It was 32 minutes and 11 seconds past 3 o'clock in the afternoon, give or take a few fractions of a second. A big brown gelding named Devon Loch, running easily, took the lead at the third from the last fence at Aintree, pulled away steadily from a hard-toiling horse in second place and led on the flat toward the finish line by six lengths or more. No one was remotely threatening. The third horse was 16 lengths back, and the next was 26 lengths behind Devon Loch.
A little more than a hundred feet from the finish line Devon Loch made a sort of lunge into the air, came down on his belly and slid seven feet on the grass. His hind legs were stretched out flat behind him. His front legs extended in a widening V as he slid forward. But what seemed strangest was that he appeared undistressed. His head was up, his ears pricked with an expression—however unrealistic it seems to say it—of interest and curiosity.
His jockey, a wiry 35-year-old veteran named Dick Francis, pitched forward between Devon Loch's ears, until the visor of his cap was almost touching the horse's nose. He held on and straightened up, but with such gyrating arm and body movements that he looked as if he were fighting off a swarm of bees. Devon Loch tried to rise, front legs drawn in, hind legs still extended out behind, flat as a seal's flippers. While Francis was struggling for balance, Devon Loch drew in his left hind leg with a momentary writhing motion, a slight half-pivot, and regained his balance. He stood motionless.
The subsequent winner came by, a good, well-backed horse named E.S.B., whose time was only a second off the best in the 117-year history of the Grand National. But forget him. The 1956 Grand National will always be Devon Loch's. If he had taken a few more strides he would not only have won—the first royal horse to do so since Ambush II won for the Prince of Wales in 1900—but he undoubtedly would have smashed all records in doing it. And as it was, he provided THE MOST DRAMATIC GRAND NATIONAL OF ALL, as The Sporting Life headlined it, with characteristic British restraint, or, in the words of the Liverpool Daily Post, "the greatest tragedy in the history of sport."
March 25, 1968
While 250,000 people looked on in awed silence, Devon Loch's girths were loosened. For seven or eight minutes the horse seemed unable to move. The official racing notebook of the Queen Mother reads, "He was all at sea and seemed temporarily to have lost the use of his hind legs.... The cause will forever remain a mystery." Mrs. Mirabel Topham, the owner of Aintree, said she considered it "one of the most astounding spectacles in the history of worldwide racing." So did millions of watchers of the newsreels. When Devon Loch finally was taken to his stall, the veterinarians could find nothing whatsoever wrong with him. "I don't think it will ever be explained," said Peter Cazalet, the Queen's trainer. "It's an absolute mystery."
What happens if you find yourself and a horse the central characters in an impenetrable mystery? Lately there has been one unexpected consequence; Dick Francis has come back into public attention as the author of horse-racing mysteries himself. He has now published six of these novels, four of them in the past three years, and authorities in this branch of letters say they are the best books of their kind ever written. Literary critics have not paid much attention to them, but they have been translated into Italian, German, Finnish, Danish, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish and Japanese, and Francis has acquired an enthusiastic following, headed by that eminent baritone and horse owner, Bing Crosby. The reviews they get are generally those capsule comments on this week's mysteries that appear in the back pages of book-review sections. There the exacting specialists on detective stories usually give them high marks. One said recently that it was time to stop asking how it came about that an ex-jockey was such a good writer, and to ask how it came about that such a good writer became a jockey. Last fall, when Francis' Blood Sport was published in England, the London Times reviewed it at some length, suggesting that Francis was really a literary rather than a racing figure and concluded: "Blood Sport is a first-class novel, never mind the horses."
The lesson would seem to be that if you become mixed up in a mystery you cannot solve, write one yourself. Dick Francis writes his books in a comfortable, compact little house on the outskirts of the village of Blewbury, about an hour's train ride from London. He is a forthright, energetic individual, with a narrow, tapering jockey's frame, broad shoulders, an abundant thatch of thick black hair and lean, triangular features on which you can see faint crisscrossed scars where skilled surgeons have sewed up the wounds left from falls on many fine Thoroughbreds. He tends to sit well forward in a chair, his back straight, legs apart, hands on his knees, like someone resting in a saddle, whenever he plunges into a literary discussion. The great question about his books, of course, is: what light do they throw on the Devon Loch mystery? The answer is a complex one, except in the sense that his bafflement with Devon Loch generated them all.
