Never Say Die and Lester Piggott’s historic win started a horse racing revolution

Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry
Never Say Die, by James C. Nicholson.

With the death of 11-time champion British jockey Lester Piggott in recent days, it is timely to remember the horse and the race, that helped put him on the map.

Piggott, who died in a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland on May 29 at the age of 86, rode the unusually named Kentucky-bred colt Never Say Die to victory in the 1954 Epsom Derby. It was the first of Piggott’s nine Derby wins, the final on Teenoso in 1983.

The newly released paperback Never Say Die – A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry tells more than just the story of a racehorse.

Piggott was aged just 18 when he urged underdog Never Say Die to a two-length victory at odds of 33-1, shocking the country that had been banking on yet another English victory. The chestnut colt made history as the first American-owned and bred horse to win the famous British race; he was the first American-bred colt to win the race in 73 years, after Pennsylvania-bred Iroquois in 1881.

Never Say Die’s win was to be the beginning of an important shift in the thoroughbred racing world, and Piggott was one of the leading players.

Lester Piggott in 1955, the year after his Derby win on Never Say Die.
Lester Piggott in 1955, the year after his Derby win on Never Say Die. (National Archives of Norway, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

First in the saddle at the age of two, Piggott’s pedigree was full of horsemen and women, dating back to the 1700s. He first rode trackwork at the age of 10 and his first race in 1947 at the age of 12. But at just under 5’8″ tall, Piggott struggled with weight throughout his career. He later said: “I never seriously considered any walk of life other than racing.”

He was given the ride on Never Say Die by trainer Joe Lawson, and the rest is history.

But Never Say Die’s story is not only the story of a horse and a race, it is also about his connections to industry, religion and pop music. These connections include the Singer sewing machine dynasty, religious leader the Aga Khan, The Beatles, and the Dakota building in New York.

The foreword of James C. Nicholson’s book has been written by Pete Best, the original drummer for The Beatles. The family story goes that Best’s mother, Mona Best, had pawned some of her jewellery to place a bet on Never Say Die before the 1954 Derby. With her winnings, she bought a huge house in the West Derby area of Liverpool in 1957.

Pete Best says that since Never Say Die won the Derby, his name became the war cry of the family. “To us it means courage, inspiration and determination,” he says.

The 15-room house had a very large cellar comprising seven rooms, which Mona renovated and turned into the Casbah Coffee Club in 1959. It was there that The Quarrymen – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ken Brown – first played, and also helped Mona finish painting the walls. Around this time, Pete Best formed his own band, The Black Jacks, which took over the residency at the Casbah after The Quarrymen quit over a payment dispute.

It is well known that The Quarrymen morphed into The Beatles, with the starting lineup Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Stuart Sutcliff. They did not have a permanent drummer, so invited Pete Best to join them in 1960. He played with the band during its time in Hamburg, and Mona Best arranged the bookings.

Back in England, Best was replaced by a session drummer. Best was later fired, and the episode was described in 1968 by Beatles biographer Hunter Davies as “one of the few murky incidents in the Beatles’ history. There was something sneaky about the way it was done.”

As it was, The Beatles went on to “transform American culture with music that was heavily influenced by American recording artists”, Nicholson says in Never Say Die.

The horse, though, did it the other way around: “Never Say Die was an American-born horse with a pedigree dominated by European influence that won England’s greatest horse race.”

Within a few years, American horses produced from European bloodlines would be winning Europe’s top races with regularity, “and with lasting ramifications for the global thoroughbred industry”.


Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry, by James C. Nicholson. Foreword by Pete Best. University Press of Kentucky. 218pp, ISBN 978 0 8131 8239.

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