Friday 24 January 2020

From National flop to racing cert as novelist

Bestselling writer, racing correspondent and champion jockey Dick Francis has died aged 89

HAD he remained in the racing world as a trainer or bloodstock consultant, after retiring from riding through injury in 1957, Dick Francis would have been remembered as one of the most successful National Hunt jockeys of his era -- and as the man who spectacularly managed to lose out in the 1956 British Grand National when he apparently had the entire field at his mercy.

As it is, the photograph of him within a whisker of the finishing line, aboard the Queen Mother's horse Devon Loch, flat on its belly with four legs helplessly splayed out, has provided one of the enduring enigmas of racing and one of its strangest images.

But this disaster, involving as it did the favourite horse of the "nation's favourite grandmother" and the popular press's handwringing and loud loyal sympathy that accompanied it, was to do no disservice to Francis in his subsequent life, bringing his name, as it did, to a public outside that of racing aficionados.

After his brilliantly successful career over the jumps, Francis turned first to journalism, an ethos where such a tale as Devon Loch's can never be rehearsed too often, and became a highly popular racing correspondent. But his career really moved into overdrive from the 1960s onwards, when he turned to writing thrillers set in a racing milieu from which they derived their authenticity.

He soon developed a large following. Almost all his books became international bestsellers and they made Francis a wealthy man. In this he was supported by his wife Mary, whose practical input into his books was of incalculable value.

Richard Stanley Francis was born 1920 in Lawrenny on the Cleddau river in Pembrokeshire. His father was a horse dealer, steeplechaser and farmer, and became the manager of a hunting stable near Maidenhead. Dick learnt to ride when he was five and won his first race at the age of eight.

His father took the view that a day's hunting or show jumping was much more valuable to a growing boy than a day at school, and allowed him to leave without academic qualifications when he was 15. Two years later he was racing as an amateur.

In 1939 he joined the RAF as a tradesman, but was soon commissioned as a pilot and, during the next five years of war, flew both fighters and bombers operationally. In 1945 he met a university-educated and highly literate schoolmistress, Mary Margaret Brenchley, whom he married two years later despite considerable opposition from both families.

It was to be an outstandingly happy marriage. After 18 months as an amateur jockey, he turned professional, as a steeplechaser because of his weight. Between 1948 and 1957 he had 2,305 races and 345 wins, and was placed 525 times. In the 1953-54 season he became champion jockey with 78 wins. After riding for Lord Bicester, he joined the Queen Mother and was her No1 jockey for four seasons.

In 1956 occurred the celebrated misfortune that first projected his name to celebrity outside the racing world. In the Grand National of that year Francis and Devon Loch had negotiated all the hazards, had jumped the final fence, and the crowd, roaring Devon Loch to victory, was savouring the first royal victory in the National since 1900. Then, on on the very verge of winning, less than 50 yards from the finishing post, Devon Loch simply sank on to its belly and was unable to get going again. Francis's explanation was that it had been startled by the sudden roar of the crowd.

By now Francis had broken so many bones that he was advised to give up racing. His autobiographical volume, 'The Sport of Queens', was published in 1957, and the 'Sunday Express' commissioned six articles from him, an arrangement that led to his becoming racing correspondent for the next 16 years.

Journalism, however, did not pay as well as racing so Mary suggested that he might try a novel. Drawing on his own expertise and on his boyhood reading , he wrote 'Dead Cert' (in 1962). It was extremely well received, and, from then on, he produced a book a year.

Horses, in training or racing or being sold or put to stud, occur in all of them, and Dick Francis included many incidents and bits of specialised knowledge from his own experience. His heroes tend to be lonely men, often widowed or divorced; they are frequently beaten up or injured; but they strive doggedly, both in their pursuit of the villains and in their personal lives, proving more resourceful and resilient than their melancholy natures permitted them to expect.

'Dead Cert' was made into a film, and a television series, 'The Racing Game', was based on Dick Francis's characters. He continued prolifically into the 1980s and 1990s, But after his wife's death from a heart attack at their Cayman Islands home in 2000 he wrote no more novels for six years until the appearance of Under Orders in 2006. It was followed by 'Dead Heat' (2007), 'Silks' (2008) and 'Even Money' (2009), all of which were written with his son Felix. 'Crossfire', the new Dick and Felix Francis novel, is due to be published in August.

He is survived by two sons. (© The Times, London)

Irish Independent

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