Dick Francis carried his love for horse racing from his
illustrious career as one of
England’s top jockeys
to a brilliantly successful mystery writing career which
spanned over four decades and generated one book per
year for 38 years. Almost all of his books have been
bestsellers and all have remained in print.
Dick Francis was
born in Pembrokeshire, South Wales
in 1920. The son of a jockey, he
began racing horses while still a teenager.
After serving with distinction in World War II, Mr. Francis returned to
the world of horse racing, ultimately winning over 350 races. He was Champion
Jockey in 1953-54 and his successes on the track earned him the honor of
becoming the Queen Mother’s jockey for four seasons, from 1953 to 1957.
Upon retirement in 1957 he published his autobiography,
The Sport of Queens. In 1962 he
brought his love of horse racing to fiction writing with the publication of his
first mystery novel, Dead Cert.
In his novels, Dick
Francis combined the world of horse racing (sometimes directly, sometimes
indirectly) with such diverse realms as banking, flying, film-making, and
British politics. This formula proved to be a winning one, as he received
numerous awards over his career including three Edgars from Mystery Writers of
America (for Forfeit ,
Whip Hand , and
Come to Grief ) as well as the
Silver, Gold and Diamond Dagger awards from the Crime Writers Association. In
1984 he was made an Officer of the Most Noble Order of the British Empire and in
1996, he was created Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.
I know you’ve retired from writing.
But are you sure you won’t write one more novel?
Yes, I’m sure. My wife used
to love researching different subjects for my novels.
In 2000, I think it was, Shattered
had just come out and was doing rather well and my wife and I thought that would
be our swan song, so I haven’t written anything since then.
Unfortunately, she didn’t enjoy retirement because she died in the
I know. I’m so sorry about
that. You’d been married for over
Yes. We were married 53
years and we worked together very much.
As I said, she loved research.
She learned to fly doing research for my novel
She was a schoolmistress before we married.
She taught English, but French was her main subject and she loved to come
along with me to France.
I’m afraid I didn’t improve my French, as I used to leave it to her to do
the talking. [laughs]
So how did you two meet?
DF: She went to
school with my cousin. I was in the
Air Force at the time. When my
cousin was to be married to a Scotsman, I was asked if I would be his best man
since he didn’t know anyone in the south of England. I said yes.
Mary was at the wedding and that was how we met.
We almost fell in love straight away.
We caught the same train back to London from the West
Country and talked a lot. I asked her out a number of times.
I asked her to my home one weekend, but unfortunately my weekend leave
was cancelled—I was still in the Air Force.
But she went there anyway and my father met her.
She fell in love with him, more or less. She thought he was very like me!
She loved travel.
A lot of my books are set in different parts of the world and we used to
travel a lot. We went to
We went to Australia.
We went to South Africa.
And we went all round America.
When I was doing research for one of my books set in
we travelled on the Greyhound buses together—7,500 miles in three weeks.
We got to New York and immediately went to the bus
center and lined up to get on the bus.
We went to Wyoming—we went riding in the
Rockies up there—and we went to Salt Lake City,
San Francisco, Los Angeles,
and Albuquerque, and we went to Denver
after that. My cousin lives in
Denver so we spent a night with her, but we couldn’t stay longer because there
was an internal air strike going on in the US at that time and we had a plane to
catch from New York, so we had to take the bus from Denver to New York—42 hours
on the bus.
What did you think of the United States?
Oh, I’ve always been very fond of the United States.
It’s so much bigger than Britain, of
course. You can get Britain into one
of the States. [laughs]
So at what age did you first decide to become a jockey?
I always wanted to be a jockey.
My father was one before the First World War.
He didn’t hit the highlights quite like I did.
He and my mother were not very keen on my becoming a jockey, especially
my mother. She thought I would get
hurt or something like that. Well,
I did get hurt occasionally, but I got over it.
I had six years in the Royal Air Force and when I came out of that, I
went back to my father’s business—a hunter [horse] dealing business.
He bought hunters, trained them, and sold them on.
But that business was at a very low ebb immediately after the War.
My brother, who lived up in
Cheshire, knew a trainer up there, so I asked him to ask
this trainer if he’d have me as an assistant and amateur rider and secretary.
So I went up there and was only there four days when he gave me my first
ride in a race, and that was the start of my race riding career.
I was quite successful. I
had a very good job. I was Champion Jockey the first year I was riding for Peter
Cazalet, who trained for Her Majesty the Queen Mother, and from that day on I
had quite a lot to do with the royal family.
I loved it. I was Champion
Jockey in 1953 and 1954. Then in
1956 I had to give up race riding.
But before I did, the Queen Mother’s horse collapsed during a race with me on it
about a hundred yards before the finish.
That was at the Grand National.
That’s right, yes.
I was going to ask you if you had solved the mystery as to why the horse
stopped before the finish line?
No. I’ve looked at the
newsreel film time and time again.
I was well out in front, twenty lengths or so, when Devon Loch—that’s the name
of the horse—pricked his ears and looked at the water jump we were galloping
past, which we’d jumped on the first circuit.
As he pricked his ears, the crescendo of cheering—there were a quarter of
a million people there all cheering with the Queen Mother—frightened him, I
think. His hindquarters refused to
act, and he went on his belly and slid along the ground.
How I didn’t fall off him I’ll never know, but I was still on his back.
He got to his feet and I could have got him going then—I was still far
enough in front and I’d only got fifty yards to go—but he’d pulled all the
muscles in his hindquarters and more or less collapsed again.
I had to get off him and walk away in disgust.
Was he badly injured?
No. He was sore for some
time but he got over it and he won his next race, a hurdle race.
That was six months later.
He won two more races after that and then, at the last race he ran in, he pulled
a tendon in his leg. Then the Queen
Mother gave him to another trainer as a hack to ride around on.
He died of old age in the same establishment.
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