?

I don’t think I’d be very different from what I am now if I didn’t have to keep thin. But it’s hard to say. Wasting depresses a lot of people. They say Fred Archer committed suicide because having to keep his weight down got his mind down as well – got him so depressed he couldn’t go on living.

I’m lucky because I’m pretty quiet and restrained by nature. I’ve never been one for living it up. Some people work to earn enough money to have fun. I enjoy the work best of all. If you like racing more than anything else, it’s easier to give up things.

I told you when you asked about motor-car racing that I liked to try and win – the winning isn’t all that important, it’s the wanting to win that matters. It’s competing more than winning, if you see what I mean. In keeping your weight down you’re competing. You’re competing with yourself. After a time it becomes a habit.

You don’t develop a feeling of resentment at having to subject yourself to the regime, a feeling that might erupt occasionally into ill temper?

No. I don’t resent it because I want it. And the life I lead is very good to me. I don’t think I am ill-tempered. I think I’m very patient. Sometimes you read that I’ve told people to, well, to push off, but that’s never because I’m hungry; it’s because I’m angry.

Now and again I’m criticised unfairly, misreported. For instance, I rode Sir Ivor in a race in Washington DC two years ago and won. But some newspapermen – only some, I mean – criticised my riding. Unfairly, and they didn’t really know the facts. When I rode Karabas, last year, and I won, they wanted to talk to me about it. But I didn’t want to talk about it. I live and work in a tough world. I can be a decent human at 8st 4lb, but I can’t be a saint even at 9st 7lb.

I always think of you as a tremendously fit and healthy man. Do you ever get ill – have a cold, for instance?

Only too often. I carry on riding and hope the damn thing will go away.

Two last questions then: horses and men. What strikes you most looking back at them over the years?

There’s two sides to a horse. In the natural state his speed is what keeps him alive – if there’s danger, he runs. But he lives in a herd and even when he’s running away from danger, he doesn’t like to be first: he likes to be in the middle of the herd.

So in racing, in one way you’re taking the horse back to his nature, and in another you’re training him and riding him to do something different from what nature intended. I think it’s what gives them their character. Because horses are very interesting. There’s no two alike. And of course nature taught a horse to run, but not to be ridden. So there’s the relationship between the horse and the man on his back.

And what about human nature?

Well, people on their own are different from people in crowds. People on their own are all right, but in crowds something comes over them. They just want to be on the winner.

You ride a damn good race and get beaten by a short head when you thought you’d be lucky to get within three lengths of the leader, and you may get booed. You make a mistake in the race, get shut in, or your horse does something silly, or you’re unlucky, and you win by a short head when you should have won by a length and a half – and they clap. It’s not your riding. It’s whether you win or lose.

But I don’t pay much attention. I think you only pay attention if you care about what people think of you. And you only care if you think a lot about yourself. I don’t think about myself much. I think about racing. I don’t brood about how I look to other people. I ride as well as I can, and they can clap or boo – it’s all the same to me.

Is that why even when you’ve won a big race you come in with a face like marble?

It’s got something to do with it.

But I’ve noticed, very occasionally, that if you’ve won a really great race, like the Derby, in fine style, there is a ghost of a smile on your face as you enter the winner’s enclosure. What are you thinking about then?

About Dad saying: ‘What about the times you didn’t win?’

Kenneth Harris’s obituary is here.

One thought on “Lester, in his pomp, speaks to the late Kenneth Harris for The Observer – best sports interview I’ve read

  1. It takes a very special journalist to get that much from Lester Piggott’s lips Joe……sincere thanks for tremendous insight into the great man.

    Lester’s point about horses not wanting to be in front brought a whole new dimension to race riding for yours truly.


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