Lester Piggott is arguably the greatest Flat jockey of all time. Between 1948 and 1995, he rode 4,493 winners on the Flat, including 30 British Classic winners, and became Champion Jockey 11 times. Piggott never rode over fences, so he could never have won the Grand National but, early in his career, he did ride successfully over hurdles.
In fact, Piggott rode his first winner over obstacles, Eldoret, at Wincanton on Boxing Day, 1953. The following spring – still three months before his first Derby winner, Never Say Die – he won the Birdlip Hurdle, the opening race at what became the Cheltenham Festival, on Mull Sack and the Triumph Hurdle, in those days run at the now-defunct Hurst Park, on Prince Charlemagne, within the space of a few days. All in all, between 1953 and 1959, Lester Piggott rode 20 winners over hurdles, mainly for his father, Keith.
Lester Piggott may never have won the Grand National, but his grandfather, Ernie, rode three Grand National winners – Jerry M in 1912 and Poethlyn in 1918 and 1919 – and his father saddled the 1963 Grand National winner, Ayala; perhaps the headline question is not quite so absurd, after all?
Timeform, which was founded by the late Phil Bull in 1948, but is now part of the Paddy Power Betfair Group, is a highly-respected sports data provider. Timeform, as a company, is well-known for its various publications, including its ‘Racehorses’ and ‘Chasers & Hurdlers’ annuals, ‘Black Books’ and daily racecards, but is probably most famous for its private handicapping, or performance rating, system, also known as ‘Timeform’.
Timeform ratings, which have been available on the Flat since the late Forties and over Jumps since the early Sixties, express, in Imperial pounds, the calibre of each horse, so that the runners in any given race can easily be compared. In fact, such is the credibility of Timeform ratings that they are considered, by many industry professionals, to be the definitive, if unofficial, measure of thoroughbred performance in Britain and beyond.
In Britain, a Pattern race is a thoroughbred horse race in the upper echelons of the sport, in terms of prestige and value, although the Pattern is different for Flat and National Hunt racing. For Flat racing, the European Pattern Race system – which, as the name suggests, covers not only Britain and Ireland, but France, Germany and Italy – was introduced in 1971. For the first time, Pattern races were arranged, by importance, as Group One, Group Two and Group Three races. In Britain, Group One includes the five ‘Classic’ races and other major international races, such as the Eclipse Stakes and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Group Two includes international races of lesser importance, such as the Great Voltigeur Stakes, and Group Three includes races mainly of domestic importance, such as the Craven Stakes.
By contrast, the National Hunt Pattern, which was introduced in 1969, covers Britain alone. In 1989, under the auspices of the Jockey Club, the National Hunt Pattern was completely overhauled to create the series of Grade 1, Grade 2 and Grade 3 races that form the basis of the current Pattern. Unlike the European Pattern Race system, which creates a seasonal structure for non-handicap races, the National Hunt Pattern includes several important handicap races, not least the Grand National, itself, at Grade 3 level.
Both Pattern systems are under constant review and both Group and Graded races can be upgraded, or downgraded, from one season to the next, as necessary.
In simple terms, in horse racing, a penalty is a disadvantage, or handicap, in the form of extra weight to be carried, imposed on a horse for winning a race under certain circumstances. In Group Two, Group Three and Listed races on the Flat, for example, penalties are incurred by horses that have won at the same, or higher, level within a certain period of time.
Usually after three runs on the Flat, or three runs over hurdles or fences, or a combination of the two, a horse qualifies for an official rating. The official rating represents the ability of the horse, according to a team of handicappers at the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), and is reassessed after each subsequent race.
If the horse wins, say, a handicap race – which each horse has a theoretically equal chance of winning – it must, logically, have performed better its current official rating so, when reassessed, its official rating will increase, typically by 6lb or 7lb. However, if the same horse if turned out again within the space of seven days – that is, before it has been reassessed by the BHA handicappers – it typically has to carry a standard penalty, of 6lb or 7lb, to allow for that fact.