"A horseman can tell—as soon as he picks up a book or a newspaper, he can tell—whether the person writing knows about horses," Francis said. His English readers know that he knows what he is talking about. Francis was the Queen Mother's jockey, the jockey of the late Lord Bicester, whose horses were the best in the kingdom, and the champion jockey in the 1953-54 season, when he rode 76 winners in 331 races. He began racing as an amateur in 1946, and when he retired 10 years later he had ridden in 2,305 races, with 345 wins, 285 seconds and 240 thirds, impressive totals for anyone's steeplechasing career. Only a dozen British jockeys ride in more than 200 races a year.
During that decade Francis was a part of what the turf historian Ivor Herbert described as "a small busy itinerant circus of professionals and amateurs whizzing around the 50 tracks of Britain in a sort of mobile club." The steeplechasing season extends from August to June, but flat racing commands public attention during the summer months, and steeplechasing is thought of as a winter sport, horses and riders hopping from Newton Abbot to Market Rasen to Stratford-on-Avon to Newcastle, Fontwell, Wolverhampton, Kempton, Taunton, Doncaster, Newbury and so on around, until the season reaches its climax in the classics of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National in the spring. Flat racers often stay a bit longer at one track than steeplechasers, who race a day or two at one place, move on to another and explore the British Isles, from Ayr in Scotland to Bangor-on-Dee in Wales with side trips to Ireland.
This is Dick Francis' world, and while he may not know what happened to Devon Loch, he knows what happened to lots of other horses and riders at many other places. His novels evoke innumerable wintery racecourse scenes: the weighing rooms, with the cold, half-dressed jockeys gathered around a red-hot, potbellied stove; a race in the rain at Bristol, when soaked and muddied jerseys and "a cold, steady, unrelenting wetness took most of the pleasure out of racing"; a race in a February fog, one fence scarcely visible from the next, horses and riders moving in a lonely, private limbo, "an eerie, severed world in which anything might happen"; a great day at Cheltenham, with bright sunlight, a holiday mood in the crowd and excitement almost crackling in the air. The events he writes about may be imaginary, but he knows precisely where they happened.
There is an inexplicable accident or a sinister racecourse conspiracy to begin with in each of the books—a wire stretched across a jump to bring down the horse that seemed certain to win, in Dead Cert; the unaccountable suicide of a jockey in the parade ring before a big race, in Nerve; the machinations of a gang moving in on a racecourse, in Odds Against; the murder of a journalist investigating a doping scandal, in For Kicks; graft and espionage intermingled with the shipment of racehorses to Europe, in Flying Finish; the substitution of an inferior, look-alike horse for a $1.5 million stallion shipped to the U.S., in Blood Sport. Racegoers are knowledgeable people, and such happenings in Francis' books are subjected to a careful scrutiny by readers looking for flaws. That wire across the fence in Dead Cert, for example. "I wondered about that, too," I said to Francis recently. "Wouldn't it have left a deep cut that would have given away the plot?"
He looked surprised. "No, it wouldn't be as high as that," he said. "It would catch his legs. But it wouldn't have to be all that absolutely dead tight, because it would catch his legs and would give, but it would put him off his balance in midair altogether."
In For Kicks a young Australian horseman is persuaded to come to England to masquerade as a stable lad where he listens in on discussions of dirty work at the tracks, such as waterlogging a horse with a bucket of water just before a race, nobbling him with a squirt of acid as he goes to the post, pouring half a bottle of whiskey down his throat or feeding him an apple stuffed with sleeping pills. From For Kicks there emerges such a picture of intoxicated, dazed, tranquilized, drowsy, stupefied and waterlogged horses stumbling around the track—though opponents of steeplechasing insist the races are like that even if the horses have not been tampered with—that the job of cleaning the stables appears to be too much for a Hercules, let alone young Dan Roke.
But Dan gives himself away because he rides too well to be the inexperienced stable lad he is pretending to be.
"How would that show itself?" I asked Francis.
He appeared dumfounded. "Well, if a whole line of lads came in front of me, I'd know which could ride," he said. "It's just how they get up, and how they sit there after they get up."
Mrs. Francis, a pretty, relaxed and youthful-appearing woman, asked, "But how do you know a good rider from a bad rider, if you just see them riding out?"
