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."