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.
AG: I know you’ve retired from writing. But are you sure you won’t write one more novel?
DF: 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 following months.
AG: I know. I’m so sorry about that. You’d been married for over 50 years?
DF: 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 Flying Finish. 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]
AG: 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 Russia. 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 America 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.
AG: What did you think of the United States?
DF: 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]
AG: So at what age did you first decide to become a jockey?
DF: 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.
AG: That was at the Grand National.
DF: That’s right, yes.
AG: I was going to ask you if you had solved the mystery as to why the horse stopped before the finish line?
DF: 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.
AG: Was he badly injured?
DF: 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.