Reflections in the wake of the death last Sunday of Lester Piggott have been many, but in this part of the world few hold a greater first-hand insight to the famous jockey than New Zealand Hall of Famer Noel Harris.
After claiming apprentice and national jockey titles in the early to mid-1970s, Harris rode for three years in Singapore-Malaysia and in that time became well acquainted with Piggott and fellow European jockeys during their stints that coincided with the Northern Hemisphere winter.
Harris had been invited to Singapore by the region’s leading trainer, Ivan Allan, who was also closely associated with Piggott. Their relationship was to include Piggott’s 1984 English St Leger win on the Allan-owned, Luca Cumani-trained Commanche Run, which credited the champion jockey with a record 28th English classic victory.
“When I got to Singapore Lester and the other European jockeys were very popular, which most of all was down to their riding style with much shorter stirrup leathers than what was more accepted in New Zealand and Australia,” Harris recalled.
“Being the leading trainer, Ivan (Allan) got the pick of the jockeys, which most times meant Lester, simply because there was no-one better.
“One day at the track after I had been there a little while, Ivan told me if I really wanted to be accepted and succeed I needed to shorten my iron lengths, and I replied ‘Watch this space’.
“Ivan didn’t know that back in my younger days as an apprentice in Woodville, me and my brothers used to hook our irons up at the track when no-one was watching – it just felt good but at the time was looked down on by the older school guys.
“So I knew exactly what Ivan meant, especially in the case of Lester, who was something to watch during a race, perched up high with such perfect balance.
“The first time I had seen Lester in action was back home at Te Rapa in 1972 when I was the leading apprentice, the day he rode Sailing Home to beat Roy Higgins on Game.
“That left an impression on me and when I got to Singapore I finally had the chance to copy him, which included having less reliance on the whip.
“Riding against Lester, he was one out of the box; he hardly used his hands, the way he could position a horse by the most subtle movements from his legs and body.
“When I was on a horse good enough to follow him in a race – that was the ultimate being in the right spot to take him on.”
Off the track Harris and Piggott formed a relationship with a humorous side to it.
“We’d go out to dinner, not that either of us ate much trying to keep on top of our weight,” he said.
“I’d be smoking and drinking, Lester would have his usual diet of red wine and a cigar, and we’d be mumbling away, not really understanding what the other guy was saying, but nodding as if we did.
“Lester was considered a bit of a mystery by those who didn’t really know him, but he was actually a lot of fun – a fierce rival on the track but a good bloke off it.
“We sort of kept in touch over the years, and it meant so much to get a card from him after I got my 2,000th win on Beau Casual at Te Rapa in 2008.
“It meant a lot to me that he even knew, but most of all that he went to the trouble of finding my address and sending a lovely message on a card that had pictures of the first and last winners in his career.”
When the curtain was about to come down on his own career at age 60 in 2015, Harris had hopes of trumping Piggott for one final time.
His mount Pondarosa Miss in the Gr. 1 New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Stakes (1600m) was to be his last ever and if she was to land a fairy-tale win, Harris would take the honour off Piggott as the world’s oldest jockey to claim an internationally-recognised Group One victory.
“No, it didn’t happen, but I could live with that,” Harris said.
“After all there was only one Lester Piggott, and I don’t believe we’ll ever see another like him.”