Well, it's difficult to explain," he said. "There are horses who have rather queer mouths. If you put a chap on them who has heavy hands, or rough hands, the horse turns his head about every which way. But if you put someone on him who's got good hands, you'll see that horse go away sweetly and behave himself and do what the chap on top wants, without any effort. You see someone with bad hands, he'll take a long, long time to make that horse do what he wants him to. And then he probably won't do it in the right way. Young Roke didn't remember to make it look as if he couldn't ride, and grab at everything, and say, 'Oh, come here!' A lot of horses are difficult to control or have been broken badly, but as soon as you see a good rider on the horse, the horse goes sweetly for him, or more sweetly than it does for a lot of other people. He passes the signals through his hands, and the horse thinks, 'That fellow on my back now is all right, and I'm happy.' "
Before writing Blood Sport, which is laid in part in the U.S., Francis rode horses in the mountains near Jackson Hole, Wyo. "When Mary and I were on a vacation in the States, we had to change our plans because of the airplane strike," he said, "and we traveled 7,000 miles by Greyhound bus. We stayed at a dude ranch, and I rode out with the men when they took the horses into the hills every morning. I got up at 5 o'clock to do it." At the climax of the novel the stolen Thoroughbred is led along a path with a rock wall on one side and a 300-foot drop on the other. "I couldn't have written that if I hadn't been there." he said.
Before writing Flying Finish Francis hired out as a groom to fly with a shipment of horses to Milan. "I know the people in the British Bloodstock Agency in London," he said. "That's where being in the horse world is a help. I asked them, 'Can I fly to Europe with some load of horses you're sending over?' 'Oh, yes,' they said, 'that will be all right.' We flew to Milan one morning with eight horses, and then flew back with eight. The manager of the agency told me about the bonuses that are paid for exports—not only horses but all sorts of business. If you export to certain parts of the world, you get a bonus from the government. I thought, 'How about this? This is a good idea. Suppose they just send the same animals back and forth, change their names and collect the bonus every time.' I can't just write about anything, like someone walking down the street. I couldn't have written Flying Finish if I hadn't flown with the horses."
Not that Francis considers his novels to be literary contributions. No one from The Paris Review has appeared at Penny Chase to interview him about his creative processes. This may be just as well, for when Dick Francis talks about his literary background, he seems to find it remarkable not that he wound up writing novels but that he learned to read and write at all.
He was born in 1920 into a family of horsemen living near Tenby, a coast town in Wales in a region known as "the little England beyond Wales" because English-speaking immigrants who settled there in the Middle Ages never mastered the Welsh language or the spelling of names of the nearby communities. By ingenuity and by keeping busy around his father's stables, Dick contrived to go to school only two or three days a week until he was 15, at which age he quit forever.
"How did you get away with it?" I asked. "Weren't there any truant officers in Wales?"
"My father thought it was better for a boy to learn about riding than to learn about arithmetic," he said. "He thought it was more beneficial. The big hunting days were Mondays and Fridays. The school week was Monday through Friday. I used to get up early on Monday and Friday mornings. I'd see Father and ask if I could go hunting. 'Yes, boy, you can go hunting.' Mother used to get annoyed, but Father thought it was more beneficial to me. I think probably he was right."
His father was the manager of a famous hunting stable at Holyport. He bought young horses, trained and resold them and eventually went into business for himself. There were eight or nine nagsmen in the stable training hunters, and Dick and his brother Douglas (later a noted trainer himself) were allowed to school the young ponies that were too small for the heavier men to ride. Neither boy ever had a riding lesson. The senior Francis' educational theories extended to horsemanship, and he believed in learning by trial and error alone.
When Dick was 12 years old and in the hospital—a pony named Tulip fell backward on him, breaking two teeth, his palate, jaw and nose—his convalescence was speeded by a chance to ride for a circus owner. Bertram Mills persuaded Dick's father to let the boy ride his show ponies. Mills was a former undertaker who improvised a circus one year when postwar shipping difficulties prevented Ringling Brothers from reaching London. His circus became an institution, but as he grew wealthy his main interest turned to his show horses and the prizes they collected at fashionable shows. Dick's job was to travel with the ponies, sleeping in a bunk in the boxcar, and then ride them in one show after another. For several years, also, he worked at showing hunters to prospective buyers, transporting the horses to the estates of customers and riding with the hounds to show what they could do.
