Loch riddle still baffles Francis

Forty years ago a royal horse was yards from victory in the Grand National. Then his legs gave way. The mystery has never been solved. Jon Culley reports
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Given that lives are shaped by momentous events, Dick Francis had every expectation that the afternoon of 24 March 1956 would have a profound influence on his. In his mind was a glorious Grand National victory, the zenith of his career, on a horse he felt had been born for Aintree: Devon Loch.

It did change his life; but in a way like none he had foreseen. A fall could never have been ruled out, even aboard such a brilliant jumper as the Queen Mother's fine 10-year-old had proved himself to be. But not on the run-in, not 50 yards from the line with every ditch, fence and brook cleared and the last challenge beaten off. Thanks to Devon Loch's extraordinary, inexplicable belly flop, Francis's place in Aintree folklore was assured.

In the stables later, he wished Devon Loch might have been empowered, for a few seconds, with the gift of speech. Only he knew what had really happened at the moment his legs went from under him. Several theories were advanced at the time, none without flaw. Francis has since made a fortune devising horse racing mysteries for the readers of his novels to unravel, but, 40 years on, the greatest of them all remains unsolved.

At Aintree this Saturday, Francis will look across the stretch of turf where Devon Loch sank to the ground, splayed legs seemingly frozen, and ESB went past him to snatch the prize from his grasp. In his mind, the flickering newsreel pictures will run again.

Explanations ranged from the just plausible to the downright bizarre. "There was even a suggestion that a live electric cable had been buried in the grass as part of some anti-Royalist plot," Francis said. Others, less fancifully, debated the possibility of a heart attack, a sudden bout of cramp, or, most popular of all, a "phantom jump." This theory had it that, in some sort of weary disorientation, Devon Loch caught sight of the water jump in the corner of his eye and instinctively took off.

Francis, knowing his mount was still full of running, dismisses them all as rubbish. No one had seen such a fall previously; nor has there been one like it since. A unique occurrence for which, in the future novelist's mind, there was, perhaps, a unique cause. There was a colossal crowd at Liverpool that afternoon and among them, for the first time, at her mother's side, a reigning sovereign about to cheer home a royal winner. . .

"As a result, the noise as we approached the finish was incredible," he said. "There were 250,000 people of whom it seemed 249,999 must have been shouting for Devon Loch.

"I'd experienced something like it before at Lingfield on another royal horse, M'as Tu Vu, and it startled me. There was such a commotion near the line that I felt sure something must have been coming to beat me. I had not dared look round until I'd passed the post but when I did there was nothing within any distance.

"At Liverpool, the din was 10 times as great, like nothing I had heard before. I had an idea what to expect but I'm sure Devon Loch didn't. He pricked his ears - you can see that on the film - and I think the wave of sound just overwhelmed him. He didn't rear up, he didn't try to jump; his hind-quarters simply refused to act.''

In the immediate aftermath came an eerie silence. Before the race, preoccupied with rehearsing each stride in his mind, Francis had said little. Afterwards, bewildered, he was even less inclined to talk. Now 75, he contends today that he remembers little in vivid detail; but he does recall the "samaritan" who spared him one ordeal.

"As I walked back after the fall I could see everyone coming towards me and that I was about to face an inquisition," he said. "Then an ambulance appeared. I was not hurt but when the driver invited me to hop in I accepted the offer. It was an act of kindness for which I have been eternally grateful.''

The ambulance took Francis through the throng in the paddock to the first aid-room, from which he could reach the weighing-room without the need to push through the crowd, a journey he was not keen to face, even though sympathy for him and Devon Loch was almost universal.

He remembers, too, the next morning. "We were staying with my brother, Douglas, at Bangor-on-Dee. We awoke to find the Press outside en masse, waiting for me.

"I was in no mood to discuss the race but I was told that if I made a statement they would all go away. It was a big house and they all came into the sitting room. I made my statement. One or two asked questions but I wanted none of that. And they did go away.''

In time, the peculiar numbness enveloping Francis passed. Indeed, within days he was racing again, at Sandown, where his first mount was a winner. Life, it seemed to him then, was simply moving on. Six months on he was united with Devon Loch in a hurdle race at Nottingham and won, rather unexpectedly.

The following January, however, he suffered a heavy fall, breaking a wrist and sustaining severe abdominal bruising, although not bad enough to suggest he might not ride again. But then came a summons, of sorts, to meet Lord Abergavenny, a friend of the Queen Mother and often wise counsel to her 36-year-old jockey.

"What he said, in effect, was that if he were in my shoes he would get out at the top of the tree, not slide down the scale as so many did," Francis said.

Coincidentally, Devon Loch, stricken with tendon trouble, had run his last race in the same week as Francis's fall. After much soul-searching, the rider decided his time had also come. By then, an autobiography started the previous summer was half-complete. It was to be the introduction to a second career; and the signing-off from a first.