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Lester Piggott

So, farewell then Lester Piggott (5 November 1935 – 29 May 2022), renowned flat-racing jockey with a total of 4,493 career wins including a record nine Derbys, six Oaks and five 2,000 Guineas.

But all those undoubted triumphs pale into insignificance when compared with his literary immortality in P. G. Wodehouse’s 1953 novel, Ring For Jeeves. . . .

When Sir Roderick Carmoyle, who is working as a floorwalker in Harrige’s department store, learns that Lester Piggott is riding a horse named Escalator in the Derby, he impulsively decides to back it:

“That settles it. L. Piggott is the name of the chap stationed in the Trunks, Bags and Suitcases [department], as fine a man as ever punched a time-clock. I admit his L stands for Lancelot, but that’s a good enough omen for me.”

Jeeves, by contrast – whose choice is usually determined by insider information over meaningless coincidences - isn’t so sure and favours the Irish outsider Ballymore. And he’s nearly proved right: in a photo finish the nag is pipped by the shortest of nostril hairs by Moke the Second. It’s one of the rare occasions on which Jeeves proves fallible.

Whether Wodehouse followed the horses isn’t a subject I’ve managed to unearth much about – suffice to say his son-in-law Peter Cazalet (who married his step-daughter Leonora in 1932) trained many racehorses owned by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and was named British jump racing Champion Trainer on three occasions. Plum’s grandson Edward Cazalet was a jockey before pursuing the obvious career progression into being a High Court judge; Plum’s wife Ethel once bought a racehorse; and there is also a Wodehouse stud established in Norfolk in 2000 which may be distantly connected with Plum’s father’s family.

But in re: L. Piggott Wodehouse was reasonably ahead of the game. Ring For Jeeves – originally written as a stage play in collaboration with Guy Bolton – was gradually taking shape during the summer of 1952 when Piggott, then an up-and-coming rider, would have been 16 years old and two years shy of winning his first Derby in 1954. It lay around unproduced and gathering dust until 1957, by which time the infant phenomenon had become a megastar known as “the housewives’ favourite”. Plum would always parachute a few topical observations into his work as a kind of conspiratorial wink to his regular readers, letting them know he was au courant with what they knew, and young Lester’s guest appearance is one in a long, unbroken line: even into the 1970s, mentions of Marilyn Monroe, Gina Lollobrigida, Yul Brynner, protest singers, electric guitars, blue suede shoes, plane hijacking, “the fuzz”, the atomic bomb, the Beatles, Interflora, Billy Graham, Playboy and Agatha Christie would pepper his stories and serve as nuggets of shared experience.

Wodehouse found the world of horse racing and turf accountancy a rich source of material for his fictional plots; indeed, in Ring for Jeeves, the ultimate gentleman’s gentleman disguises himself as sidekick to ‘Honest’ Patch Perkins, the alias of Bill Belfry, the penniless Earl of Towcester, who tries to turn a coin as a silver ring bookie in order to prevent his dilapidated 147-room family home from collapsing. But perhaps the greatest concentration of horse racing references in Plum’s entire oeuvre can be found dotted throughout 1923’s The Inimitable Jeeves. First, there’s the running gag of Bingo Little’s serial inability to pick a winner, and his desperate attempts to cadge a fiver to put on the nose of some no-hoper with one hoof in the glue factory. And then there’s the science of betting itself, which serves as the main plot driver in several of the stories, including the stone cold classic ‘The Great Sermon Handicap’, in which Bertie Wooster’s informal betting syndicate opens a book on which will be the longest sermon preached by a set of local parish priests on one particular Sunday. The book also opens with one of Plum’s best-loved Jeevesian zingers:

“I say, Jeeves, a man I met at the club last night told me to put my shirt on Privateer for the two o’clock race this afternoon. How about it?”

“I should not advocate it, sir. The stable is not sanguine.”

And indeed Plum’s final novel from 1974, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, [AW1] hinges on the presence of a stray cat which befriends Potato Chip, a racehorse whose form improves dramatically on their acquaintance. At which point, Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia commissions her nephew to kidnap the feline, so that her favoured horse, Simla, will win. Bertie is naturally horrified, and tells her so:

“You can't do this, old blood relation. It's as bad as nobbling a horse."

If you think that caused the blush of shame to mantle her cheek, you don't know much about aunts.

"Well, isn't nobbling a horse an ordinary business precaution everyone would take if only they could manage it?" she riposted.

And even here there’s a Lester Piggott connection: in 1974’s Canadian International Stakes, 1974’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and 1974 and 1975’s Great Britain International Stakes, the great jockey’s winning ride was a horse called . . . Dahlia.

The next What Ho! title will be P. G. Wodehouse on Sport. Out late June.

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