It was a pleasant existence, and—aside from his disappointment that no one answered when he wrote to all the trainers he knew asking to become a jockey—Dick had no complaints. During the war, however, he began to regret his foreshortened education. He joined the Royal Air Force, expecting to become a pilot, and found himself an airframe fitter, cleaning, greasing, dismantling and reassembling airplanes. Eventually, after service as a mechanic in North Africa, he qualified for pilot training and says he tried to figure out latitude and longitude problems by counting on his fingers. He also trained as a pilot of troop-carrying gliders and wound up his war service piloting a bomber on diversionary raids over Germany and patrol duty over the North Sea.
He got his first ride after the war—as an amateur—at Woore, on October 17, 1946 on a horse named Russian Hero that won the Grand National three years later. He finished fourth. On May 3, 1947, after he had ridden in 39 races and taken seven falls, he won his first race, at Bangor-on-Dee on a horse named Wrenbury Tiger. He had 62 races that season and won nine. Many of the people for whom he rode were farmers owning only a horse or two, for whom a professional jockey's fee (¬£10 for the winner, ¬£7 for the others) represented a sizable addition to their racing budget. During his second season Francis rode in 142 races, and the stewards of the National Hunt Committee, which runs British steeplechasing (as well as the British Empire, according to legend), called him in and pointed out that he was taking rides away from jockeys who depended on their fees for their livelihood. He had to decide to become a professional or limit his racing to the few events during the season that are for amateur riders only.
He became a professional. That meant he no longer appeared on the programs as Mr. R. Francis but as plain R. Francis. Also, amateur riders can moonlight as racing writers, and professionals cannot, but in those days nothing was further from Francis' mind than writing about racing or anything else. The change was academic for some time in any event, for at Cheltenham during the transition period a promising brown gelding named Clare Dragoon fell at the fourth fence, with the result that neither Mr. Francis nor R. Francis, suffering a broken collarbone, did any riding for a while.
The next season he rode 23 winners in 117 races. He also got his first ride on a really fine horse—Silver Fame, a big pale chestnut, winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the best horse Lord Bicester ever owned. It was at Worcester on a fine October afternoon, and Francis was substituting for Lord Bicester's regular jockey, who had a conflicting engagement in Ireland. The official record of that race merely reads: "The withdrawal of Silver Fame was announced after the race." Francis found the occasion a good deal more troubling than the record indicates. As he cantered to the start, he noticed a trickle of blood on Silver Fame's nose. It was slight, and the opportunity to ride was so important to him that he hated to do anything. But Silver Fame was so valuable that he asked the starter's permission to withdraw and it was granted.
No damage was done, either to his reputation or to Silver Fame. That same afternoon he won on Lord Bicester's Roimond, and two weeks later he won on Silver Fame at Stratford-on-Avon. Thereafter he rode regularly on the outstanding horses of Lord Bicester and other prominent owners. Among these was Finnure, on which in one season he won five of seven races. In Dead Cert the hero explains why he likes to ride any horse in any race: "The gripping happiness I always felt when cantering down to the starting gate." And in Nerve a jockey who has become used to riding inferior mounts explains the sensation of riding a good one: "He was smooth and steely, and his rocketing spring over the first fence had me gasping. He landed yards out on the far side, collected himself without faltering, and surged ahead towards the winning post.... The utter joy of riding lay in the feeling of immense power which he generated. There was no need to make the best of things on his back, to fiddle and scramble and hope for others to blunder."
That was Francis riding Finnure, his favorite of all he rode, or Lochroe, Silver Fame, Crudwell and Devon Loch. Roimond, another famous horse, was more complex, he says. Roimond was a magnificent animal (a photograph of him and Francis leaping Becher's Brook in the Grand National was plastered all over England, advertising Player's cigarettes) but moody and temperamental, so much so that Francis could scarcely believe he had a chance to win when he rode Roimond in the 1949 Grand National shortly after he became Lord Bicester's jockey. There were 43 starters that year, of which 11 completed the course (including two that were remounted after falls). One ran out, one refused to jump Becher's Brook the second time around, and 32 fell, one being killed. To Francis' surprise, Roimond ran with enthusiasm, took the lead and in the last mile seemed on the way to winning. Just before the finish a horse passed him, going so fast that Francis knew he could not overtake him. The horse was Russian Hero, the winner, the first horse Francis had ridden in a race. Roimond finished second, eight lengths back.
Francis moved into big-time racing at an ideal moment. The 1949-50 season was accounted one of the best in steeplechase history, and the next was even better. For the first time crowds on cold winter afternoons began to equal the summer crowds at flat races. Credit for the revival of the sport went to Lord Mildmay, who, with Peter Cazalet, interested the royal family, particularly the Queen Mother, in horse racing. Public interest continued to grow as the royal horses, Monaveen, M'as-tu-vu and especially Devon Loch, began to win.
