Dick Francis' winning pace

August 09, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

Newton Abbott, England -- Dick Francis narrows his eyes and watches critically as the horses jump a gorse-packed fence on the back stretch at this dowdy old country racecourse in Devonshire.

The steeplechase season is just opening. And Dick Francis, once a champion steeplechase jockey and now the prosperous, popular author of mystery thrillers, is on this day about 90 percent rider and 10 percent writer.

"Yes," Mr. Francis says, "riding was my first love. It's lovely when you're on a good horse and seeing the fence in front of you. Nothing could be more satisfying. But when you're on a bad horse, it's not so good."

His worst race, and unhappily the most famous and unforgettable, came on a good horse, the Queen Mum's Devon Loch, in the 1956 Grand National, Britain's greatest race.

Mr. Francis and Devon Loch were maybe 100 feet from winning the first Grand National for the royal family in more than a half century when the horse unexplainably fell, splayed out on the track like a drunk after a barroom brawl.

The fall before 250,000 race fans was simply devastating, a kind of stomach-wrenching, disastrous embarrassment.

But the queen mother was understanding; the royal family, kind and friendly. Mr. Francis rode and won three days later. He went on to win eight more by the end of the season, including the Welsh Grand National, which is something like winning the Arkansas but not the Kentucky Derby.

He retired the next year. He was still winning, but he was 36 and getting on for a steeplechase jockey. He didn't bounce back as quickly after a fall. He'd been Britain's champion jockey in the 1953-'54 season. He didn't have anything to prove. But he would never win a Grand National.

"Well . . .," he begins, "I wish I could have gone on riding and ridden in it again the following year. It was a terrible thing to have happen.

"I'd have loved to try to put the record straight," he says. "But that was my last Grand National.

"Ah . . . I look on it now as a blessing in disguise. If it hadn't have happened, I might never have written a book."

He has, in fact, now written 34. The first was his autobiography, published the year he retired, more or less to capture the audience curious about his great fall.

Dismounted

An agent whose mother knew his mother proposed the autobiography and suggested a ghostwriter. Neither Mr. Francis nor his wife, Mary, wanted a stranger around the house.

"Mary said: 'Go on, you try it. You're always writing long letters. I'll help with the spelling.' "

Thirty-four years later, he's still writing, and Mary Francis still checks his spelling -- and does lots of the research, too. They've been married 46 years.

In 1986, he wrote the biography of Lester Piggot, another fine jockey, who said he was going to retire in 1985 but is still riding. The rest of his books are horsy thrillers.

About 60 million have been sold worldwide. They've been translated into more than 30 languages, including Korean, Bantu and Welsh, which Mr. Francis, even though he was born in Wales, doesn't understand. He's not Elmore Leonard or Ed McBain or even John Macdonald, but his books have a solid, workmanlike mystery writer's craftsmanship. They're not dull. And you never have to turn back once you start reading.

"I hate to see people doing that with my books," he says, in explaining why he tries to give his characters distinctive names.

"So many readers write me, 'Gee, I enjoyed your last book. I read it last night in about seven hours.' You don't have time to do any turning back if you're going to do it in that time, do you?"

Royal fans

His books have earned him a couple of Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and silver, gold and diamond daggers from the British Crime Writers Association.

He remains friendly with the Queen Mum and royal family. He's just given the queen and the queen mother their copies of his latest book, "Decider," which ordinary mortals will be able to read early in September.

"They were delighted they got them," he says. He handed them their copies personally at Ascot, where they were watching the races about a week ago. "I was invited up to the royal box."

The queen and her mum have taken their books to Scotland to read while they vacation at Balmoral Castle. The Queen Mum is a real fan, although she once chided Mr. Francis for what she perceived as a tendency toward undue violence in a book called "Blood Sport."

"Blood Sport" is his only story set in the United States.

"I hope, Mum, you'll still enjoy them," he told her.

Here at Newton Abbey, Mr. Francis watches an elderly horse named Skipping Tim win the first race of the new season, leading all the way under last year's champion jockey, Richard Dunwoody.

"Nice race," somebody says.

"The rest weren't much," Mr. Francis says. He's ridden here himself.

Tough breaks

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