On Sunday February 14, racing lost one of its most colorful personalities when Dick Francis, retired steeplechase jockey and mystery writer, passed away at the age of 89 at his home in the Cayman Islands. His family said he "died of old age".
He was a champion rider with 345 wins in 2,305 starts, but he is best known for the race he didn't win. He had a commanding lead aboard Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National but the horse slipped and fell with 50 yards to go, refusing the complete the trip. Asked about the incident years later, he said, "It was a terrible thing, but I look back on it now and I can say that if it hadn't happened I might never have written a book, and my books have certainly helped keep the wolf from the door. But I would have given every penny of those royalties away to have won that Grand National for the Queen Mother."
Retiring from riding in 1957, he was the racing correspondent for the Sunday Express for 16 years, and began writing novels. He wrote 43 best-sellers, with over 60 million copies sold worldwide in 23 different languages, starting with his autobiography in 1957 followed by his first thriller, Dead Cert, five years later. He won numerous awards for his writing, including a lifetime achievement award from the Crime Writers' Association in 1996, and a CBE in 2000 for services to literature.
Fellow retired jockey and mystery writer John Francome said, "He was a lovely person who always had a sparkle in his eye and he had a wicked sense of humor. I remember we used to laugh out loud about the old times." The former champion jockey Terry Biddlecombe said, "He was a lovely man and always a help to anyone. I knew him for many years and I read all his books and they were excellent." Racing commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan added that Francis was one of "the people's champions, a very good mate. I particularly enjoyed reading his novels and found him a wonderfully efficient author."
He is survived by his sons Felix and Merrick, five grandchildren and one great grandson. Felix Francis said, "My brother Merrick and I are devastated by the loss of our father but we rejoice in having been the sons of such an extraordinary man. We share in the joy he brought to so many over a long life." A private funeral is planned in Grand Cayman, followed by a memorial service in London. His final novel, Crossfire, is scheduled to be released in the fall.