RIP Lester Piggott: Champion jockey and tax cheatby
It wasn’t just racegoers who mourned the passing of legendary jockey Lester Piggott over the weekend. Many in the tax profession also doffed their hats to a man who set new records for tax evasion.
When word came through that former champion jockey Lester Piggott had died in Switzerland over the weekend, the nostalgia-laden obituaries prompted a few rueful smiles among seasoned tax advisers.
While the papers lauded 4,500+ flat racing victories - so many that the actual number is hard to substantiate - younger readers might not remember another less salubrious chapter in the jockey’s life story: the 366 days Piggott spent in prison for tax evasion in the late 1980s.
In 1987 the Inland Revenue brought charges against Piggott for what amounted to £3.2m in fraud, at that point the biggest ever individual tax-dodging case of all time.
According to an analysis of high profile tax evasion cases by the ATT’s Steven Perryman, Piggott channelled his earnings into bank accounts in Switzerland, the Bahamas, Singapore and the Cayman Islands to keep them away from tax inspectors.
Following a joint Customs/Revenue investigation, the prosecution alleged that Piggott made false declarations during three successive inquiries into his tax affairs between 1970 and 1985. According to the BBC News archive, the specific amounts included failing to disclose £1.36m of riding income during that period and another £1.0m from bloodstock operations.
His fortune at the time was estimated to be worth roughly £20m.
Passing sentence, the judge noted that Piggott had misled his own accountants “until the matter was forced out of you” and sent him to prison for three years. In the end, he served one year and one day and two years later he was back out on the course, adding to his tally of wins.
The undisclosed bank account
Legend has it that the tax authorities only pressed charges after Piggott settled outstanding liabilities from the third tax investigation with a cheque drawn on an undeclared account, though the jockey dismissed this as a media hoax.
The Financial Times repeated the story in a piece from 2015 describing how commentator Peter O’Sullevan had pleaded over lunch with the Queen that stripping Piggott of his OBE was a step too far.
“He was not only rather naughty, but he was very stupid,” Her Majesty reportedly replied in reference to the cheque incident.
The taciturn, partially deaf, obsessive competitor was hardly anyone’s idea of a loveable rogue, but his tangled tax affairs and less successful evasion strategies evoke almost as much awe among accountants as his racing record.
And like Ken Dodd, who followed in Piggott’s footsteps as the defendant in a criminal tax fraud trial (though Dodd was acquitted), the jockey earned a revered niche of his own among Revenue officials and lawyers. According to the FT.com, Piggott’s conviction and jail term prompted a rush of tax disclosures from the racing industry, with “a procession of tiny little men coming to the office” to reveal undeclared income.
May he rest in peace, finally out of reach of the tax inspectors.
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AccountingWEB’s Editor at large has been with the site since 1999, rising from news editor to editor in chief, global editor and head of insight. As a roving editor, he continues to investigate the profession's use of technology around the world. He devotes his spare time to technology history and an oddball collection of stringed instruments...