The traditional late August Ebor meeting from York is on this week, which always brings to mind a trip to the Knavesmire in 1992, where Lester Piggott wowed the crowds with his Juddmonte International victory on Rodrigo De Triano.
One day during the Hallowe’en half-term holidays in 1985, my brother told me he was going to a friend’s house to do some homework. This never happened, so my suspicions were immediately aroused, yet our dad confirmed this was the case and he was taking him there, so I was satisfied.
It was only when I heard the news on the radio that I realised I had been hoodwinked. “Britain’s greatest jockey Lester Piggott retires today after the meeting at Nottingham…” In fairness I’m sure having an eight-year-old tagging along would probably have ruined the buzz and the crowds flocked – five times the normal crowd – to see Lester have one winner on his final day.
Memorably, my brother took a photo of Willie Carson sneaking out of the weighing room by the back door as the press corps and fans swarmed at the front. These days the photo would have gone viral on social media, but then it just came back from the chemist a few weeks later as a grainy shot.
Fast forward seven years. A lot had happened to Piggott since then, not least a spell in jail. But now at 56 he was back doing what he did best and at York on the opening day of the Ebor meeting, he had a good mount in the Juddmonte International.
Following his memorable comeback victory at the Breeders’ Cup in 1990 on Royal Academy, it had always been an ambition to see Lester win a big race – he didn’t come to Bath or Chepstow very often – and so when it was decided we would go to York on Tuesday, August 18, 1992 as part of a family holiday, there was always going to be a chance.
That improved when it was clear that Lester would ride Rodrigo De Triano, on whom he had won both the English 2,000 Guineas and the Irish equivalent. Though the horse had not justified favouritism in the Derby and was out of the frame at Royal Ascot in the St James’s Palace Stakes, plenty still fancied Robert Sangster’s horse, trained by Peter Chapple-Hyam, to run well.
Twelve horses lined up for the Juddmonte International. Among them were that year’s Derby winner Dr Devious with John Reid, also from the Chapple-Hyam yard the 1991 Juddmonte International winner Terimon, with Mouse Roberts up for Clive Brittain and Michael Kauntze’s Irish raider Kooyonga, the winner of the 1991 Irish 1,000 Guineas.
Many thought that Michael Stoute’s Alnasr Alwasheek would be the winner and as the horses broke from the stalls the Kentucky Kid Steve Cauthen – who would retire in just a few months – had her at the front of the field, with Piggott settling Rodrigo De Triano in at the back. I managed to scramble halfway up the metal ladder that led up to the commentator’s position, so I had a great view of the action – rarely the case for a youngster at most courses.
Turning for home Alnasr Alwasheek extended but was very quickly run down by Pat Eddery on All At Sea in the Khalid Abdullah colours. By this stage the favourite, Kooyonga, had been virtually pulled up. Just before the two pole, the crowd realised that Lester had emerged through the pack and was a serious challenge which caused them to rise up in support for the ‘Galloping Granddad’.
By the final furlong marker the challenges of Dr Devious and David Elsworth’s Seattle Rhyme were over (the latter eventually winning a photo for third). Although All At Sea battled hard to the line, Lester always looked to have enough in hand and he crossed the line first to great acclaim to win at 8-1. You can see the race here:
Afterwards, Rodrigo De Triano’s owner Robert Sangster said, with a smile on his face: “That’s the first time in 25 years that Lester’s asked me for advice on how to ride a horse. He wanted to know whether to go with the pace or drop him in behind. He was really sweated up about it – and that’s most unlike Lester.
“I’ve never heard applause like it at York. They love to see a horse win like that.”
The jockey hailed his mount, saying: “He was going so easily, I hit the front a bit early! He’d be up with the best I’ve ridden.”
It was a great victory for racing with Lester confirming once again that his comeback had been worth it. I ticked one off the bucket list that day and the Ebor meeting will always bring back those happy memories of Rodrigo and Lester.