Dick Francis, champion jockey turned thriller-writer, dies at 89

Racing world remembers best-selling author who triumphed over adversity. Mark Hughes reports
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The Independent Culture

No one could accuse Dick Francis of doing a Devon Loch. While the horse which ultimately defined his career as a jump jockey collapsed just yards before the Grand National finish line, Francis kept going to the end.

At the age of 89, the champion jump jockey turned best-selling crime writer was still producing a novel every year. And, despite his death yesterday, his latest book, Crossfire, will be published later this year. In a career which spanned two disciplines and lasted more than 60 years, Francis, who counted the late Queen Mother among his biggest fans, penned 43 novels and won more than 350 horse races.

Yesterday he passed away at his home in the Cayman Islands. His family said he had died of "old age". His son, Felix, who co-authored his father's most recent works, led the tributes. He said: "My brother, Merrick, and I are, of course, 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 that he brought to so many over a long life. It is an honour for me to be able to continue his remarkable legacy through the new novels."

Francis's prodigious literary career included a book a year since 1964, less a six-year hiatus following the death of his wife Mary in 2000. His racing years saw him spend four years as the jockey to the Queen Mother and named champion jockey in 1954. But they will undoubtedly be remembered for his mount of Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National when, leading by a distance, the horse inexplicably fell 40 yards from the finish line. But, as Francis admitted, the failure "changed my life from that of a jockey to a writer". It gave him a platform to write an autobiography and he was invited to become the racing correspondent for the Sunday Express. The novels – all of which were set against a backdrop of horse-racing – soon followed. He sold more than 60 million books. Each new work was published in at least 23 languages and every year a signed copy of the latest tome was hand-delivered to the Queen Mother.

In 2006, Francis said: "The Devon Loch episode 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."

But while his writing brought him success and fortune, it was not without controversy. In 1999 biographer Graham Lord claimed that Francis's wife Mary had in fact written the best-selling books. The couple denied it, saying that Mary was a tireless researcher. A year later Mary died and Francis stopped writing until persuaded to collaborate on projects with his son Felix in 2006.

But his own health was failing. In 2007 his right foot was amputated after his poor circulation would not allow a minor injury to heal. He was later diagnosed with prostate cancer. And, when asked in an interview in September last year if he would like to live forever, he replied: "I don't think so. I miss Mary".

Last night the former BBC commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan said: "He was a very good mate. The last time he wrote to me was just before Christmas and he said he was very weak. I enjoyed reading his novels and found him a wonderfully efficient author."

John Francome, the former jockey, added: "He was a lovely person who always had a sparkle in his eye and he had a wicked sense of humour."

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."