Lord Mildmay was a tall, lanky, quizzical individual, dedicated to riding the winner in the Grand National. He nearly won one year, but a recurring neck cramp, the consequence of a broken neck in a fall, left him almost paralyzed as his horse approached the finish. During the steeplechasing season Lord Mildmay hurried from race to race, as busy as the hardest-working professional jockey. He usually headed the list of amateur riders and piled up a lifetime total of 197 wins in 1,037 races. In 1932 he visited Peter Cazalet, who had a fine stable of his own, and remained with Cazalet 18 years. He rode out every morning at 6:30, ate a boiled egg and drove off for the train to London, where he worked at his job in Barings bank.
Melodrama more sensational than anything in Francis' mysteries broke on the horse world on May 12, 1950, when Lord Mildmay disappeared. He was 41 years old and had just finished his most successful year in the season then ending. It was believed he had suffered a neck cramp while going for a morning swim at his estate on the Devon coast, but his body was never recovered.
Lord Mildmay left his horses to Cazalet, who asked Francis to ride Statecraft for him in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. His regular jockey had been injured. Statecraft pulled a tendon halfway through the race, but the occasion led to Francis' riding regularly for Cazalet and ultimately for the Queen Mother. He never rode Monaveen, the first horse owned by a Queen of England in 235 years, but he won on M'as-tu-vu in his first race at Kempton Park. Still, it was Devon Loch with which he was irrevocably associated in the public mind, partly on the strength of two splendid races in which he rode the horse to successive victories before the Grand National, partly because Francis reached the peak of his racing career just as Devon Loch was coming into his own.
Francis' side of the success story began as far back as 1952, when he formed a working partnership with Crudwell, a former flat racer, a lightly framed, delicate animal. Francis won nine of Crudwell's first 10 races after Crudwell became a chaser. In all, Francis won 15 races on the horse, who finished his career with 43 victories, more than any other chaser had since the beginning of this century. During the season of 1953-54 (when Francis became champion jockey) another small, lightly built racer named Lochroe added some impressive totals to those of Crudwell. Francis, who began the season with seven wins and two seconds in six days, coaxed Lochroe to a victory in his first race, a novice hurdle, at Fontwell Park. Two weeks later he rode Lochroe at Stratford-on-Avon and won again. Two weeks after that, at Nottingham, he rode Lochroe to his third successive victory, beginning a record streak that did not end until Lochroe was finally retired with 30 victories in 58 races. By Christmas, halfway through the season, Francis had won 40 races. And when Lochroe graduated to steeplechasing the following October, Francis rode him to three more successive triumphs.
But winning was not always that easy. As champion jockey, Francis rode Rose Park, one of the two English horses invited to an International Steeplechase at Belmont in 1954. It was an English debacle: the horses had not recovered after a disastrous 32-hour flight, and American fences added a finishing touch. The birch sticks that top English fences must be cleared, but in the U.S. they are loose and horses can brush through them without injury. "We were wasting time going up in the air over each obstacle," Francis said, "and the American horses were shooting by below us."
There were setbacks of other kinds. Francis fell with Roimond, the co-favorite, in his second Grand National (in which only seven of 49 starters finished the course), and in the Grand National the following year he fell with the surefooted Finnure in an 11-horse pileup at the first fence. All told in his racing career he suffered a fractured vertebra, broke his arm, his wrist, his collarbone (10 times) and numerous ribs and dislocated both shoulders, which are still prone to pop out of place painfully with any violent arm movement. And the year after he was champion jockey, his record of wins dropped to only 33 in 283 rides from the previous year's total of 76 in 331.
But the next season—that is, the year of his 1956 ride on Devon Loch in the Grand National—began brilliantly: by Christmas he had won 27 races. Francis first rode Devon Loch when the horse returned to racing after a two-year layoff. It was a novice hurdle at Newbury, and they finished sixth, but Francis was so impressed by Devon Loch's speed and endurance—and by his alert intelligence—that he thought Devon Loch could become a Grand National winner. Devon Loch's next race was at Hurst Park, where he beat 12 good horses, including Lochroe, which Francis was riding. In preparation for the 1956 Grand National, Cazalet planned six races to bring Devon Loch to his peak. Francis rode him in the first of these, a hurdle at Sandown, in which he finished fourth. A week later Francis rode Devon Loch again at Lingfield, in Devon Loch's first three-mile steeplechase, and he won by four lengths. Three weeks later, with Francis riding him again, Devon Loch won a big race at Sandown from a field that included some famous horses: Cottage Lace, Mariner's Log, Armorial III, Hipparchus and Domata.
