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."
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.