Determined not to be forever known as the man who lost the Grand National, the former jockey became a prolific writer of thrillers.
Dick Francis: Master of the reins - then the pen
Richard Stanley Francis, better known as the writer Dick Francis, was born to the saddle. As the biographical blurb on his many novels read: "Dick Francis can't remember learning to ride: it came as naturally as learning to walk." Though his early career as a jockey ended abruptly after a devastating and inexplicable defeat in the Grand National in 1956, he went on to achieve lasting fame as the author of 42 thrillers centred on the racing world that topped the best-seller lists for more than 40 years.
After the astonishing collapse of Devon Loch, the horse owned by the late Queen Elizabeth, around 45 metres shy of the finishing post, a literary agent approached Francis to suggest that he write his autobiography. In 1957, The Sport of Queens was published. Determined not to be forever known as "the man who lost the Grand National", Francis committed himself to writing. He went on to serve as the racing correspondent for the Sunday Express for 16 years and published his first thriller in 1962. His wife's desire for new carpets and a new car was the catalyst behind Dead Cert, which was followed by a new book every year for the next 39 years.
Each year, Francis would start writing on January 1. The typescript would be delivered by April 8, the book published in September. He would personally deliver the first copy of each of his books to Clarence House, the London residence of the Queen Mother: he evolved from being her favourite jockey to becoming her favourite author. She only complained once that Francis was getting too bloodthirsty. Otherwise, his books reflected his traditional values: loyalty and courage, spiced up with a healthy dose of danger. His younger son, Felix, remembered conversations around the breakfast table "about the damage a bullet might do to a man's guts rather than the more mundane topics of everyday life".
Francis was born into a world where cars were few and horses plentiful. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been steeplechase jockeys and horse breeders. On retiring from racing, Francis senior worked as a successful horse dealer in England after the First World War. His son assisted him, both in breaking in and showing horses and ponies at all the major horse shows in Britain at the expense of his formal education.
In 1939, with the outbreak of war, Francis junior joined the Royal Air Force, working as part of the ground crew repairing planes in North Africa, before completing his pilot training and returning to England to fly Spitfires and Lancasters. But he returned to his first love after the war's end and became one of National Hunt racing's most celebrated jockeys. He won more than 350 races and was champion jockey in the 1953 to 1954 season. For the next four years, he held Hunt racing's most coveted post as jockey to Queen Elizabeth.
Even though he retired from race riding in 1957, Francis continued to ride regularly until 1986 when he moved to the United States for six years. Life in Florida afforded few opportunities to get in the saddle but the climate was beneficial for his wife's health as she had contracted polio when expecting the couple's first child and suffered with the English climate. Later, the Francises moved to the Cayman Islands.
After a hip replacement in 1990, Francis never rode again, although his lack of action did not detract from his involvement with the horse world. During his annual visit to England, he was always certain to visit a steeplechase race meeting. His retirement in 2000 was marred by his wife's death. Francis lost his former discipline and wrote nothing for four years until his son intervened. With Felix as his researcher, and later co-writer, he went on to publish Under Orders (2006), in which Sid Halley, the champion-jockey-turned-private-eye and protagonist of his previous bestsellers Odds Against, Whip Hand and Come to Grief was resurrected. Dead Heat in 2007 and Silks in 2008 were also co-written with Felix.
"You know what you're going to get with a Dick Francis," said Felix. "Horses, jockeys, danger, good triumphing over evil, but not on a smooth and even path. I like to think, or at least I hope, I've made the books a bit younger, and given them slightly more humour." The novels were certainly old-fashioned in their attitudes toward women as Francis believed racing was a man's sport and that a man's job was "to protect women".
He took great strength, however, from his own wife who aided him considerably in the research for his books and was rumoured to have had a far greater role in the writing than she was openly credited with. Despite suffering ill health in old age, Francis retained his sense of humour: when his foot was amputated in 2007, he took to signing his letters "Legless Dick". He continued to write to the last: his final novel, co-written with his son, is due to be published in the autumn.
Dick Francis was born on October 13, 1920, and died on February 14. He is survived by his two sons; his wife, Mary, predeceased him. * The National