On this day dedicated to some great men, let us take a moment to mark the passing of one of horse racing's greats. Dick Francis, jockey to the Queen, writer for the masses, died this weekend. Author of more than 40 novels which graced the bestseller lists throughout four decades, Francis brought the sights and sounds and language of the track to readers throughout the world.
If he'd never written a word, Francis would still be remembered as a winner of 350 races and Britain's jockey of the year in 1953-54. And after a stunning, calamitous ride in the 1956 Grand National aboard Devon Loch, he may have gone on to be remembered as the fellow who lost the National.
But instead, he retired from racing, and in 1957, published a memoir, Sport of Queens which led to a career as a racing columnist for the Sunday Express. Perhaps his years in steeplechase left him ever ready to jump to new things, for when his wife Mary suggested he try his hand at fiction, he gave it a go, cleared the hurdles with grace, and added "novelist" to his resume.
Perhaps, as the Washington Post obituary notes, his works were formulaic, but they were award-winning as well. He received the Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain, and he remains the only author honored by the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel three times (in 1970 for Forfeit, 1981 for Whip Hand, and 1996 for Come to Grief.)
As so many in the American racing industry deplore racing's declining profile, Dick Francis and his adventure-filled tales kept horse racing alive in the public conscience. Folks who never read a racing form picked up a Francis paperback -- and were transported to the track.
Last year, while handicapping the semi-finalists for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award, I remarked that when folks from outside of the racing world understand words like "furlong" and "irons", it's likely because of Dick Francis. I suspect, too, that one reason horse racing has more "buzz" than sailing and boxing is that Dick Francis novels -- with their detailed descriptions of silks and stalls, bits and bets -- reminded the general public that race tracks still exist.
Francis was mainstream in a way that simply dwarfs much of the literature of our sport. Look at these current Amazon ratings for last year's Tony Ryan Book Award semi-finalists:
Twoey and the Goat - #1,557,541
The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez - #1,292,136
The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby - #1,145,358
The History and Art of the Travers - #983,334
My Guy Barbaro - #697,040
Beyond the Racetrack - #115,624
Silks by Dick Francis - #55,024
The paperback (#1,449) and the Kindle (#1300) editions are doing even better.
True, none of these books are by authors with the name recognition of Dick Francis, and also true that death of an author often pushes a bump in sales, but still -- it can't be denied that his tales of blood, sweat and horses reach a public that's never heard of TVG or Bloodhorse.
The many books of Dick Francis can be found on the shelves of bookstores and libraries most everywhere, and another collaboration with son Felix, Crossfire, is due out later this year. Many of his works are available in e-book or Kindle format. Even online readers can sample some classic Francis storytelling in "A Carrot for Chestnut", a short story available at the SI Vault. So, I suspect that much like Walter Farley and his Black Stallion, Francis and his tales of trackside skulduggery will continue to inform the public perception of horse racing for years to come. We've been lucky that throughout his dozens of novels, replete with murder, kidnapping, blackmail, doping, and nefarious financial schemes, Francis is still able to convey the thrill of the race and the magnificence of the horses.
Franz Lidz, whose 1993 Sports Illustrated article about Francis was expanded for inclusion in an eclectic 1998 collection, Horse People, quoted Francis as saying,
"Yes, riding was my first love. It's lovely when you're on a good horse, seeing the fence in front of you. Nothing could be more satisfying." He quickly adds, "But writing has its compensations. When a race is over, it's gone for good. A book remains."Actually, about 42 of them remain. Thank you and God bless, Mr. Francis.
Frank at That's Amore Stables offers a different and eloquent tribute to Francis in his A Way with Horses post.