THE Grand National at Aintree is England's greatest steeplechase; in 1956, British jockey Dick Francis lost it in the last 25 yards. The years have not worn away the tinge of regret in his voice as he describes his ``darkest day.''
But what good fortune for his soon-to-be readers. The loss prompted him to write his autobiography, which in turn has led to a streak of more than 30 bestselling mysteries, most of which incorporate a riding theme.
Indeed, as Francis said when we spoke together recently, horses are never far from his thoughts, and riding has become a kind of allegory for Francis's life: ``The main good point of any jockey ... is loyalty.... And in life, you do your best for those nearest to you.''
He says that this has become a driving force behind his writing as well: ``That is the honesty which I aim to preach.''
That code often tips the balance in favor of Francis's protagonists. Francis concedes that he ensures his hero always ``knows what is right'' and that, in the end, ``right comes out on top.'' This holds true in his latest mystery, ``Wild Horses'' (currently No. 7 on the Publisher's Weekly fiction bestseller list), in which Thomas Lyon, acting on a friend's dying wish, solves a 25-year-old murder without police help.
Francis needs only to look to the lessons of the track for the persistence he instills in his heroes. The author's own determination led him through numerous defeats and injuries - from which he ``always came up smiling'' - and earned him status as champion jockey in 1954.
But if Francis were pressed to choose between writing about riding and the rough sport itself, he'd ask for a jockey's life every time.
``There is nothing more satisfying,'' he says grinning, ``than to be on the back of a horse you like very much ... and jump into the first fence of a race and then you see all the other fences and think, What a thrill it's going to be....''
All the same, writing hasn't been a bad alternative. Though it isn't as easy as being on horseback - ``I was born to the saddle,'' he explains - the reward of writing bestsellers lasts longer.
Francis doesn't have to go it alone as an author. He has long depended on his wife, Mary, to conduct research. She's mastered everything from merchant banking to painting and airplanes to help out.
And the husband-wife team's creativity shows in quite a few non-equine plots: The hero of ``The Danger,'' for example, is a professional negotiator for the release of kidnapping victims. Although he gladly rescues a famous jockey in distress, horses leave him clammy. Unlocking another mystery, ``Twice Shy,'' takes physics and Olympic-level riflery. Another book centers on gem smuggling.
Francis's writing has earned him kudos on the racetrack as much as anywhere else, however. The author says several racetracks now sponsor races in his name, adding without fanfare that many British jockeys, who were not yet born when he was champion, view him as a legend. Needless to say, most of them read his books, he says.
Francis's riding success also gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with royalty. He rode for the Queen Mother for several years, and it was her horse Devon Loch that he rode in the 1956 Grand National that was so important for his writing career.
Francis's love for the track in life and on paper comes down to the horses. ``Wild Horses'' contains only a brief passage on racing, in which film director Lyon must win the allegiance and trust of local jockeys, extras in his film, by daring them to race. Yet those few pages are among the most gripping in the novel: ``There was speed and there was silence. No banter, no swearing from the others. Only the thud of hooves and the brush through the dark birch of the fences. Only the gritting determination and the old exultation,'' Francis writes.
The ``old exultation'' lives with Francis, too, though the author falters as he attempts to explain it - as if it were so natural that anyone should understand. Shaking his head impatiently, he stretches to articulate his vast love for riding that permeates his novels. ``It isn't actually the fences; it's the way the horse jumps the fences. If you've got a good jumper, it's terrific. You kick him into the fence and throw your heart over and hope you catch it on the other side.''