Francis did not ride Devon in the next two races of his buildup. In one, the King George VI at Kempton Park, he was again on Lochroe, who fell. Devon Loch, after faltering midway, was no better than fifth. Francis was recuperating from a series of falls when the next big race, the Mildmay Memorial at Sandown, came along, and in this Devon Loch was third. But the first four horses went over the finish line less than two lengths apart, a neck separating Devon Loch and Must, who was fourth.
Races as exciting as these would probably have made Devon Loch a popular hero even if he had not been owned by the Queen Mother. As it was, each of his races was a sensation. Francis rode Devon Loch once again, his last race before the Grand National, a relatively quiet one in which Devon Loch was third to Kerstin. This was no disgrace, for Kerstin had three wins and two seconds in five races.
And so Devon Loch went into the Grand National. Every hotel in Liverpool had been sold out for weeks. Twenty-six special trains carried crowds to the city, not counting the royal train of 10 claret-colored cars bearing Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. A party of Russian dignitaries, headed by Malenkov, watched from Mrs. Topham's box. The 250,000 spectators in the huge, homely, weather-beaten stands at Aintree, consuming 500,000 bottles of beer during the day, made Devon Loch one of the favorites, after Must and Sundew. The weather was perfect, the track good, racing conditions ideal.
Francis says there is never any relief from the tension of the Grand National, no matter how often you ride in it: "You have a last private word with your trainer, who looks as strained as you feel. Then you sit in the changing room and wait.... Rows of silent jockeys sit on the benches, with their elbows on their knees, and stare at their boots. Half an hour passes interminably...."
There were 29 starters. Francis found Devon Loch taking the formidable Aintree fences as if they were merely hurdles. He had one anxious moment when Domata fell and rolled to where Devon Loch would normally have landed, but Devon Loch changed directions on his own, sidestepped and raced on without losing momentum. Armorial III, leading much of the way, fell at the 26th fence, and at the next fence Devon Loch took a commanding lead. Twenty yards from the last fence Francis could see that Devon Loch was going to meet it perfectly and he thought the race was won. Devon Loch was not tired. He took the last fence as easily as if it were the first instead of the 30th. Francis was conscious of the waves of cheering rolling from the stands and of the finish line a few yards ahead. And then Devon Loch suddenly stopped.
I had intended to go to the King George VI at Kempton with Francis. It is the last big race of the year, and he has had all sorts of associations in both his novels and his career with this track outside London. There he won for the first time riding M'as-tu-vu for the Queen Mother. It was the first time she saw the horse win. Francis was startled by the tremendous roar from the crowd, so much louder than the usual cheering for a winner that he thought something extraordinary must have happened in the field behind him. There, too, he rode Devon Loch in a thriller when he was barely beaten by Rose Park. And Kempton was the scene of wins on horses he remembered and liked to talk about: Finnure, Lochroe, Mont Tremblant and Crudwell. Racing was suspended because of the hoof-and-mouth epidemic, but Francis decided to drive the 30 miles or so across undulating farm country to Kempton; it had been one of the tracks that was the model for the imaginary course he pictured in Odds Against. This deals with the fiendish tricks of a gang trying to take over a racecourse so they can start a housing project on the grounds. They plug up the drains, softening the ground behind a jump, so a horse's forefeet sink 18 inches into the ground and break. They sabotage the safety valves of the boiler, hoping to blow up the place on a cold winter race day. The climax is a movie chase with the hero, a private investigator, dodging shots through labyrinthine passages under the stands.
The old steepletop Edwardian building, flanked by gleaming new glass-and-metal stands, fronting a broad, parklike expanse of uneven grass that was shining in the hazy sunlight, looked like a good setting for a mystery. Deserted and windblown on a day that should have been one of the great race days of the year, it seemed to symbolize steeplechasing as a threatened sport that is in some danger of being crowded off the map. Francis led the way into the weighing room, an expanse of worn wooden floor and wooden benches, at the side of which stood a huge scale with an armchair mounted on it, suggesting some sort of crude throne to be used in the rituals of a bankrupt fraternal order. Steeplechase jockeys sit down to be weighed. "They used to have balance scales," Francis said. "You sat in the chair and they piled weights on the other arm until they balanced."
