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Obituary: Dick Francis

14 February 10 15:20 GMT

If it had been a scene in one of his books, it would have been laughed off as too far-fetched.

Devon Loch, ridden by Dick Francis, is leading the 1956 Grand National when, having cleared the final fence, he mysteriously bellyflops, thereby depriving his owner, the Queen Mother, of her first and, as it transpired, only National victory.

It was the most extraordinary event in racing history.

The reason for Devon Loch's collapse is still debated. Dick Francis believed the horse was probably overcome by the extraordinary noise of the crowd anticipating a royal win.

"His hindquarters just refused to act for a split second. He brought his forefeet up as if he was jumping. But he wasn't jumping. I was still far enough ahead to have won if I could have got him going but he more or less collapsed again. I just had to walk off in disgust."

Champion jockey

Before becoming a novelist who sold more than 60 million books translated into more than 20 languages, Dick Francis rode 300 winners as a National Hunt jockey.

He was born at Tenby in south Wales in 1920 where his father managed a hunting stable. He was a skilled rider while still in his teens.

He became a pilot during World War II, and then rode as an amateur jockey before turning professional in 1948. He was champion National Hunt jockey in 1953-4, but never won a Grand National.

He retired in 1957 and joined the Sunday Express as racing correspondent, a job he held for 16 years.

In the same year, he wrote his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, which was well received. As a result, he was encouraged to try his hand at novels.

Novel success

His first, Dead Cert, was published in 1962, and he continued to publish one a year almost throughout his life.

Racing was a recurrent theme in them. All were written in the first person, in longhand and all carefully researched.

Forfeit, in 1968, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and Whip Hand in 1979 the Golden Dagger Award of the Crime Writers Association. A television series, The Racing Game, was based on his story Odds Against.

Francis also wrote a biography of Lester Piggott and he gave a copy of each of his books to the Queen Mother with whom he kept in touch throughout her life.

In 1986, Dick Francis moved from his home in Berkshire to Florida. His wife suffered from asthma, and the climate suited her better.

Later, he moved to the Cayman Islands where he rarely missed his morning dip.

In October 1999, Dick Francis's publishers confirmed that his wife made a substantial contribution to the novels.

However the books emerged, they provided readers with plenty of intrigue, but no sex. They were once described as crime novels for gentlefolk.

In 2000, Dick Francis became a CBE. He was honoured for services to literature but at the time said said he was not sure how much longer he could keep up his prolific output.

He said: "I've got to stop writing sometime though. I'm getting too old."

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