Mel Gee here.
It was 1970, and although I had heard of Lester Piggott, I had no reason to think twice about him save for that year was the year he and Nijinsky formed the perfect partnership to land horse racing’s Triple Crown of the 2000gns, Derby and St. Leger.
I followed their progress avidly throughout the year. My passion for the sport as a whole gaining momentum and Lester winning the status, “hero”. There was no doubt that the great man was to be uppermost in my sporting mind for decades to come. After all, a person who transcends a sport is easily recognisable by Christian name alone.
My work necessitated visits to Newmarket over the coming years and, at every opportunity, I spoke to everyone and anyone for the chance to visit a horse racing stable. The big day came on Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe day, October 1980. I’d been invited to Robert Armstrong’s yard, just below Warren Hill, and duly showed around. The stable housed about 100 horses, and I was determined to introduce myself to them all, ha!
I was a young 20 something, naïve, but totally obsessed by the world of horse racing. I duly looked after the “lad” who had been escort on my tour. I say lad, he must have been 70+, but then so many Newmarket “lads” are! Before leaving him, he asked me to wait a while and returned with a package containing two horseshoes said to belong to Moorestyle.
Moorestyle; ridden by Lester Piggott, for his brother in law trainer, Robert Armstrong!
The Lord moves in mysterious ways…
What to do with two horseshoes? I decided to have them mounted on a plaque. A wooden plaque, approx.18” wide. A horseshoe placed at each end with the words: Moorestyle, European Sprint Champion. 1980.
Then the idea came… what if I could get the reserved, quiet, private man to sign the plaque inside the horseshoes? No chance! But sometimes…
I sent a letter to his home (no computers, email, iPhones!!) and waited… A week or so later came the reply from his wife, Susan (nee Armstrong), telling me they were going on holiday but would be happy to meet me prior to this. I didn’t faint, but I was surely close to doing so!
I dialled the number of Lester’s Newmarket home. I am expecting his wife or some other member of the household to answer but nope! It was Lester. Believe me, this came as a shock! The conversation went something like this:
Me: Err, hello, Mr Piggott. Your wife asked me to phone you to meet up re the Moorstyle plaque. Would next Tuesday be ok?
Lester: No, I’m busy. Wednesday 11 o’clock.
Me: Thank you.
Phone down! Brilliant, typical Lester. A man of few words!
Two bites of the cherry
On the day, I sat in Hamilton Road, Newmarket, 100yds from the entrance to his home, Florizel.
I was early by over 30 minutes – I was not going to be late.
At 10.55 I drove the winding road to his bungalow. As I pulled up, I could see Susan at the window, and she signalled to someone of my arrival. I immediately thought the maid! However, as I got to the door, it opened and there stood Lester, very smart and casually dressed. “Come in!” he said, and I duly followed him.
It’s very difficult in the presence of greatness, your hero, not to be in awe and a little shell-shocked. He took the plaque from me and duly signed within each horseshoe. He said, “It’s come up good”. I thanked him, plaque in hand, and left, still somewhat in shock.
But what hadn’t I done? I hadn’t shook his hand! That moment with my hero had totally overwhelmed me. I’ve told this story many times over many years, but the not shaking of the hand was always the regret that spoiled the story. Until…
Some 20 or so years later, I had been invited to the QE11 Building in London for a Breeders Cup special evening, courtesy of Ladbrokes. Guest of Honour? Yep, Lester Piggott.
I took the chance to meet him once more and remind Lester of our first meeting all those years ago. He nodded politely as if to recall it but my chance to right a wrong was here and I shook Lester most warmly by the hand! The circle was complete, and I was a very happy chappie indeed!
Would such a scenario happen again today? Direct telephone access and an invite to a complete unknown into the home? I doubt it, such is the world today. But it happened to me, and I’m forever thankful.
Lester passed away September 2022, aged 86.
The greatest of all jockeys to grace the sport I have loved for more than 50 years.
Rest in peace, Lester. Thanks for the fantastic memories, God Bless.