Francis' imagination is strictly literal; when he describes a scene he duplicates some place he knows. He writes his books in pencil, trying to write something every day, but often working at night, or waking early and writing until 7:30, when he rides at a neighbor's farm to clear the cobwebs out of his head. Mystery stories require a lot of rearrangement, so the margins of his manuscripts are covered with arrows and lines showing where passages are to be transferred, like hand-drawn maps giving directions for reaching some place over country roads. In the boiler room beneath the stands he demonstrated where he had imagined his hero to be hiding while gangsters raced down a passage looking for him. "There isn't any passage here, of course," he said apologetically, "but there is at Doncaster. The course in Odds Against is really a combination of the two. When you leave the weighing room at Doncaster you walk through a long tunnel to the saddling ring, and that's where they were waiting for him."
We went outside and walked the course. The fences looked enormous, with the dried gorse that had withered on their sides and the spiky woven thick sticks of blackened birch branches that formed their wide, wall-like tops.
"The ideal takeoff point would be about here," Francis said, standing eight feet in front of one. "A horse can get as close as half this distance and still get over. It's no good if he does get as close as that, because he's bound to hit some part with his legs and lose his spring and momentum. The more experienced a horse is and the more experienced the jockey, the better chance there is of getting the horse going—working—so he meets the fence in his stride. You'll find an experienced horse putting himself right for this fence as far as 150 feet back there. You can feel him getting his stride right, and just as you take off you squeeze him and say"—here he crouched down and uttered a deep growl—" 'Go on!' And you'll find he has gained a length on the other ones on the jump."
Horses and mysteries have been associated in the literary imagination ever since the fall of Troy. There appears to be a limitless supply of mystery-story plots in the stories of dubious bets, crafty frauds, ringers, thefts, ingenious swindles, conspiracies, doping and other misdoings that bubble up spontaneously wherever lots of people bet great amounts of money on races. From Francis' novels I had gotten an impression of jockeys going through one too many frustrations, falling once too often, racing too many times on cold winter days—and returning to the dressing room and calling it quits. "No, it isn't like that at all," he said. "You always want to ride. But 40 is old age for a jockey. You get fewer and fewer rides, and the horses are not as good, and you have perhaps one ride where you used to have three or four a day, and finally you have to stop. But you always want to ride."
Francis himself continued to ride after Devon Loch's inexplicable stop. In fact, he won a race three days later on a horse he was previously committed to ride. He rode in a few more races before the season ended, winning eight, including the Welsh Grand National on Crudwell. But there were not nearly so many as he would have ridden in an ordinary year. The following season, his last, he started out as usual. He had a fair number of races, won 22 and was the leading jockey for a time. But he had a number of bad falls, and at 36 he found that he did not come back from them as quickly as he had in the past. His two sons were growing up (the older rode in his first race as an amateur last August, finishing third) and after a fall at Newbury, when a gifted jumper named Prince Stephen fell with him, kicked him in the stomach and broke his wrist, pressure was brought on him to stop while he was still alive.
"I spent an evening with Lord Abergavenny, who's one of the powers in racing," he said. "He's a man of great authority. He told me I had only a few more years at best, and strongly urged me to retire while I was ahead. I knew he was right, but I didn't want to believe it. When I left him I walked all through Hyde Park alone; I didn't want to face it. After I retired I kept going to the races and just standing around."
A short time later, Clive Graham, the racing writer for the London Daily Express, asked him to write a weekly column for the Sunday Express. After a few columns appeared, a literary agent, John Johnson, asked him to write his autobiography. Johnson's mother knew Francis' mother. That seems to be a precondition of English literary life—that somebody knows someone's family. "A chap came here, a ghostwriter," Francis said. "He told me what to do, and what he would do, and prepared to move in. Well, I couldn't have that. The upshot was I had to write it myself."
When the first chapters arrived, Johnson was surprised at their quality. He had expected a major rewriting job would be necessary and instead found a good book. He was right; Francis' autobiography, The Sport of Queens, is a simple, unadorned story, especially in the early chapters of recollections of a boyhood among horses, though later technical descriptions of courses are likely only to interest people who want to jump.
