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For nearly five years the signature at the bottom of this page has featured the familiar G and V of Garry Valk. Under Garry's stewardship, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reached levels of success few of us so much as dreamed of in 1965—the most obvious achievement being the doubling of our circulation. Now he is moving on to become publisher of our sister magazine LIFE, and leaves to me the imposing task of maintaining the standards he has set.
Garry also leaves me the pleasure of addressing you weekly, and I am happy that I can begin by calling your attention to an unusual piece of fiction and the background of its distinguished author. The story, A Carrot for a Chestnut (page 48), is the work of Dick Francis, who, after a career as one of England's foremost jockeys, has joined the ranks of its best-selling mystery writers.
Racing's loss distinctly has been fiction's gain. After seven years and eight novels it is clear that Dick Francis was too good a storyteller to keep in stirrups. Curiously, for all his evident skill at long fiction, Francis had never written a short story until we invited him to try one for us. We think you will agree that in his maiden outing Francis shows championship form.
English steeplechase racing is always the background of Francis' fiction, and understandably. In 1953-54 he had 76 winners in 331 rides on the National Hunt circuit. Although he never won the Grand National, he is well-remembered for his misadventure there in 1956 aboard Devon Loch, a horse that suddenly collapsed in the stretch while holding a six-length lead (SI, March 25, 1968).
Francis was the first-string jockey of the late Lord Bicester, whose stable was one of the finest in England, and later rode frequently for the Queen Mother. World War II, during which he was a glider pilot, delayed his start as a jockey until 1946, but by the time he retired in 1957 he had ridden in 2,305 races with 345 wins, 285 seconds and 240 thirds.
The Francis writing record is even more impressive. Since publishing his first mystery novel in 1962, he has sold nearly two million copies of his eight titles. His works appear in 11 languages, and he numbers among his avid fans many eminent horse owners, including the royal family.
Francis works in his small, comfortable country home near Oxford. His writing day begins early, and by 7:30 a.m. he may be out riding across a neighbor's field to clear his head after rapping out a scene or two. When he is writing about racing, he sometimes turns out as many as 2,500 words in a session, but love scenes give him a little more difficulty.
In addition to his fiction, Francis writes a racing column for the Sunday Express that requires his presence at the track most afternoons. There he visits with trainers, officials, owners and jockeys, signs copies of his books for mystery-story fans and sits by the saddling ring pondering the outlook for the next day's races. Picking winners, says Francis, gets more difficult with experience. But A Carrot for a Chestnut is a Francis winner—and don't you dare read the last line first.