Steve Moran

The incomparable and individual Billy Pyers

William Bert “Billy” Pyers (1933-2004).

Billy Pyers is perhaps, and certainly unfairly, best known for going to jail. Twice.

His release, on the second occasion, came after a pardon from French President Georges Pompidou. Quite a tale. 

However those stories – other than demonstrating just how popular he was with the French – don’t do justice to the likeable South Australian who, with his red hair and freckles, was dubbed Ginger Meggs and worthily takes his place among our “Incomparables”.

Pyers created a huge impression, courtesy of his skill in the saddle and big personality, in Australia, France and even in England where he had many memorable cameos including winning major races at his first ride at Newmarket, Ascot and York.

But Australia and France were his homes and where he dominated the racing and general news at various times. He won the Prix de l’arc de Triomphe in Paris (where he was jailed a few days later) and was seven times champion jockey in Adelaide by the age of 24, in 1957.

He won his 8th and 9th premierships in 1959-60 and 1960-61. Then, as his services were keenly sought by interstate trainers, he won the Caulfield Cup and the Golden Slipper in 1963 and other major races including the Moonee Valley Cup, Newmarket Handicap, Oakleigh Plate, Futurity Stakes, Caulfield Stakes, Cantala Stakes and VRC Sires. 

At home, he rode Tulloch to win the 1961 Pullman Stakes which was the great horse’s only appearance in Adelaide. It was the third last win (and start) of Tulloch’s 53 start career which yielded 36 wins and just one unplaced run. He won the Adelaide Cup, SA Derby plus the Goodwood twice and SA Oaks seven times. ”I never had a better jockey than Billy Pyers,” reportedly said legendary South Australian trainer Colin Hayes.

In 1964 he went to France to partner with fellow Australian, trainer Ernie Fellows, and on his first ride in England won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket on 20/1 chance Baldric II who was trained by Fellows and owned by an American Mrs Howell (Dorothy) Jackson whose maroon colours – in truth those of her husband – were apparently the oldest registered in the United States. 

He later rode for Daniel Wildenstein, the Aga Khan and for another American Nelson Bunker Hunt which led to his partnership with the champion mare Dahlia, albeit one which was terminated by the owner in her four-year-old season. 

His major successes included the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (twice), French Derby, Irish Oaks, Ascot Gold Cup and the 1967 Arc on Topyo. He also won the 1973 Washington DC international on the great Dahlia, whom he regarded as the greatest horse he ever rode.

Pyers provided some background to his move to France and securing his Arc mount in a Racing Post interview in 2002.

“Ernie (Fellows) had only about 20 horses, so I also started riding out for Mick Bartholomew,” he recalled, “which led to big-race wins like the Gold Cup on Pardallo and the Arc on Topyo. I hadn’t ridden a winner in France when I came over to Newmarket to ride Baldric in the Guineas.” 

Nor had he been to Newmarket until that week as was reported post-race: –  “The Australian Jockey saw Newmarket for the first time when he walked the course on Tuesday morning. He said the win was the greatest day of his career. After arriving in France in February he had ridden 20 times without success. Now, at the 21st attempt, came this brilliantly-executed victory.” 

The Guineas was then the richest race in England. “I guess we are lucky in England,” gasped an almost breathless Mrs. Howell Jackson after the win.

“The American owner’s remark was the understatement of the racing season,” the report added, “but understandably so in the excitement of victory. Mrs. Jackson has had three runners In our classics and each has won. The colt, bred at the Jackson’s stud in Middleburg, Virginia, is trained in France by an Australian, Ernie Fellows, and was ridden by his compatriot Bill Pyers.

“Victory completed a remarkable treble for the Jacksons as their only other runner in the English classics was Never Too Late II, heroine of the 1960 Oaks and One Thousand Guineas.”

Apparently it was also a good result for Bob Simpson’s Australian cricket team who retained the Ashes 1-0 and backed Baldric II on Pyers’ recommendation. 

The Guineas would not be the only time that Pyers, who was described as “a fun-loving jockey whose flair for imaginative pranks made him one of the best-liked personalities of the Australian turf”, would stun the English.  

This was filed after he won the Dante Stakes at York the following year: – “Bill Pyers, the French-based jockey who made a habit of winning on his first ride on an English course, did it again at York yesterday. Pyers, who last year had first-timers at Newmarket on Baldric II in the 2,000 Guineas and at Ascot on Nasram in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, was a late replacement for stable jockey Brian Connorton on Ballymarais in the Dante Stakes and the Northern-trained colt slammed his more fancied Derby rivals to win by half a length from the Irish challenger Meadow Court.”

Life was good for the young gun from South Australia. Pyers, after winning the Arc on 80/1 chance Topyo in 1967, told Reuters he planned to settle permanently in France “unless I earn enough money to live in idle luxury”. 

“It is the ambition of all jockeys to win the Arc,” Pyers said,  “it’s the biggest race in the world, or that’s what we think. It makes the Melbourne Cup look small. It makes ten Melbourne Cups. We think in Australia that the Melbourne Cup is the crowning glory, but they have hardly heard of it here.

“We’ve still got a soft spot for Australia but this is the place”.

Topyo was owned by Suzy Volterra (Grimberg) who began her career as a dancer at the Paris Opera. In 1947, she met Léon Volterra, Parisian impresario and great lover of horses, whom she married shortly before he died in 1949. He left her his property including his stable of racehorses. She also won the 1955 Epsom Derby with Phil Drake and would later engage one of France’s leading lawyers to represent Pyers when faced with charges from two car accidents. 

