The Worst of Times: 'Well, that's racing,' said the Queen Mother: Danny Danziger talks to Dick Francis

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DEVON LOCH was always a great horse to ride. He was a fine steeplechaser and a magnificent jumper, and I won a number of races on him.

I rode Devon Loch at Cheltenham in the National Hunt Handicap Steeplechase. Peter Cazalet, the trainer, came up to me in the parade ring before the race. 'Have a nice ride, Dick,' he said, 'but don't murder him, because we've got the Grand National in two weeks.' We finished third, which was a suitable trial for the big race.

Then we went to Aintree. It was my eighth Grand National, but it's always an amazing sensation, and on that fine spring day in 1956, there were a quarter of a million people at the course. I was wearing the Queen Mother's colours - Cambridge blue with gold stripes and a black velvet cap with gold tassel.

The Queen Mother was there, and the Queen. 'Good luck,' they said. 'Hope you have a nice ride.' They were excited, like anyone with a fancied horse in the National.

The going was firm, and I was having a terrific ride. Jumping Valentine's Brook, I was lying third or fourth. A horse called Domata was leading just in front of me, and I thought, I'm all right following Domata into Valentine's, because he's a good jumper. And blow me if he didn't fall. When Devon Loch landed over the jump, he took off again, straight over Domata.

Coming on to the last fence, I was in the lead. I didn't have to pick up my stick because Devon Loch was really fresh. I could hear this crescendo of cheering building, because of the quarter of a million people there, I think 249,999 were cheering for the Queen Mother.

It's more than 800 yards from the last fence to the winning post, and Devon Loch was going further away from the opposition with every stride. Just as I was approaching the outside of the water jump - I've looked at the Pathe movie newsreel of this time and time again - Devon Loch pricked his ears. I think the noise of the crowd hit him. He brought his front feet up as if he was jumping, but his hindquarters just refused to act, and down he went. If I could have got him going then, I was still far enough in front to have won, but he had pulled all the muscles in his hindquarters, and collapsed again and I had to get off him.

The lad who looked after Devon Loch came running down the course, and took him away. Almost immediately, an ambulance arrived, and the driver shouted: 'Jump in the back, mate.' I was taken into the changing rooms, where I sat for some time in my breeches and boots. Everyone was saying: 'What happened, Dick?' But I was in a daze.

I smartened myself up, and went up to see the Royal Family. They were as flabbergasted as anyone. The Queen Mother said: 'Well, that's racing . . .' There couldn't have been a more philosophical statement.

As I changed, everyone came in to commiserate. My wife Mary and I went for a walk alongside the River Dee later, and Mary asked: 'Do you feel like throwing yourself in?' I replied: 'I most certainly do, but I don't think I better had.'

As for Devon Loch, it was the beginning of the end. I won two more chases on him before the first Saturday in 1957, when I was laid up. In the Mildmay Memorial Chase at Sandown Park, his tendon went, and he was pulled up. He never raced again.

The Queen Mother eventually gave Devon Loch to Noel Murless, and Noel's daughter would ride him to get the two- year-olds cantering.

They kept him until 1963, which was a very cold winter. He was feeling his age, and they had him put down, the poor fellow. But I felt he had enjoyed his final days with Noel Murless. He was a great horse, had a great character, and I liked him very much.

Every year, I go to the National, and see the spot where Devon Loch fell; it's so near the winning post.

Dick Francis's novel 'Wild Horses' is published by Michael Joseph at pounds 14.99.

(Photograph omitted)