Wednesday 23 May 2018

Thrilling novels only one chapter in the life of Francis

The former champion jump jockey wore many different caps, writes JA McGrath

The fictitious racing world of Dick Francis, who died last week aged 89, consisted of doping rings, crooked riders, evil bookmakers and all sorts of villainy, but also featured rugged, handsome heroes, most of whom were former jump jockeys. Invariably, good triumphed over evil, but only after an entertaining read.

He remained unchallenged in his genre, and in 1996 he won the Edgar Allan Poe Grand Master Award.

On the racecourse in his latter years, Francis looked a frail figure. Although based in the Cayman Islands, he regularly made the pilgrimage to Aintree for the Grand National. Under dank, grey Lancashire skies, he would shuffle near the winner's enclosure beside the old wooden weighing room, his face lighting up when he bumped into an old friend.

Though slight of build, his tanned features stood out in the crowd. Hard of hearing, and happy to merge into the background, he nevertheless had great presence.

Until his mid-70s, he would join BBC radio commentator Peter Bromley at the central commentary point in the grandstand, where he would be called upon to give expert summary on the National. Francis and Bromley were good friends, which made securing the great author's services on an annual basis a relatively easy exercise. This great celebrity coup for BBC radio continued for many years.

To the man in the street, Francis was a famous author, one who dealt with mystery and skulduggery in the world of racing. What readers probably didn't realise was that Francis was also an ex-RAF pilot, a former champion jump jockey (1953-'54), racing correspondent for the Sunday Express (1957-'73), a close friend of Royalty, and one who himself became caught up in one of racing's greatest real-life mysteries. The collapse of the Queen Mother's horse, Devon Loch, when leading the field 60 yards from the winning post in the 1956 Grand National is still a puzzle to this day.

Not even Sid Halley, the champion jockey-turned-private eye and the central character in Francis' novels Odds Against, Whip Hand and Come To Grief, would have come near to cracking why Devon Loch did a belly-flop when heading for certain victory. Devon Loch was Dick Francis's eighth and last ride in the National, and for the rest of his life he was always asked why the royal chaser had unaccountably crashed to the ground when well clear.

In recent years, Francis gave the following account of what he recalled: "Devon Loch pricked his ears. A wall of noise hit him and his hind legs just refused to act for a stride. Before I knew it, he was on his belly, his forelegs out in front of him. I didn't fall off, I can't think why, and when he got to his feet, he more or less collapsed again. So I dismounted."

The Queen Mother's philosophical view of what had happened endeared her to generations of racing fans. She is reported to have smiled and said to her jockey: "That's racing."

In subsequent years, Francis was to explain that if it had not been for Devon Loch and his bizarre 1956 failure, he would not have been called on to write his autobiography. That book led to scores of mystery-thrillers with a racing theme. His wife, Mary, researched the books, providing much expert knowledge and background for the different settings, and following her death, his son, Felix, stepped in to assist with the annual Francis offering.

A host of people in the racing world were keen to pay tribute to Dick Francis last week, especially one of his great friends, former commentator Peter O'Sullevan, who said: "We go back a long way and he rode a horse called The Solid Man for me in the 1950s at Newton Abbot. I'd never had a winner and endured plenty of disasters.

"I'd booked Fred Winter for the ride, but he broke his collarbone on the first day of the season and I was lucky enough to get a wonderful substitute in Dick. Horse and jockey were getting along like a house on fire until The Solid Man omitted to take off at the fifth fence and fell. Dick blamed himself, but in fact it was miraculous that he almost managed to find a spare leg and I remember that this loser cemented our relationship in a big way. He was a very good mate.

"Even though he won the jockeys' title only once, I think he was one of the people's favourite champions."

Sunday Independent

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