Chantilly trainer Bartholomew prepared Topyo to win the Arc. Aside from this success, he was well known for contracting Lester Piggott to ride for him on Sundays (only) in France and also for tutoring (as did Tommy Smith) respected trainer Henry Candy. 

At the time, Pyers said he estimated he was earning two or three times what he would be earning in Australia.

“The large grin of Australian Billy Pyers is extra wide these days— he’s just become the highest paid jockey in Europe,” it was reported in 1968, “Pyers has signed to ride the powerful string of horses owned by international art dealer Daniel Wildenstein for the next three years. His reported retainer is $US80,000 a year. In addition he will receive his riding fees and ten per cent of all place money.”

The average earnings for a week’s work, in Australia, in 1965-66 was $57 (around $740 in today’s dollars).

The Daily Mail quoted the the racing manager for Mr and Mrs Howell Jackson as saying “we could not match the $80,000 a year Daniel Wildenstein is paying him” while former English champion rider Sir Gordon Richards said “an absolutely top English jockey can probably command a retainer of not more than £6,000. Things seem to have got out of all proportion”.

Pyers, like his compatriot Togo Johnstone who was dubbed Le Crocodile in France, could find trouble. 

Max Presnell wrote, in 2004 after Pyers died in the same week as cricket legend Keith Miller: “Pyers was in a car crash in France and escorted the women driver of the other car to her home, and was assured she wasn’t injured. More than a year later the woman recognised Pyers on television after he won a big race and sued him for careless driving and failing to report an accident. He spent 33 days in gaol, and said ”the best two blokes I met were Russian spies”.

Indeed it was a few days after winning the Arc and it was then reported that Pyers would spend at least three days in the “grim” Sante Prison.

“He was arrested last night following a motoring case last July when he was sentenced to a years imprisonment in his absence. But there was a public outcry tonight over the jailing of Pyers….he is almost a national hero,” the French Press reported.

Pyers, then 34, said he knew nothing about the court hearing which heard evidence of an alleged hit and run driving offence 15 months earlier.  His lawyer said Pyers was being pampered by warders hoping to get tips for the races.

Soon after it was reported that Pyers “who rode the winner of Europe’s richest race ten days ago, went off to jail for a year today.”

He was freed a month later. “Jockey Bill Pyers will be set free from a French jail tomorrow—after serving just thirty-four days of a one-year sentence. His lawyer successfully appealed today against the sentence passed on the Australian in his absence last July. Today the appeal court decided that papers telling Pyers of his right to appeal had not been properly served.

“Judges reduced the sentence to a £140 fine and a month in jail. When the verdict was announced, Pyers jumped up and embraced his lawyer, his wife Becky and 14-year-old daughter Sandra and burst into tears.” 

Four years later, Pyers found himself in hot water again. 

It was January 1971 and a French prosecutor insisted he should go to gaol on charges of drunk driving, assault and attempted bribery of a police officer. Pyers had earlier been convinced of these charges but given a six months suspended sentence which the prosecutor argued was “insufficient” penalty. 

“The conduct of Mr William Pyers was to say the least cavalier”, the prosecutor said. He was re-sentenced to three months jail.

Then, in January 1972, came news of his pardon. “Australian jockey Bill Pyers left Compiegne prison yesterday with a presidential pardon. The 38-year-old, one of the idols of French racing, had served nearly two thirds of a three month term.

“Pyers looked fit but pale as he came bouncing through the iron prison gates to freedom in cold, foggy weather. ‘I was in the prison infirmary all the time, so life wasn’t too bad’,” he said.

The Arc was one of 23 races, which now have Group 1 status, Pyers won in England, Ireland and France. He also rode the champion mare Dahlia to multiple successes including the Washington DC International after which her trainer Maurice Zliber was asked to compare Dahlia to the American champion Secretariat (who won the Triple Crown that year). 

Zilber said: “She could beat Secretariat any day in any country. I would like to see a match race. I would even put up my money”.

Pyers’ wins on Dahlia in the Irish Oaks and in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes were especially memorable. 

Julian Wilson, in The Great Racehorse, wrote: “Dahlia’s success in the King George was one of the most staggering big race victories I have ever seen. Last with a half mile to race, she swept past a field which included Rheingold and Roberto to win by six lengths going away. A week earlier, Dahlia had beaten the four lengths Oaks winner Mysterious by three lengths in the Irish Oaks.” 

“She was a very good filly and on that day she was something special,” Pyers said of the King George win. 

Dahlia may have won as she liked at Ascot that year, but before the race the following year (which she won again), Pyers was told by Ted Curtin – training for Bunker Hunt in Ireland – that Lester Piggott would be riding the filly in the King George. 

Pyers recalled in the Racing Post Interview: “Bunker Hunt told me there was no contract between us and that Lester ‘seems to have something on you jockeys when you’re in England, but you’ll be paid the same’. So I agreed and Lester won on her. 

“My wife Becky and I always got on very well with Lester and Susan and had many good times together with them and the Saint-Martins. I’m glad to hear Lester is well and would like to pass on my best wishes to them.” 

Life did not prove to be so glamorous in retirement. He remained in France, where he was assistant to Dahlia’s trainer Maurice Zilber for a time and continued riding work.

“I had always had difficulties with my weight and it just became too much of a battle. Unfortunately, other things went wrong at around the same time and I had health and financial problems,” said Pyers who returned to Australia in 1991. 

“At one time I was a millionaire, but I came back and my accountant went through all the money and I lost everything,” he told the Racing Post.