The steeplechase horses at Newton Abbot Racecourse look like tiny figures in a landscape by J.M.W. Turner as they take the far jumps over gorse-packed fences. Dick Francis watches them float easily over hedges. As afternoon shadows stretch across this rural British course 150 miles southwest of London, a 14-year-old bay gelding named Skipping Tim wins going away.
"Did you bet on him, Mr. Francis?" someone asks.
"I never bet," Francis says. "If I did, I'd only watch one horse. I prefer to watch the tactics of all the jockeys."
Francis is something of a tactical expert. As England's champion steeplechase jockey during the 1953-54 season, he knew when to make his move in the final stage. As a best-selling author of mystery thrillers, he knows how to turn a plot. Francis is 73 and has written 32 novels since his first, Dead Ceil, in 1962. Every one of them is still in print. "You can get them all in a box," he says, "but they're rather heavy."
Francis can expect his newest novel, Decider, which has just hit bookstands in this country, to be translated into more than 30 languages, including Mandarin, Bantu and his native Welsh. "I'm embarrassed to say I don't understand a word of Welsh," he says. "It's a mystery to me."
Francis looks pretty good for a man who has suffered a fair number of fractures: in his skull, wrist, arm and three vertebrae. He has broken his nose five times, his collarbone 12, and more ribs than he can count. He also dislocated his left shoulder so badly that he still must strap it down before he goes to bed.
Dressed nattily in a brown sport coat and tattersall trousers, Francis looks scarcely heavier than in his jockey days. He's a curious and observant fellow, confident and yet disarmingly self-deprecating. "I started writing novels because the carpets were getting thin," he says, "and my two sons needed educating."
Many of his books are uncomplimentary to racing. Horse owners and trainers are frequently insensitive crooks, jockeys throw races, and in Decider the villains own the track. "I once asked a steward if he thought my books were doing racing an injustice," says Francis. " 'Oh, no,' he said, 'your books attract people to racing.' "
The Queen Mother is a big fan. She and the Queen often invite Francis to join them in the Royal Box at the many racecourses the family frequents. Francis reciprocates by hand-delivering advance copies of his books to the royals. Sometimes the Queen Mother, his former patron, even offers a critique. "Aren't your novels getting a little bloodthirsty?" she chided him after reading the 1971 book Bonecrack. Francis replied gently, "I hope, Ma'am, you'll still enjoy them."
Though well known in British racing circles, Francis gained wider fame as the royal jump jockey. He rode for the Queen Mother, most memorably in the 1956 Grand National at Aintree, where her horse, Devon Loch, jumped the last fence way ahead of the field. But a little more than a hundred feet from the finish, the horse suddenly lunged into the air. He landed on his stomach, with his hind legs stretched out behind him and his front legs extended in a sort of V. The mishap remains one of racing's great mysteries—Francis thinks Devon Loch simply recoiled from the roar of the crowd anticipating the royal family's first victory at Aintree in more than half a century. Though Devon Loch was uninjured (in fact, veterinarians who examined the horse after the race could find absolutely nothing wrong with him), it still pains Francis to talk about the race—which may explain why Aintree has never been the setting for one of his thrillers.