LONDON -- Lester Piggott is an uncommon hero.
He's a tax cheat, stripped of his royal honors and thrown in jail for hiding some $5 million from the revenuers and facing demands on millions more.
He's a pennypincher. He's a recluse, avoiding the British public and news media. His nicknames of "Pokerface" and "Long Fellow" are honestly earned.
But one thing overshadows all that for British sports fans. Even with his 55th birthday behind him earlier this month and just back from a painful five years out of the saddle, Piggott has shown that he can still ride.
Wow, can he ride!
"Piggott's U.S. glory," the headlines screamed in newspapers after the old master brought Royal Academy from behind to win the Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont Park on Oct. 27.
The ingredients of victory were pure Piggott -- a slow start, waiting for the stretch.
The triumph by a head over Itsallgreektome and jockey Corey Nakatani, more than 30 years younger than Piggott, was all the more remarkable because of its timing.
Just 12 days before, the 11-time British jockey champion was riding his first race in five years, losing by a nose in a low-grade stakes at Leicester. His comeback, rumored for some time as reports of new tax troubles circulated, came quicker than expected when jockey Steve Cauthen caught the flu and trainer Henry Cecil had to scramble for a rider.
He came up with Piggott, winner of nine English Derbys and 20 other classics, who added career victory No. 4,350 on Day 2 of his comeback and has set a winning pace since then at tracks around Britain and Ireland.
"When I decided to ride again, I did not really know if anyone would give me a ride," Piggott said. "There was only one way to find out."
Bettors have flocked to tiny tracks to watch him ride and jammed Britain's legal bookies to place bets on anything with "L. Piggott" in the jockey's list.
"Bettors used to follow his mounts blindly. It's not back to that just yet but there is a lot of interest," said Graham Sharpe, spokesman for William Hill, one of the biggest betting chains. "He's cost us a lot of money. It's unbelievable."
Five years ago, Piggott climbed down from a race horse for what he said was the last time and started a career as a trainer. Operating from a $2 million farm in the heart of England's thoroughbred country near Newmarket, he and his wife, Susan, were just beginning to turn out winners when Inland Revenue, Britain's income tax office, said Piggott had failed to declare $5.1 million of income from his racing days. He pleaded guilty to tax fraud and was sentenced to three years in prison in October 1987.
Eight months later, Buckingham Palace revoked the Order of the British Empire it had bestowed on Piggott in 1975 for "important services rendered to the empire."
He was paroled in October 1988, about the time the government said he owed another $2.6 million in back taxes. The claims eventually forced him back into the saddle.
Most of his comeback rides have been for his old training partner, Vincent O'Brien, who saddled Royal Academy in the $1 million Mile. Now there is talk of full-time work next season for Piggott with several top trainers. Julie Cecil, Henry Cecil's ex-wife who is starting her own stable, hopes to give Piggott some rides. "I thought Lester's effort in America was wonderful," she said. "His return has been a great boost for racing in general."
"I will be riding next year but I have not made any definite plans," Piggott said in an interview with the Racing Post, a top British turf paper. "It is just good to be back and riding a few winners. We will have to see how things go on from here."
Despite millions won and lost, Piggott remains as tight with a buck as ever.
When he showed up at an English track earlier this month wearing shiny new black-and-maroon riding boots, clubhouse valet Arnie Robinson exclaimed, "If he has bought a new pair of boots, you can bet your life he will be riding next year."