Some impression had persisted that when Francis visited the royal box after Devon Loch's abrupt stop the atmosphere was chill. The book says that was not true at all. When Devon Loch stopped, the stands grew silent. An observant journalist reported that Malenkov rose from his chair in Mrs. Topham's box, but the array of Russian bodyguards around him remained impassive. Francis' first thought was that Devon Loch's hind leg was broken. He dreaded the long walk to the dressing room under the eyes of the crowd. Even after a routine fall in a small race he hated that ordeal. Ambulance drivers had a tendency to drive away if they saw a fallen rider get up, and he had told Mary not to worry if he lay still after a fall: he would just be waiting for a ride. So as he groped around in the grass for his whip, he was relieved when the ambulance attendant offered to help him into the car. He was not crying—not then. "I was very grateful to him," he said. "He drove me down through the people in the paddock, and in the dressing room I got about half undressed. I got off my silks. I think. Then I couldn't do any more. I sat down on the bench. I was there for 10 minutes or so. Peter Cazalet came in when I was finally finishing dressing. He commiserated with me, and said, 'Dick, come along with me; they want to see you.' We went upstairs. They were all very kind and friendly. We commiserated, and talked for 15 minutes or so. Then Cazalet said, 'Let's take a look at that horse.' We went down to Devon Loch's stall. There was nothing whatever wrong with him."
In the evening after the race Francis and his wife and their two children visited his brother's farm for a time. To get away from the telephone, he and Mary walked down a country road beside the River Dee.
"Do you feel like jumping in?" Mary says she asked.
"It looks a bit cold and wet," he said, and that—except for sleepless nights, innumerable hours spent studying movies of Devon Loch's slide, and a lifelong perplexed interest in everything having to do with the event—ended the psychological impact of the disaster.
The theories as to what caused Devon Loch to stop are innumerable. Long after the race, elderly colonels from India were still writing to Cazalet explaining what must have happened. The Queen Mother's private secretary, Sir Martin Gilliat, said most theories "were products of imaginations more highly developed than Devon Loch's." One favorite was the ghost jump, a half lunge over a nonexistent obstacle. The run-in to the finish at Aintree is directly opposite the water jump on the inside track, and it was theorized Devon Loch momentarily expected to jump the water again and dropped in confusion when he saw the jump was not there. Francis says this was impossible—the water jump is really a long distance from where Devon Loch stopped, and the horse was too intelligent and alert to have made such a shattering mistake. Other theories are that the horse had a heart attack or suffered a sudden cramp from some traumatic exhaustion. Cazalet says he is sure there was no cramp; Devon Loch's ears were up, he gave no sign of distress and his legs showed no heat or swelling or other abnormality.
Francis' own theory is that Devon Loch ran into a kind of sound barrier. When they came over the last fence and the crowd saw that Devon Loch was going to win, the roar from the stands was a physical blast of sound. Near the finish it rose with such intensity that it may have made Devon Loch jump in the way a human being jumps involuntarily at any loud noise.
But Francis does not advance the theory very positively. The notation on the race in the annual reference book, Chase-form, merely reads:
"Devon Loch, 7th½ wy; 2nd 2nd C.T.; led 3 out; gng on whn slippd & stoppd cl hme," meaning Devon Loch was seventh at the halfway point, second at the second Canal Turn, took the lead at the third fence from the finish and was going on when he slipped and stopped. If you watch the films of the race in the BBC film library it seems as practical an explanation as any. Those two powerful hind legs gathered for a stride would wreak havoc if they slipped behind him. When you see the pictures of Francis groping around in the grass for his whip, you find yourself thinking of invisible barriers, rays, stuff out of science fiction, just the sort of thing to turn an imaginative person to writing mystery stories.
But walking around a racecourse with Dick Francis gives a different impression. His books are workmanlike mystery stories and make no pretense of being anything more. But they are rooted in hard-won realities—not merely every track, but every fence, hurdle and water jump occupies a concrete place in his mind. There is a latent poetry in them, compounded of love of racing, his feeling for it as an imperiled and misunderstood sport, his knowledge of horses and his own elemental kindliness and integrity. His literary ability is strictly controlled, but you can sense it, beneath the mechanics of the plot, like a horse being held back from going too fast at the wrong time. If Francis could still be riding, literature would never get more than a glimpse of him jumping a fence far in the distance. But on the other hand, if he keeps on writing and improving from book to book—and if he ever gives his imagination its head—Devon Loch may have made a greater contribution to sporting literature by stopping where he did than he could ever have made by winning.